In Middle East, Christians Face Mortal Danger

  • Print

As the Christmas season approached, four senior clerics urged Christians in West Asia, where Christianity was born, to remain in the region despite mortal dangers and discrimination. Pope Francis, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch John X Yazigi, Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby and al-Azhar rector Ahmad al-Tayeb, the leading jurist in Sunni Islam, voiced concern that Christians in the Holy Land of Christians, Muslims and Jews could disappear if emigration continues.

A US Christian think-tank estimates that some 7,000-8,000 Christians worldwide are killed annually. The majority are slain in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo where killing is indiscriminate, but hundreds have died in the war in Syria and Iraq, some in indiscriminate bombings, others in targeted attacks. In Israel and the Palestinian lands it occupies, Christians face a variety of pressures to emigrate. The US, Europe and Australia favour Christians over Muslims, encouraging them to leave their home countries.

In the birthplace of Jesus, Israeli-occupied Bethlehem, Palestinian Christians are now 15 per cent of the 28,500 residents, down from 40 per cent in 1998. The fall is due to an influx of Muslims squeezed out of neighbouring villages, Israeli land expropriations, and restrictions on trade and movement. Bethlehem receives two million pilgrims and tourists a year but the majority, who arrive on Israeli buses, stay an hour or two and contribute little to an economy dependent on tourism. Unemployment stands at 25 per cent.

Israel delivers similar treatment to Palestinian cities and towns elsewhere in the West Bank where Christians are 122,000, about 8 per cent of the population. In East Jerusalem, Israel is planting colonists in Christian and Muslim quarters and denying municipal services to Palestinian areas. In Gaza, dominated by the moderately fundamentalist Hamas, the 1,333 Christians braved Israel's bombs and bullets alongside 1.8 million Muslims during Israel's 50-day war last summer. In Israel itself 127,000 Christians, about 10 per cent of its Palestinian citizens, experience economic, political and social discrimination along with Muslims.

Following the 2003 US occupation of Iraq, its ancient Christian community was halved to 500,000 by bombers, kidnappers, and faith killers. Another 160,000 Christians fled from the northern city of Mosul after its capture by Islamic State (IS) last June. Christians were killed if they refused to convert to the cult's creed, pay a heavy tax, or leave. Those who remained were banned from open worship. Formerly independent and free women have been compelled to remain at home and don burqhas when they go out in the company of male relatives.

Syrian Christians began to be targeted in 2012-13 when al-Qaeda's Jabhat al-Nusra and IS entered the conflict in that country. Christians fled from the north-central city of Raqqa and from the eastern province of Deir al-Zor after IS took control. Fighting in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, forced out Arab and Armenian Christians. The Jabhat occupied, "cleansed," and pillaged the Christian town of Maaloula, where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, was still spoken, and wrecked two early Catholic and Orthodox convents.

Hopeful of a returnJordan and Lebanon, secular countries where Christians live comfortably, have received several thousand Syrian and Iraqi Christians who hope, one day, to return to their homes. IS capture of Mosul and onslaught on Christian and other minorities compelled the Western powers to, finally, take action to curb the jihadi menace to West Asia.

However, restricting their intervention to mounting air raids against IS convoys, headquarters and concentrations of fighters will not stem the flight of Syrians and Iraqis, including Christians. The war in Syria and Iraq must be brought to an end through a combination of military action in the air and on the ground, and negotiations. Secular rule must be restored throughout both countries. Israel must be prevailed upon to cease its efforts to gradually cleanse Palestinians and reach an agreement that will grant them an independent state on their own land.

The largest Christian community in the region, Egypt's Copts face multiple challenges and dangers. Ten per cent of Egypt's 83 million, the Copts have suffered marginalisation and discrimination for decades. One particularly vexing measure is a regulation, adopted in 1936 under the British occupation, requiring special permits from the British governor to build or repair churches. After the revolution in 1952, the president took charge; today it is provincial governors where it should be municipal authorities.

During the regime of 30-year President Hosni Mubarak, Coptic communities, churches and individuals were attacked by extremist Muslims. After the 2013 ouster of his successor, Muhammad Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood stalwart, more than 40 Coptic churches were damaged or destroyed and Copts killed. Around 100,000 Copts are said to have applied for resettlement in North America and Scandinavia. However, the Copts face neither the constant pressures exerted on Christians and Muslims in the Palestinian territories nor the mortal danger posed by the conflict in Syria and Iraq.

Deccan Herad