A dwindling faith in the Middle East

Film from the controversial Clarion Project spotlights Christian persecution, exodus from region.

A CHILD at a refugee camp in Ankawa, Iraqi Kurdistan, is seen in a still from ‘Faithkeepers.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
A CHILD at a refugee camp in Ankawa, Iraqi Kurdistan, is seen in a still from ‘Faithkeepers.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On May 23, dozens of churches around the United States are expected to host a screening of a new film about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
The film is called Faithkeepers, and the people behind it are almost entirely American Jews living in Israel.
The hour-long film features chilling testimony from Christian refugees from Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt about the horrors they endured. Interspersed are experts discussing the history, context and decline of Christianity in the Middle East.
Paula Kweskin, who produced the film for the nonprofit Clarion Project, said the tragic tales are woefully underreported in the Unites States.
“When I’ve shown the film to small groups or large groups, they’re floored,” she told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview.
“They always say the same thing: We didn’t realize how bad it actually was.”
“When we consider the extent of persecution and what it means for the future of Christianity in the Middle East, we’re talking about the possibility that Christianity [there] could become extinct,” she added.
Kweskin, who is trained as a human rights lawyer, also produced Honor Diaries for Clarion Project in 2013, which garnered both acclaim and controversy.
Faithkeepers is slated to make its debut on May 23 at small screenings hosted by churches and other groups around the US. Kweskin said dozens are expected to take part; as of Saturday, there were 10 scheduled screenings listed on the film’s website. Any church can sign up, and when it has sold 35 advance tickets it receives a copy of the film for no direct cost.
The majority of the speakers in the film called the persecution of Christians in the Middle East a genocide, something Kweskin echoed. But, she said, that’s not enough.
“It’s one thing to recognize something as a genocide, but it’s another to take meaningful action,” she said. “For now, all it has done – to call something a genocide – just means that our silence and our lack of action makes us even more guilty that we’re not doing more to put an end to it.”
While concrete numbers are difficult to come by, many estimates indicate that the Christian population in Iraq has dropped significantly over the past 15 years. According to figures quoted by Reuters, in 2003 there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, whereas today the figure could be anywhere from 100,000 to 400,000.
Kweskin claimed that the US Congress, the European Parliament and the UK Parliament have all labeled the persecution of Christians in the Middle East a genocide. Motions by all three bodies did use the term genocide, but they all referred specifically to the actions of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
The film, however, seeks to draw connections between attacks on Christians throughout the Middle East.
“There’s a threat of intolerance and there’s a political motivation behind it and certainly in some instances there’s religious motivation,” said Kweskin. “Boko Haram and ISIS both use an interpretation of Islam to promote and underscore their genocidal campaigns,” she added.
“I think that radical Islam – or politicized Islam – throughout the Middle East creates a situation in which minorities are not protected, and in which minorities are treated as second- or third-class citizens. And in the very worst instances... are then the target for genocide.”
The film is funded and produced by Clarion Project, which describes itself as “a nonprofit organization that educates the public about the dangers of radical Islam.”
Though the organization is technically headquartered in DC, its founder and president, Canadian native Rabbi Raphael Shore, lives in Jerusalem. All the filmmakers listed on its website – with one exception – are North American Jews living in Israel. They include Kweskin, Shore, director Micah Smith and associate producer Zach Sicherman. Roma Downey, an actress and producer known for her roles in Touched By an Angel and The Bible miniseries, is listed as executive producer.
Faithkeepers is the most recent in a line of films put out by Clarion Project that have garnered attention as well as controversy.
In 2016, Clarion Project was characterized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an “organization that makes and distributes millions of anti-Muslim films that portray, among other things, the threat of Islamism as akin to Nazism.”
The center is a legal advocacy NGO that tracks hate groups and other extremist organizations.
Two other past films produced by Clarion Project garnered significant backlash: The Third Jihad (2008) and Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West (2005).
When The Third Jihad (subtitled Radical Islam’s Vision For America) came out, The New York Times editorial board called it a “hate-filled film” that traffics in “noxious and dangerous stereotyping.”
Obsession garnered similar protests and complaints when it was screened on college campuses.
But Kweskin said the simple goal of Faithkeepers is to bring awareness to the injustices being done to Christians in their ancestral homeland.
“This is a genocide unfolding and it’s not getting as much attention – at least it doesn’t seem like it’s getting as much attention – as Rwanda or Darfur,” she said. “And I don’t think people realize the extent of how profound and serious this situation is – and it’s not getting any better.”