The Middle East, the historic cradle of Christianity, is today witnessing an accelerated “targeting” of its remaining Christians, according to a report aiming to rally world attention to threats facing ancient communities in Syria and Iraq.
“Civil war in Syria and Iraq has unleashed a tidal wave of violent persecution. This has targeted the highly vulnerable Christian population, to the extent that this targeted persecution is now widely recognised around the globe,” the report says. It was presented by Christian charity Open Doors UK to a group of British MPs on 12 October.
An estimated 50% and 80% of Christians have left Syria and Iraq respectively.
We are faced with significant evidence Christians are suffering disproportionately.
According to the report, before 2011 Syrian Christians numbered about 8 per cent of the population of 22 million. Today about half are believed to have left the country. Quoting a Syrian aid worker, it says that in parts of north-east Syria, “houses, stores, businesses … have been left by the Christians”.
In neighbouring Iraq, there were around 1.5 million Christians before 2003. Today, estimates hover between 200,000 and 250,000. Christians make up a disproportionate number of Iraqi refugees. There were more than 250,000 registered Iraqi refugees in Syria between 2004-2010. Of these, 44% were Christian.
“We are faced with significant evidence that Middle Eastern Christians are suffering disproportionately, and, in many cases, being targeted because they are Christians,” concluded the report.
Drawing from extensive consultations with community leaders and church members in both countries, the report notes cases of Christians taken hostage; church leaders assassinated; Christian homes, businesses and churches commandeered or destroyed; and women and girls raped and forced into sexual slavery.
Those initially living in Islamic State (IS) territory were forced to pay the jizya (submission) tax to survive, while others suffered mass forced displacement.
The report warns that if the rate of emigration continues, within a few years the Christian communities in these countries will be “utterly devastated”.
Christians “were denied full freedom of religion and belief before 2003 in Iraq and 2011 in Syria – especially those who chose to follow Christianity from a Muslim background,” the report notes.
In Iraq, it says, radical Islamic groups are working for the religious cleansing of Iraq with the aim of making the country “purely Islamic”.
Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, according to NGO Baghdad Beituna (Baghdad Our Home), there have been more than 7,000 violations against properties belonging to Iraqi Christians in Baghdad. A Baghdad official says that almost 70 per cent of Baghdad’s Christian homes have been illegally taken.
A historic legacy
The report, titled “Hope for the Middle East: The impact and significance of the Christian presence in Syria and Iraq: past, present and future”, aims to encourage national and international actors to “ensure that the current and future legal frameworks in Syria and Iraq fully promote and protect the equal and inalienable rights” of all, including Christians, whose historic contributions to their homelands it elucidates.
Ancient Syria, a heartland of Christianity for 700 years, was once a vital part of the Eastern Roman Empire. After Arab-Islamic conquests, against all odds Christians still managed to bring Greek philosophy to the Middle East through translation of Greek texts to Syriac and Arabic.
Christians also contributed to early developments of Arabic literature and language. Many European works of secular literature were also first translated into Arabic by Christians.
After modern era emancipations of Christians from their legal status as dhimmis (second-class subjects) under Sharia, Christians in the 20th century again held a disproportionately high number of professional qualifications and higher education degrees.
Following the formation of the Iraqi state in 1921, Christians established schools and hospitals, created literature and media, and launched businesses, factories, athletic clubs and art galleries.
‘Hope for the Middle East’
The report, part of the Hope for the Middle East campaign – a seven year global project – wants to ensure a dignified and continued improvement of living conditions for all citizens, but especially for returning refugees and the internally displaced.
“Christians want to be seen as Iraqi or Syrian citizens, enjoying the full rights of citizenship, such as equality before the law and full protection of their right to freedom of religion or belief, including the ability for everyone to freely worship, practise, teach, choose and change their religion,” the report says.
Written as part of a collaboration between three NGOs – Open Doors, Middle East Concern and Served – and the UK University of East London, it aims to raise the Middle East Christian profile at the UN by June 2017, seeking one million signatures to take to the international body in support of Christians and minorities in Syria and Iraq.
Christians want to be seen as citizens, enjoying equality … and right to change religion.
Meanwhile, its hashtag, #hope4me, by mid-October had already reached 257,590 accounts, with the hashtag being used in 19 countries, according to Open Doors.
According to Open Doors’ 2016 World Watch List, Iraq ranks second and Syria fifth among 50 countries where Christians face the most pressure.
“For the future of the region, it is vital that the Christian communities in the Middle East not only survive the attempts of extremist Islam to destroy them, but are given the necessary support and opportunity to play their role in reconciling and rebuilding their countries in the future,” Lisa Pearce, Chief Executive of Open Doors UK, said during the report’s parliamentary launch in Britain.