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Christians in MENA

August 31, 2019

Christians in MENA

Every year we get to work with wonderful interns at iStrategic. This year is no different. At the end of the internship, the final assignment might be an essay on a topic/news story of interest to the intern to be posted on the website. Elizabeth Hanna made excellent use of this space. Here is her take.


Christianity originated and has been present in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region for two thousand years, but its long and vibrant history has not shielded its observers from severe persecution that has heightened in recent years. Political, economic, and social discrimination, along with horrific acts of violence against Christians is prevalent in the MENA, forcing Christians to flee the region. Some of the world’s oldest Christian communities found in Iraq, Syria, the Palestinian territories, and elsewhere are severely dwindling. Dropping from 20% to 4% of the MENA’s population over the last century, the declining Christian population is contributing to the region’s loss of diversity and plurality that once served as a welcoming home for many minority religious groups.


Perpetrators of violence toward Christians in the Middle East are not only Islamist terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or al-Qaeda that are commonly mentioned in the media. State regimes, particularly Iran, often persecute Christians simply for practicing their faith, even in the privacy of their own homes. Assyrian-Iranian Christians, Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz and his wife Shamiram Issavi, as well as two converts to Christianity, were sentenced to prison in 2014 for privately celebrating Christmas celebrations, organizing home churches, and travelling outside of Iran for Christian purposes, as the Iranian regime claimed they were threats to national security.


Christians comprise approximately 10% of Egypt’s population, one of the largest Christian communities in the MENA. The vast majority of these Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, and they face extremely severe persecution in Egypt. Multiple shootings of Christian pilgrimage groups, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, as well as two church bombings on Palm Sunday in 2017 and the infamous beheading of 21 Copts in Libya in 2015 comprise just a small number of the nearly 500 attacks on Copts in the last five years. Furthermore, Egypt faces a crisis of Christian women and girls being kidnapped; many families of these women believe they are being kidnapped to forcibly convert them to Islam and often be entered into human trafficking. Unfortunately, many of these cases – estimated at 550 kidnappings between 2011 and 2014 – are not investigated by Egyptian police.


Muslim converts to Christianity face particularly difficult persecution and vulnerability, as they are often disowned by their families and are the targets of Islamist violence in order to be made an example to warn other Muslims not to leave the faith.  As the persecution of Christians in the MENA continues, the Christian population declines and becomes weaker. Many Christians who have the means to leave the region do so, fleeing to Europe, Canada, Australia, and the USA. However, many Middle Eastern Christians do not want to leave their homeland and are staying put, hoping that an end to their dangerous circumstances will someday come to an end.


 Christians in Iraq


Christian persecution in Iraq is one of the most severe cases in the MENA. After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent fall of Saddam Hussein, the power vacuum left Christians extremely vulnerable to persecution. In recent years, Iraqi Christians – most being ethnically Assyrian or Chaldean – have faced discrimination in the workplace, government, and economy, as well as brutal slaughter. ISIL, headed by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, has wiped out entire Christian villages, often giving Christians three options: convert to Islam, pay a heavy tax for their faith, or be killed. It has been fiercely debated whether or not this systematic removal of Christians from Iraq and from the MENA as a whole should be called genocide. There were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq before 2003, whereas now there is approximately 120,000.


Car bombs, church bombings, and the killing of Christian intellectuals in Iraq have instilled fear into Iraqi Christians. Furthermore, the decimation of Christian homes, monasteries, and churches have sent them fleeing. Entire villages of Christians have been displaced and scattered around the Nineveh Plains, which took two years to be recaptured by the Iraqi military. Christians are slowly and cautiously returning back to their homes in the Nineveh Plains to rebuild. In Baghdad, the number of Christians is steadily decreasing as well. Many churches have allegedly closed down; but, Christmas and Easter celebrations have ensued with heightened security. Christians are expected to act more conservatively in Baghdad, giving up nightclubs and liquor stores, as well as women dressing to comply with more conservative Islamic norms. It has been reported that armed groups have threatened, harassed, and abused those who they felt were not adhering to these guidelines. Additionally, homes of displaced Christians from Baghdad as well as churches have been seized by powerful individuals and networks in the Iraqi capital. However, some Iraqi Christians have found a new home in Baghdad, as they view it safer than returning to their homes in northern Iraq. Samir Petrus, along with his wife Evelyn and his five daughters, fled Hamdaniya, near Mosul, in 2014 just hours before ISIL invaded, and relocated to Erbil before settling in an Assyrian camp in Baghdad. Although conditions are not ideal in the camp, it feels safer for them than to return to northern Iraq. There Samir runs a small shop and he plans to stay with his family in Baghdad.


In the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, Syriac Catholic Professor Yohanna Towaya considers the city to be safe for Christians now. Although churches were destroyed and Mosul still seems to be covered in dust from the destruction and filled with hazardous materials, he claims that he knows his fellow Iraqis, and he knows that they do not wish Christians any harm. He believes that the members of ISIL that destroyed Mosul came from outside the area and do not hold the same beliefs as his Muslim neighbors. However, others claim the opposite, believing that ISIL is discretely reorganizing itself and is not truly purged from the city. A fear for safety and a lack of economic opportunity have led to only about 30 Christian families returning to Mosul, just 10% of the pre-ISIL Christian population of the city.


Many Iraqi Christians have fled to Jordan, claiming asylum seeker status, in hopes that they will be able to emigrate to Europe, the USA, Canada, or Australia. However, circumstances are grim since these asylum seekers are unable to legally work and make money in Jordan, and the process to be accepted to migrate to another country typically takes multiple years, if it happens at all. A relatively small number of Iraqi Christian families have stayed in Iraq and waited for their towns to be liberated from ISIL. Rebuilding their cities will be a massive undertaking, but the community is hopeful and willing to put the work into making their home feel like home once again. After all, if all of Iraq’s Christians leave the country, ISIL’s wish to eradicate the country of Christianity will be accomplished. While the road ahead for Iraqi Christians may be dangerous in their homeland, their presence in Iraq is necessary in order for the Christian community there to be strong once again.


Middle Eastern Christian leaders have called on the West to speak out against the atrocities happening to Christians in Iraq and MENA; many feel that the atmosphere of political correctness in the West is prohibiting Western leaders from condemning the carnages at the hands of Islamist terrorist groups.


Elizabeth Hanna for iStrategic