A long special report in the newspaper’s Sunday Magazine,July 26, addresses this dramatic question. Within a century (1910-2010), the number of Christians in countries such as Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Jordan has plummeted from 14 to 4 per cent of the population.
Christians in the Middle East are facing difficulties ranging from “bad” to “less bad,” said Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem in recent days, adding, however, that the condition of Palestinians in the West Bank is still undoubtedly better compared to the hardship faced by Christians in Syria and Iraq. Particularly those who are forced to abandon their homes due to the advance of Islamic State militia.
“Is this the end of Christianity in the Middle Eats” The New York Times Magazine asks in its Sunday July 26 issue titled: “The Shadow of Death”.
The report begins with the story of Diyaa and Rana, a couple from Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city in the Nineveh Plain in Iraq – a 1,500-square-mile plot of contested land that lies between Iraq’s Kurdish north and its Arab south. Until last summer, this was a flourishing city of 50,000, in Iraq’s breadbasket. Wheat fields and chicken and cattle farms surrounded a town filled with numerous bars and other businesses, the report explains. Their story has its roots in the early days of the Christian faith in that land: these testimonies are gives against a backdrop of fear caused by the spread of ISIS militia, wells that are drying up (in areas where temperatures climb to 110°F, over 43°C), mass beheadings, the flight of populations to Erbil, the capital f the Kurdish zone that is located 50 miles further north.
“Most of Iraq’s Christians,” the report says, “call themselves Assyrians, Chaldeans or Syriac, different names for a common ethnicity rooted in the Mesopotamian kingdoms that flourished between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers thousands of years before Jesus. Christianity arrived during the first century, according to Eusebius, an early church historian who claimed to have translated letters between Jesus and a Mesopotamian king. Tradition holds that Thomas, one of the Twelve Apostles, sent Thaddeus, an early Jewish convert, to Mesopotamia to preach the Gospel.”
As Christianity grew, it coexisted alongside older traditions such as Judaism, Zoroastrianism and the monotheism of the Druze, Yazidis and Mandeans, among others: all together they form a “fractious community divided by doctrinal differences that persist today”. “When the first Islamic armies arrived from the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century, the Assyrian Church of the East was sending missionaries to China, India and Mongolia. The shift from Christianity to Islam happened gradually. Much as the worship of Eastern cults largely gave way to Christianity, Christianity gave way to Islam. Under Islamic rule, Eastern Christians lived as protected people, dhimmi: They were subservient and had to pay the jizya (the tax paid by non-Muslims, Ed.) but were often allowed to observe practices forbidden by Islam, including eating pork and drinking alcohol. Muslim rulers tended to be more tolerant of minorities than their Christian counterparts, and for 1,500 years, different religions thrived side by side.”
One hundred years ago, two events led to the longest period of anti-Christian violence: the fall of the Ottoman Empire and World War I. “The genocide waged by the Young Turks in the name of nationalism, not religion,” the report goes on to say, “left at least two million Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks dead. Nearly all were Christian. Among those who survived, many of the better educated left for the West. Others settled in Iraq and Syria, where they were protected by the military dictators.”
Within a century, (1910-2010), the number of Christians in the Middle East, in countries such as Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Jordan, continued to fall: “once 14 percent of the population, Christians now make up roughly 4 percent (In Iran and Turkey, they’re all but gone),” The New York Times Magazine informs. “In Lebanon, the only country in the region where Christians hold significant political power, their numbers have shrunk over the past century, to 34 per cent from 78 per cent of the population. Low birth rates have contributed to this decline, as well as hostile political environments and economic crisis. Fear is also a driver. The rise of extremist groups, as well as the perception that their communities are vanishing, causes people to leave.”
“For more than a decade, extremists have targeted Christians and other minorities, who often serve as stand-ins for the West. This was especially true in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, which caused hundreds of thousands to flee. ‘‘Since 2003, we’ve lost priests, bishops and more than 60 churches were bombed,’’ Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil, said. With the fall of Saddam Hussein, Christians began to leave Iraq in large numbers, and the population shrank to less than 500,000 today from as many as 1.5 million in 2003.”
“The Arab Spring only made things worse. As dictators like Mubarak in Egypt and Qaddafi in Libya were toppled, their longstanding protection of minorities also ended. Now, ISIS is looking to eradicate Christians and other minorities altogether. The group twists the early history of Christians in the region — their subjugation by the sword — to legitimize its millenarian enterprise,” using the media to send out warning to the population.
For the first time, “the future of Christianity in the region of its birth is now uncertain. ‘‘How much longer can we flee before we and other minorities become a story in a history book?’’ says Nuri Kino, a journalist and founder of the advocacy group Demand for Action. According to a Pew study, more Christians are now faced with religious persecution than at any time since their early history. ‘‘ISIL has put a spotlight on the issue,’’ says Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, whose parents are from the region and who advocates on behalf of Eastern Christians.”
“Since the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Assad has allowed Christians to leave the country. Nearly a third of Syria’s Christians, about 600,000, have found themselves with no choice but to flee the country.”
Bassam’s story is emblematic: “his brother Yussef moved to Chicago two years earlier. He didn’t have a job yet, but his wife worked at Walmart. Maybe they would help … “What can I do? I have four kids, I can’t leave them here to die”.”
“This spring the U.N. Security Council met to discuss the plight of Iraq’s religious minorities. ‘‘If we attend to minority rights only after slaughter has begun, then we have already failed,’’ Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the high commissioner for Human Rights, said.”
“It has been nearly impossible,” The New York Times report says “for two U.S. presidents — Bush, a conservative evangelical; and Obama, a progressive liberal — to address the plight of Christians explicitly for fear of appearing to play into the crusader and ‘‘clash of civilizations’’ narratives the West is accused of embracing … “One of the blind spots of the Bush administration was the inability to grapple with this as a direct by-product of the invasion,’’ says Timothy Shah, the associate director of Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project.”
“More recently,” the report goes on to say, “the White House has been criticized for eschewing the term ‘‘Christian’’ altogether. The issue of Christian persecution is politically charged; the Christian right has long used the idea that Christianity is imperilled to rally its base. When ISIS massacred Egyptian Copts in Libya this winter, the State Department came under fire for referring to the victims merely as ‘‘Egyptian citizens.’’ Daniel Philpott, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, says, ‘‘When ISIS is no longer said to have religious motivations nor the minorities it attacks to have religious identities, the Obama administration’s caution about religion becomes excessive.’’
Even if ISIS were to be defeated, the fate of religious minorities in Syria and Iraq would look a very sorry one: “We’ve been here as an ethnicity for 6,000 years and as Christians for 1,700 years,’’ says Dr. Srood Maqdasy, a member of the Kurdish Parliament. ‘‘We have our own culture, language and tradition. If we live within other communities, all of this will be dissolved within two generations.’’
“The practical solution, according to many Assyrian Christians, is to establish a safe haven on the Nineveh Plain. ‘‘If the West could take in so many refugees and the U.N.H.C.R. handle an operation like that, then we wouldn’t ask for a permanent solution,’’ says Nuri Kino, of A Demand for Action. Otherwise some form of no-fly zone could be a solution although international backing for this would need to be verified.
Others, meanwhile, believe that the days of peaceful co-existence between faiths are at an end: ‘We don’t have time to wait for solutions,’’ said the Rev. Emanuel Youkhana, the head of Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq. ‘‘Iraq is a forced marriage between Sunni, Shia, Kurds and Christians, and it failed,’’ Youkhana said. ‘‘Even I, as a priest, favor divorce.’’