Persecution of Christians seen on the rise in Middle East

The report singled out Iran, Iraq and Turkey for fostering a hostile environment for Christians.
Sunday 12/05/2019
Christian worshippers attend the Good Friday epitaphios procession outside the 10th century Greek Orthodox Church of St George in the Old Cairo district of the Egyptian capital on April 26, 2019. (AFP)
Christian worshippers attend the Good Friday epitaphios procession outside the 10th century Greek Orthodox Church of St George in the Old Cairo district of the Egyptian capital on April 26, 2019. (AFP)

TUNIS - Christians are being persecuted at near genocide levels in the Middle East and North Africa, posing an existential threat to one of the region’s oldest religions, found a recent report commissioned by UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

“There is widespread evidence showing that ‘Christians constitute by far the most widely persecuted religion…,’” said the interim report, which was conducted by Bishop of Truro Philip Mounstephen. “Furthermore, the evidence suggests that acts of violence and other intimidation against Christians are becoming more widespread.”

The report’s findings indicate that some of the world’s oldest Christian communities are steadily declining, including in Syria, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, thought to be the birthplace of Jesus.

“Christianity now faces the possibility of being wiped out in parts of the Middle East where its roots go back furthest,” the report said.

The report stated that, in the Palestinian territories, the Christian segment was less than 1.5% of the overall population; in Syria, the Christian population declined from 1.7 million in 2011 to less than 450,000; and in Iraq, Christian numbers slumped from 1.5 million before 2003 to less than 120,000.

With Christian populations having dropped from 20% to 4% of the MENA population over the past century, Christians are “at risk of disappearing” in the region, “representing a massive setback for plurality in the region,” the report said.

The report, which is to be finalised in June, cited discriminatory and oppressive laws, repressive social norms, state-sanctioned violence and acts of terror as targeting Christians in the MENA region.

It added that political instability and increased religious conservatism were driving faith-based persecution, which affects other religious minorities, such as Yazidis and Shias.

The report singled out Iran, Iraq and Turkey for fostering hostile environments for Christians. It said “incitement to hatred and hate propaganda against Christians,” at times directed by the state, was becoming more common.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s governing Justice and Development Party often “depicts Christians as a ‘threat to the stability of the nation,’” the report said. “Turkish Christian citizens have often been stereotyped as ‘not real Turks’ but as Western collaborators.”

The Turkish state maintains bureaucratic policies that severely restrict access to Christian places of worship in occupied areas of Cyprus, including for Orthodox and Maronite communities.

“Many historic churches and associated cemeteries in the area have also been allowed to fall into disrepair, be vandalised or converted to other uses,” the report stated.

In Iran, Christians have been imprisoned solely for practising their faith. Last year, Victor Bet-Tamraz, an Assyrian pastor, and his wife, Shamiram Issavi, were sentenced to prison for organising house churches, which the state deemed a threat to national security.

The report stated that Christians from a Muslim background are particularly “vulnerable in almost all states in the MENA region.”

“Their perpetrators have mainly been extremist groups and their own family and community members, except in Iran in which the state is the main persecutor of Christians,” the report stated.

While the report painted a dire picture for Christians in the region, it expressed hope that their continued presence could be a catalyst for tolerance and reconciliation.

“Despite the disheartening nature of the situation,” the report said, “the steadfast presence of Christians in the region is a sign of hope and opportunity to advocate for religious protection, to advance pluralism and religious tolerance across the region as well as preserving Christian heritage, fostering positive relationships between Muslim and Christian communities and encouraging peace and reconciliation.”

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