The fate of struggling Christians in Muslim-majority countries in the Islamic heartland has shifted from persecution to an existential struggle.
Anti-Christian violence in 2014 saw a transformation from under-told news coverage, to routine reports of radical Islamists seeking to obliterate Christianity’s presence.
Religious freedom experts captured the dire situation of Middle Eastern Christians in comments on Friday to The Jerusalem Post.
"Persecution no longer adequately describes the treatment of Christians in a growing number of Muslim areas.
Religious cleansing, a type of cultural genocide, which is a crime against humanity, is the more accurate description.
This is now occurring in Iraq, Syria, parts of Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia and Pakistan.
A goal of Islamic extremists is total Islamization and this has nearly been achieved in Iraq, which a decade ago was home to one of the four most robust Christian communities in the Arab world,” said Nina Shea, director of the Washington- based Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.
Shea, who has written extensively about the lack of Christian religious freedom, said “Now, the overwhelming majority of Iraq’s Christian community, formerly numbering 1.4 million, are immigrants in the West, refugees in the region, or internally displaced persons in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Since Christians are the largest non-Muslim minority there and the smaller Yazidi, Mandean and Jewish communities have also been driven out or killed. Iraq is for the first time in history becoming entirely Islamic. Over the millennia, its minorities were influential and their absence will have geopolitical implications.”
A snapshot of news headlines during the Christmas period signifies a rapidly deteriorating situation for the Middle East’s Christians. The Irish Times wrote, “Christians most persecuted and discriminated against worldwide: Most violations of religious freedom occur in Muslim countries.” The New York Daily News editorial noted: A war on Christians rages around the world. “Lack of help for Iraqi Christians from international community,” headlined the BBC for a video interview. “A jailed Iranian Pastor’s Christmas Prayer,” read a Wall Street Journal opinion article headline.
The case of Iran is part and parcel of a deceptive strategy to court the West while incarcerating Iranian Christians.
Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani tweeted on Christmas; ”May Jesus Christ, Prophet of peace & love, bless us all on this day. Wishing Merry# Christmas to those celebrating, esp #Iranian Christians.”
Pastor Farshid Fathi experienced four Christmases in prison for practicing his faith.
American-Iranian pastor Saeed Abedini spent his third Christmas in prison for his Christian work. UN human rights reports have documented severe oppression of Christian Iranians, which Iran’s so-called moderate president shows no appetite for curtailing.
According to Open Doors USA, an organization that seeks to prevent Christian persecution, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen are in the top 10 violators of Christianity. In terms of global persecution of Christians, Open Doors noted 322 Christians are murdered each month for simply being Christian, 214 Christian properties are destroyed and violence affects 772.
Spectacular levels of violence targeting Iraqi Christians prompted Pope Francis to say this month, “Your resistance is martyrdom, dew which bears fruit.”
Islamic State presents the most immediate danger to Christians in Iraq and Syria because of its ideology to rapidly eliminate Christianity.
Dexter Van Zile, a Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, said “we need to devote the resources necessary to defeat ISIS [Islamic State] and make it perfectly clear that the people responsible for murdering Christians, Yazidis and other minorities will face justice.
We simply cannot let them get away with it.
“The efforts to help the Christians in the Middle East will look a lot like the choices the West was faced with when the Jews were being murdered in Europe. We’ll have to get serious about providing permanent refuge to Christians from the region in our own countries, which ominously enough, did not happen with the Jews. I hope and pray we make a different choice this time. These people need homes, permanent homes in the West,” said Van Zile.
He added, “we’ll have to think about providing a safe haven for them in the region.
Christians in Iraq have called for the creation of a special province for minorities in Iraq – the Nineveh Plains proposal – which has largely been ignored by policy makers in the West.”
Analyzing Israel’s role in the region can help in grasping the larger context, according to academic experts.
Dr. Richard Landes, director and co-founder of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University said, “in the old days [Yishuv days], when the Muslims rioted and massacred Jews, they’d say, ‘first the Saturday people, then the Sunday people.’ Now that the Jews have a state and can defend themselves, they’ve moved on to the Sunday people, and the only place Christians are safe is where the Saturday people have sovereignty.”
He added, “The really sick part of this picture is that the Christians in the west not only won’t come to the defense of the Sunday people in the Muslim world, but rather, seem fixated on not letting the Saturday people defend either themselves or the Sunday people who live among them. With their western enemies behaving so self-destructively, it’s a good time to be a jihadi.”
Melancholy, frustration, outrage, deep pessimism, shock and exasperation seem to be the dominant themes when experts discuss the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Western policy makers and politicians have failed to mobilize the raw energy of their capitalist economies to stop jihadi attempts to wipe out Christians.
“I’m not very hopeful that things will get much better.
We will continue to see things that shock us in the year ahead. Next year may even be worse than 2014,” said Van Zile.
Benjamin Weinthal reports on Christians in the Middle East and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.