Like the Jews before them, Christians are fleeing the Middle East, emptying what was once one of the world’s most-diverse regions of its ancient religions.
“They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.” John 16:2 (KJV)
They’re being driven away not only by Islamic State, but by governments the U.S. counts as allies in the fight against extremism. When suicide bomb attacks ripped through two separate Palm Sunday services in Egypt last month, parishioners responded with rage at Islamic State, which claimed the blasts, and at Egyptian state security.
Government forces assigned to the Mar Girgis church in Tanta, north of Cairo, neglected to fix a faulty metal detector at the entrance after church guards found a bomb on the grounds just a week before. The double bombing killed at least 45 people, and came despite promises from the Egyptian government to protect its Christian minority.
As congregants of the Tanta church swept the grounds of debris and scrubbed blood from the walls, a parishioner waved his national identity card: “This ID says whether we are Muslim or Christian. So how did that suicide bomber get into my church? If this identification isn’t for my protection, it’s used for my discrimination.”
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By 2025, Christians are expected to represent just over 3% of the Mideast’s population, down from 4.2% in 2010, according to Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Mass. A century before, in 1910, the figure was 13.6%. The accelerating decline stems mostly from emigration, Mr. Johnson says, though higher Muslim birthrates also contribute.
The exodus leaves the Middle East overwhelmingly dominated by Islam, whose rival sects often clash, raising the prospect that radicalism in the region will deepen. Conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims have erupted across the Middle East, squeezing out Christians in places such as Iraq and Syria and forcing them to carve out new lives abroad, in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere.
“The disappearance of such minorities sets the stage for more radical groups to dominate in society,” said Mr. Johnson of the loss of Christians and Jews in the Middle East. “Religious minorities, at the very least, have a moderating effect.”
Ahmed Abu Zeid, Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesman, denied the government discriminates against Christians. “The presidency has been keen since day one to treat the Egyptian society as one nation, and one fabric,” he said, adding that the government is doing all it could to protect the minority and fight terror.
President Donald Trump expressed his confidence in President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi’s commitment to protecting his Egyptian population in a call between the leaders last month.
Christian activists in Egypt say Washington’s ally in the war on terror has long discriminated against the minority, with recurring bouts of mob violence directed against Christians by their Muslim neighbors often leading to no arrests or charges in the courts. Christians have been barred from some government jobs, such as the state intelligence services, and laws make it virtually impossible to build or restore churches.
The exodus of Christians from the Mideast started about a century ago, with many heading to the U.S. for jobs as America opened its doors to migrants. Later waves stemmed from conflict, such as Lebanon’s civil war, and from fresh economic hardship, such as the U.S.-led sanctions in the 1990s that hobbled Iraq.
At the start of the 21st century, as wars waned, the oil business flourished in the Gulf region and a financial crisis hit the West, the Christian outflow ebbed.
Then in 2011, the outlook darkened dramatically. What started as hopeful revolutions across the Mideast largely degenerated into strife, civil war and the rise of extremist groups.
The outbreak of Syria’s multisided civil war in 2011 prompted about half of the country’s Christian population of 2.5 million to flee the country, according to Christian charities monitoring the flow. Many escaped to neighboring Lebanon, an anomaly in the region with Christians wielding political power and worshiping freely.
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In Iraq, the instability that started in 2003, when a U.S. invasion toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, deepened more than a decade later when Islamic State took over about one-quarter of the country. Iraqi church officials and the religion’s political representatives say only one-fifth of the country’s Christians remain of the approximately 1.5 million before 2003, according to estimates based on church attendance and voter rolls that identify religion.
Even though Iraqi forces have gained the upper hand over Islamic State, the country’s Christians show no sign of returning to homes they fled.
In northern Iraq, blue and white charter buses crisscross neighborhoods of recently liberated Mosul, returning Muslim families displaced by Islamic State. They drive through Christian areas without stopping. For the first time in nearly two millennia, Iraq’s second-largest city, once a melting pot of ancient religions, lacks a Christian population to speak of.
The Al-Aswad family, a clan of masons who built the city’s houses, churches and mosques and trace their lineage back to the 19th century, vow never to return. They’ve opted to live in the rat-infested refugee camps of Erbil in northern Iraq, where they await updates on their asylum application to Australia.
A Christian charity has given them a small apartment until June, at which point they will have to return to the refugee camps to live in a converted cargo shipping container.
“We call it the cemetery,” said Raghd Al-Aswad, describing how the cargo containers are covered with dark blue tarps to protect against the rain. “It looks like dead bodies stacked side by side with a giant hospital sheet on top of them.” source