Christians in the Middle East by Michael Curtis

 

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On August 22, 1939, Adolf Hitler, explaining his decision to invade Poland, asked, “Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

On the centennial of the massacre of the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, it is pertinent to ask, sixty-five years later, if the world is sufficiently aware of the persecutions of Christians, discrimination against them, the lack of respect shown for freedom of religion, and indeed the possible end of Christianity in the Arab and Muslim countries of the Middle East.

Certainly the World Council of Churches, Churches for Middle Peace, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and leaders of mainstream Protestant churches, all preoccupied with alleged violations of human rights by the State of Israel, seem to be unaware of, or pay little attention to, the fate of the mosaic of Christian communities in those Arab and Muslim countries.  It is baffling that these organizations are so unconcerned with the ethnic cleansing, being carried out by Islamists, of Christians.

These organizations and the Western mainstream mass media ignore the fact that the Christian communities in Middle East countries, except in Israel, have been declining rapidly, partly because of low birth rates and emigration, but largely because of discrimination and persecution by Muslims.  They disregard the current dilemma that 15 million Christians in the Middle East are facing 300 million Muslims and the growing threat of Islamist extremists.

The problem is not new.  Christians have long suffered discrimination, violence, persecution, and deportation in all Middle Eastern countries, and this continues today in all countries of the area except Israel.  There are countless examples of that persecution.  On October 31, 2010, after hostages were taken, a massacre occurred in the Syriac Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad, with 58 killed and 75 wounded.  The bombing of the Coptic (Christian) Church in Alexandria, Egypt killed 21 and injured 79 worshipers.

The plight today of Christians in Syria and Iraq – in the Mosul area, Orthodox or Catholic, Assyrians or Chaldeans – is a reminder and a warning of what happened exactly a century ago.

The present persecution recalls the sad story of massacres and what can rightfully be called genocide, even before the term was coined, of Armenians, Assyrians, and Pontic and Anatolian Greeks, committed by the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire.  Starting in the 1890s and continuing through World War I, Assyrians were killed or relocated in upper Mesopotamia, now southeast Turkey and northwest Iran.  In the massacres of what is known, in the English language, as Sayfo or Seyfo, a number of between 300,000 and 750,000 Assyrians were killed, according to different estimates.  Most of the victims belonged to the Assyrian Church (Nestorian) of the East, the denomination once powerful in the 9th century.  From the 14th century they were persecuted and forced into mountainous areas and the Hakkari province in the Turkey Kurdish area in Iraq, and western Azerbaijan.

The story of the genocide of Armenians is well-known, albeit still denied by Turkey.  Starting in April 1915, they were massacred in 1915-1916 in the areas of Hakkari, Kurdistan, and Azerbaijan.  There is general agreement that between 1 million and 1.5 million lost their lives.  Able-bodied men were killed or conscripted to forced labor.  Women and children were deported on death marches to the Syrian desert.  Concentration camps were set up.  Women were violated by Turkish troops.

The fate of the Yazidis, an ethnically Kurdish group that practices an unusual mixed form of religion, is a warning.  They number 700,000, mostly in northern Iraq but some in Turkey and the Caucasus.  They became victims of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in August 2014.  More than 40,000 were forced to flee to the mountains, said to be the final resting place of Noah’s ark.  At least 70,000 Yazidis have fled the country.

The Christian mosaic today is composed of a number of parts.  The Coptic Church has 5 million adherents in Egypt, and 250,000 Catholics.  The Christian Maronites account for 4 million, of whom half a million are in Lebanon.  The Greek Orthodox in a number of countries amount to 2 million.  The Armenians, in Armenia and in former countries of the Soviet Union, number 6 million.  The Syrian Orthodox and Catholic Churches have 350,000 followers.  The Assyrian Church of the East has 300,000 faithful, and there are 500,000 Chaldeans (Assyrian-Chaldeans).  Both of these groups speak Aramaic.

The Chaldeans are members of the autonomous Eastern Catholic Church and recognize the authority of the Pope.  The best-known Chaldean was Tariq Aziz, former deputy prime minister of Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Christians in all the Middle East countries have suffered.  After the war in Iraq in 2003, the number of Assyrian Christians fell from 1.4 million to 300,000.  They were caught in the struggle between Sunnis and Shiites, and fled or were displaced.  The 2011 revolution in Egypt led to riots between Christian Copts (10 percent) of the population and Muslims.  In Lebanon, rule by the Christian Maronites, now reduced to 20 percent of the population, has ended, and hostilities still continue between the Hezb'allah Shia groups and the remains of the Phalange party.  Christians have been rapidly been emigrating from Lebanon.

Most serious of all has been the brutality of the Islamic State.  The evidence from the city of Mosul, the major city in northern Iraq, is appalling.  After capturing the city, IS engaged in mass murders, imposed strict sharia law, looted and burned churches, and forced women to wear the veil.  The shrine in Mosul of Jonah, said to be the burial site of the prophet swallowed by a whale, was destroyed by IS on July 24, 2014.  Christians in Mosul once numbered 130,000; now fewer than 2,000 are left.  Those few may be forced to convert, accept inferior status, or be killed. 

It is sad that not only is Islamist extremism a physical threat to Christians, but it is leading to the end of cultural pluralism and religious tolerance.  It is a reaction against the process of modernization that Christians have endorsed to a greater degree than have Muslims.

The mainstream Christian churches of the West seem unwilling to help alleviate the plight of Christians in the Middle East.  It was heartening that resolutions in 2010 in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives called on the Obama administration to help end the persecution of Christians and ethnic minorities in Iraq.  The time is long overdue for this to be done for the Christians in all of the Middle East.