UNITED NATIONS — Though it’s the birthplace of Christianity in ancient times, the modern Middle East is increasingly hostile to Christianity as civil conflict, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism grow in scope and strength. Although most regional states have a small but successful Christian minority ranging from Egypt to Iraq, only Lebanon, Israel and Jordan maintain amicable relations with the followers of Jesus Christ. But in other places such as Iraq and now Egypt, Christian communities are coming under assault.
A few months ago, during the UN’s annual debate, the Vatican’s Secretary of State Archbishop Dominique Mamberti told assembled delegates that Christians currently suffer more persecution because of their faith and any other religious group. He warned that this “denial of religious freedom threatened peace and security and precluded human development.”
Archbishop Mamberti stressed, “Respect for religious freedom is the fundamental path for the construction of peace, the recognition of human dignity and the safeguarding of human rights.”
Though the forum of the United Nations regularly echoes calls for global rights, freedoms, and religious tolerance, rarely are any states singled out as persecutors of Christianity– especially in the Middle East.
Iraq offers a bittersweet example. The country’s Christian community dates to the 2nd century AD with communities in the Chaldean and Assyrian churches comprising about 15 percent of the pre-war population, a presence numbering approximately 500,000. Though Saddam’s regime did not persecute Christians for their religion per se, many believers nonetheless fled due to political intolerance. Following the 2003 Anglo/ American invasion toppling Saddam, the genie of sectarian strife was out of the bottle.
“Iraq’s Christian community has dwindled since the U.S.-led invasion. Though no reliable statistics exist, most experts believe that less than 300,000 Christians remain in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in Jordan and Syria,” cites the publication One of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA). Sixty-six percent belong to the Chaldean Catholic church. Interestingly 1 out of 5 Iraqis was a Christian in 1932; today the number has dwindled to 1 in 33.
Christians are targeted by Islamic factions and as recently as 2010, some 52 people were killed during the siege of a Catholic church in Baghdad. Estimates say as much as half or more of Iraqi Christians have left the country or are internally displaced. According to the New York-based Catholic Near East many displaced Iraqi Christians have found religious refuge in the Kurdish-controlled north of the country. The Kurds remain committed to protecting religious minorities and thus Christians have found safe haven.
Neither have the winds of the Arab Spring been kind to Christians in Egypt, where the country’s large Coptic community has come under assault. Though approximately ten percent of the population and largely protected during the secular government of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, the communities have come under assault over the past year. Domestic political chaos, growing Islamic fundamentalism, and simmering discrimination has targeted this vulnerable community.
Equally in Syria, a five percent strong Christian community, remains divided between Greek Orthodox and Catholics. Despite the secular Assad family dictatorship, the minority has not been specifically targeted but many Christians have emigrated. Still Syria has hosted fleeing Iraqi Christians who number 150,000 according to CNEWA.
On the positive side, tiny Lebanon hosts a Christian community numbering over a million and comprising over a third of the population. Partly reflecting the legacy of French rule, a strong Maronite church among others shares political power with Muslim factions to this day. Sadly the Lebanese civil war in the 1970’s was rooted in sectarian strife yet contemporary Lebanon, again regaining prosperity, remains a place of tolerance.
So too does the Kingdom of Jordan where the Christian population has dropped from five percent to the current three percent. Significantly in the Royal Parliament, nine of the 110 seats are specifically reserved for Christians and relations are generally positive. In the heart of the Holy Land, Israel’s secular democracy allows its small largely Arab Christian community to practice their religion freely.
Sadly in the lands of the ancient Christian denominations, highly politicized Islam remains a challenge to the churches. Given the fragile or fragmented role of secular Arab states, Christian minorities are among the first to be demonized and often targeted. The world watches and governments do little to challenge this blatant religious intolerance.
John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.