An Unwelcome Minority: Threats Facing Christians in the Middle East, Part 3

Publication Date: 28/5/2021

Source: Persecution - International Christian Concern

Looking to the Future

Uncertainty Moving Forward

The future is uncertain. The continued threat of conflict in places like Syria and Iraq, combined with the destruction of wide swaths of territory will make it highly unfavorable for the return of Christians to area. The Syrian conflict is, as of recently, largely over, but the destruction and suffering left in its wake is bound to continue for years, making many, including Christians, who have fled, unable or unwilling to return.

Deeply entrenched Islamist beliefs in the region also play a role, with many fearing a resurgence in large scale violence and a reappearance of the Islamic State which presents a serious ongoing ideological threat despite its physical defeat in 2019. A reemergence of the Islamic State, and other associate groups, notorious for their brutality presents, perhaps, the biggest threat to Christianity in the region, as these groups are notorious for targeting Christians and other minority religious groups. In fact, upticks in Islamic State attacks in Iraq and Syria were reported throughout 2020, are likely to increase in 2021 as a result of easing vigilance on the group and government oversight in allowing fighters to slip through the cracks. A full force reappearance of the Islamic State could prove catastrophic for already fragile Christian communities in places like Iraq and Syria.

The situation in the Middle East remains delicate and highly volatile and likely will remain so for the foreseeable future, especially in the wake of the American response to dictators like Saddam Hussein in the 1990s and early 2000s and the Arab Spring in the early 2010’s. If anything, the American deposition of Saddam Hussein, who was largely tolerant of Christians, made the situation worse for Christians in the country, as those rushing to fill the vacuum left by his absence perhaps did not share the same laissez faire attitude toward Christians. The Arab Spring, too, had the effect of destabilizing portions of the region, including Syria, resulting in widespread violence and displacement of over 13.4 million people, representing over half of the Syrian population, (these numbers represent 6.6 million displaced internally and 5.6 displaced internationally) at the end of 2019.[1] According to data published by World Watch List, Christians in Syria have been disproportionately affected by the civil war for a number of reasons including a lack of military and political power, alleged connections with the west, perceived connections with the Assad regime, and concentration in areas where the fighting has been particularly intense.[2]

Positivity in Continued Threats of Violence

Although the threat of violence remains, the defeat of the Islamic State has spelled an end to large scale violence in Iraq and Syria and provides a glimmer of hope for those wanting to return from exile, but it does not mean that the fight is not over for Christians. Although the numbers of the traditional churches such as the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq and the Syriac Orthodox Christian Church of Antioch in Syria are dwindling, one Iraqi Christian has said that she believes the future of the Church in the Middle East will come from a Muslim background.[3] The Church is resilient, though. As fighting has calmed, thousands of Christians have returned to cities once emptied by the Islamic. In 2018, the primarily Christian town of Qaraqosh on the Nineveh plain celebrated its first easter since Islamic militants drove the Christians out in 2014, and a recent visit to the country by the Pope, the first ever, has re-kindled the hope that the Church, although battered, may be able keep its footing in the region. In Qaraqosh alone, 25,000 people had returned in 2018, and some 1,500 houses had been rebuilt.[4] This is good news. That many feel safe enough to return will hasten the rebuilding process that many Christian communities face in the wake of widespread destruction. But those who stayed and those who seek to return must be wary. The Church is in a vulnerable position, as newly returned Christians will be particularly prone to fresh violence, should it emerge. As hundreds move back to their homes and begin the process of rebuilding, the political climate, and government response to threats to groups such as the Islamic State, will determine the how well the Christian community reintegrates into society, and how many may return later to bolster the numbers of those who have recently returned. The situation, while hopeful now, has the capacity to deteriorate rapidly, considering that the governments in places like Syria and Iraq have limited control over their own borders and even parts of their own territories, and have had their infrastructures so badly damaged by years of fighting, as to be virtually useless in maintaining peace within their own borders.

It is unlikely that Christianity will ever be completely eradicated from the Middle East. It may be battered and threatened. Thousands may flee and the Church may be driven underground as it has been in places such as Afghanistan, but Christianity will always have a place in its birthplace. Whether that is one or two gathered together in a basement or hundreds and even thousands attending mass in a great cathedral, Christianity and Christians will remain. They have been in the area for thousands of years, and although it is impossible to know what the future holds, it’s likely that they will be there for many more. Christians play a vital role in the Middle East, in places like Lebanon where they help serve the large refugee population within the country. They are also a beacon of hope for other religious minorities who may be at risk of persecution as well, especially in the face of a substantially reduced population of Christians. Christianity is intertwined with the very fabric of the region, and to lose it would be to lose a major part of the cultural makeup of the Middle East. But the Church has always endured, and even grown through persecution.

Church Growth Despite Persecution

The Church is growing in many countries around the world, and in a report published in 2013 by Worldoutreach, Middle Eastern countries made up six of the top ten spots with the highest percentage of growth worldwide.[5] As of 2019, the Church in Iran is considered one of the fastest growing in the world with numbers up from a mere 500 in 1979, when the hardline Islamist regime came into power, to an estimated almost 1 million in the present day.[6] With these numbers in mind, it seems that the answer to the question “does Christianity have a future in the Middle East seems to be “yes.” Yet even as the Church grows, Christians in the region and throughout the world need to be aware of the uncertain situation that the Church faces every day from a variety of threats ranging from systemic persecution by governments and societies to violence at the hands of extremist groups. This makes planning for the future a challenge as communities can be uprooted or displaced by imprisonment, violence, and death.

[1] “Refugee Statistics,” USA for UNHCR, accessed April 23, 2021, https://www.unrefugees.org/refugee-facts/statistics/#:~:text=Syria%20Syrians%20continued%20to%20be%20the%20largest%20forcibly,seeking%20safety%20in%20Lebanon,%20Turkey,%20Jordan%20and%20beyond.

[2]Syria: Country Dossier,” OpenDoors International/World Watch Research, December 2020, Syria-WWL-2021-Country-dossier.pdf, 10.

[3] “’Islamic State was a Wake-Up Call’ in Iraq,” OpenDoors, September 14, 2017, https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/islamic-state-wake-call-iraq/

[4] Lindy Lowry, “You’ve Helped Thousands of Christians Return to Iraq,” OpenDoors, April 1, 2018, https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/in-iraq-thousands-of-returning-christians-fill-churches-on-easter-sunday/

[5] “The top 20 countries where Christianity is growing the fastest,” worldoutreach, November 1, 2013, https://world-outreach.com/en/top-20-countries-christianity-growing-fastest/

[6] Mark Howard, “The Iranian Church is the Fastest Growing in the World,” ChurchLeaders, September 19, 2019.

Link: https://www.persecution.org/2021/05/28/unwelcome-minority-threats-facing-christians-middle-east-part-3/

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