2014 Has Been a Bloody Catastrophe for Christians In the Middle East; Are Their Churches on the Edge of Extinction?

Image: Joachim Ladefoged / VII / Corbis
Image: Joachim Ladefoged / VII / Corbis

For Christians in the Middle East, 2014 has been a catastrophe. The most wrenching stories have come from Iraq, where the nascent Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL in news reports) has savagely persecuted ancient Christian communities, including Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Syrian Orthodox. Iraqi Christians have declined rapidly in number since the first Gulf War in 1991, but survivors long believed they could maintain a foothold around Mosul.

This past summer, that hope collapsed. In a ghastly reminder of Nazi savagery against Jews, Christian homes were marked with the Arabic letter ن for Nazarenes—Christ followers—or R for Rwafidh, a term for Protestants, and inhabitants were targets for abuse or murder. Islamist militants have controlled Mosul since June 10. Even if the total extermination of each and every believer is not the goal, those ancient communities and churches face the prospect of utter ruin. To that extent, the end of Christianity in Iraq is within sight.

The current battles are part of a lengthy story. Islam gained power over the Middle East in the seventh century, but it was several centuries before Muslims became an overwhelming majority. Christians operated under Muslims’ political rule, but the Coptic Patriarchate of Alexandria, Egypt, and the Baghdad-based Church of the East remained mighty forces of global Christianity. They retained that position for more than 500 years. Not until the 14th century did persecution become systematic and violent.

Long after that date, though, minorities survived and even thrived in substantial numbers. As recently as 1914, Christians still made up 10 percent of the whole region from Egypt to Persia (Iran), and most large cities were homes to multiple faiths and denominations. That did not mean that the Ottoman rulers were tolerant in principle; rather, they accepted what seemed like the natural order of things.

Disappearing Faith
Matters changed swiftly during World War I. Massacres and expulsions all but removed the once very large Armenian and Greek communities in Anatolia (now Turkey). Counting Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks together, murder and starvation killed more than two million Christians between 1915 and 1922.

Emerging Arab nations also targeted Christians. Iraq’s slaughter of Assyrians in 1933 gave lawyer Raphael Lemkin a basis upon which he defined the concept of genocide. The partition of Palestine and subsequent crises in the region massively shrunk other ancient Christian groups. The modern story of the Christian Middle East is one of contraction and collapse.

By the end of the past century, Christianity in the Middle East had two great centers: Coptic Egypt, and the closely interrelated lands of Syria and Lebanon. They are now home to many refugee churches.

Today, Syria’s continuing civil war threatens to extend Islamist power still further. Islamic State flags have appeared in Lebanon. Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt has warned that both Christians and his own Druze people stand “on the edge of extinction.”

How bad could this get? All local Christians know the answer. They look back at the experience of Jews, who flourished across the region just a century ago but have now vanished from virtually every Mideast nation outside Israel. Since 1950, Egypt’s Jewish population has shrunk from 100,000 to perhaps 50; Iraq’s, from 90,000 to a mere handful. Christian Aleppo or Damascus could easily go the way of Jewish Baghdad. In 2013, Iraq’s Chaldean (Eastern-rite Catholic) patriarch Raphael Sako warned, “If emigration continues, God forbid, there will be no more Christians in the Middle East.”

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Philip Jenkins

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