Christianity is fast disappearing from entire regions, most notably a huge chunk of the Middle East, and could vanish from Iraq within five years, according to a new report by Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
Released in the UK’s House of Lords on Tuesday, the report, “Persecuted and Forgotten?” says Christians are migrating away from areas in the Middle East and parts of Africa where, a generation ago, they were both numerous and influential.
‘Christians are fast disappearing from entire regions – most notably a huge chunk of the Middle East but also whole dioceses in Africa,’ the report says.
The growing threat of militant Muslim groups ‘is a primary cause in the contraction of Christianity – changing from being a global faith into a regional one, with the faithful increasingly absent from ever-widening areas’.
The report claims the faith is on course to disappear from Iraq possibly within five years unless there is significant intervention. It adds that an exodus from other parts of the Middle East means ‘the Church is being silenced and driven out of its ancient biblical heartland’.
Christians remain a significant and largely stable presence in some parts of the biblical Middle East, most notably Israel and Jordan.
In Africa, the rise of militant Islamist groups in Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania ‘is clearly intended to intimidate Christians, destabilising their presence’, the report says. This on a continent that the report says ‘has until now been the Church’s brightest hope for the future’.
Groups of militant Islamists ‘that have appeared out of nowhere and exercise a potency and cruelty far greater than that of the radical organisations from which they have sprung’ are largely to blame for the mass exodus, says the UK-based charity.
The report concludes that extremist Islamism is the gravest threat to Christians in those countries where persecution has increased since its previous report, issued in 2013. The number of countries where Christians have suffered ‘extreme’ persecution rose from six to 10 in the most recent report, which covers October 2013 to June 2015. All four new countries – Iraq, Nigeria, Sudan and Syria – are ones that saw an upsurge in extremist Islamism.
Aid to the Church in Need said “Persecuted and Forgotten?” looks at evolving causes of persecution from incident reports in 22 countries that the group claims are guilty of severe human-rights violations against Christians.
In addition to militant Islamism, the report highlights that Christians also suffer when their faith is seen as a ‘colonial, corrupt and exploitative’ foreign import from the West, triggering suspicion from Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish nationalists. Totalitarian regimes such as China are threatened by the growth of Christianity because much of it is practiced ‘underground’.
In a note of optimism, the report says that despite parts of Africa and the Middle East being emptied of Christianity, its followers are growing in number throughout the world. Within the last century those following Christianity have quadrupled to more than two billion. Pew Research Centre findings from April 2015 predict that nearly one in three people worldwide (2.9bn) will be Christian in 2015, but affirms the regional shift. It predicts that by mid-century the share of Christians living in sub-Saharan Africa will have grown from 24 per cent to 38 per cent. Europe’s share of the Christian population is expected to fall from 26 per cent in 2010 to about 16 per cent by 2050.
Nineteen of the 22 countries examined in the latest report from Aid to the Church in Need were also featured in its 2013 report. Of those 19 countries, the situation for Christians was deemed to ‘worsen’ in 15.
The report of two years ago listed 13 countries that had worsened. In both surveys, factors of decline included increased attacks on Christians and churches, legal changes manifestly compromising the freedom of Christians, and hate speech, especially in the media.
In a foreword to the report, the Archbishop of Aleppo, Syria, Jean-Clement Jeanbart, said Christians ‘are confronting one of the most important challenges of our 2,000-year history’. He said Christians in Syria and Iraq ‘are defenceless against ISIS … the prime target of the so-called caliphate’s religious cleansing campaign’.
Some of the witnesses featured in the report spoke at the report’s launch in London, including teenager Victoria Youhanna, who escaped Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, and Timothy Cho, originally from North Korea.
The Vatican sent Aid to the Church in Need a message of support for the report’s release, saying Pope Francis appreciated efforts to keep ‘before the world the plight and suffering of Christians persecuted for their faith’.
In a statement issued for the report’s launch, British Prime Minister David Cameron said his government is committed to promoting religious freedom and tolerance in the UK and around the world. ‘Now is not the time for silence’, he said. ‘We must stand together and fight for a world where no one is persecuted because of what they believe’.