Christians used to be a significant minority in Iraq, Syria, Israel-Palestine, Egypt, and Jordan. In recent years, however, they have been fleeing the Middle East in record numbers because of security threats, discrimination, and indifferent governments. Yesterday’s botched hostage rescue attempt at Baghdad’s largest Catholic church underscores the dangers the remaining Christians face.
Since Islam eclipsed Christianity in the Middle East after the 7th Century AD, significant pockets of Christianity have coexisted with their Muslim neighbors. These have included Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Chaldean, Maronite, Assyrian, and Syriac denominations. For the most part, under the various Arab Caliphates and the successor Ottoman Empire (13th-early 20th Century), they were protected as Dhimmi, “People of the Book,” as long as they met certain legal obligations. A notable exception was the Armenian Genocide during and after World War I, however.
In modern times, Christians have faced new threats connected to the War on Terror and the Arab-Israeli conflict. For example, more than half of Iraq’s Christians have left the country, particularly after the US invasion in 2003. Those who remain represent less than three percent of the population, which had been more than seven percent in the 1980s. Many Iraqi refugees in the US are Christians and are served by organizations such as Catholic Charities.
The Maronite Catholics, once a majority, are now only a third of the Lebanese population; half are said to reside abroad. In neighboring Syria, Christians used to make up 17 percent of the population, but are about 10 percent today.
Egypt’s Coptic Christians, like their counterparts in Iraq, are under seige, with armed government soldiers guarding their churches; this once influential minority represents only 10 percent of Egypt's people.
Besides facing threats from extremists, Christians are being undermined by a lack of unity. Ironically, to prevent feuds between the various denominations, a Muslim holds the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Christians in Israel and the Palestinian Territories face oppression and violence from all sides, as a story by noted British journalist Robert Fisk in the Independent pointed out yesterday. Titled “Exodus: The changing map of the Middle East,” Fisk interviewed Monsignor Fouad Twal, the ninth Latin patriarch of Jerusalem(and the second-ever Arab in this position), who explained:
"The Israelis regard us as 100 percent Palestinian Arabs, and we are oppressed in the same way as the Muslims. But Muslim fundamentalists identify us with the Christian West – which is not always true – and want us to pay the price."Most Middle Eastern Christian groups have deep ties to the region and have evolved differently from their European and American counterparts.
For now, Jordan seems to be the only place where its Christian minority (six percent) has not suffered. However, in the early 20th Century, they represented 18 percent of the population.
Today’s latest act of terror against Christians in Baghdad will accelerate the ongoing exodus. This will undoubtedly have a negative impact on a region that is increasingly under the influence of conservative Islam. The exodus is also depriving the region of some of its most gifted and industrious citizens.