The Mideast's Vanishing Christians

Persecution of Christians is nothing new in the Middle East. But times are tougher now with the rise of governments motivated by Islamism.

Times are tough for Christian communities across the Middle East.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was putting it lightly when she said that Coptic Christians “are deeply anxious about what the future holds for them and their country.” And her words captured the plight not just of Copts in Egypt but also of panic-stricken Christians across the Muslim-majority Middle East.

Of course, the persecution of Christians is nothing new in the Middle East. But times are tougher now with the rise of governments motivated by Islamism, which in some interpretations does not give equal billings to other faiths. And amidst the ongoing unrest, some of these regional states have imposed crackdowns on non-Islamic religious communities when their stability is threatened.

Take the example of the Islamic Republic of Iran, where there are as many as 270,000 Christians. In a scarcely noted June report by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, the group wrote that “Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Intelligence Organization has recently and abruptly taken over the oversight of Christian churches in Iran, which were previously overseen by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.”

The IRGC’s intervention marks a new phase of stifling Christian religious freedom in Iran. In 2007, the United States government designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a global terrorist entity. Two years later, the IRGC played a key role in decimating the prodemocracy protests against Iran’s fraudulent presidential election.

But the IRGC is not the driving force behind this persecution. The regime itself is behind the horrific case of Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who faces the death penalty because he sought to register a home-based church and questioned the compulsory Islamic education of his children.

Nadarkhani’s plight has caught the attention of the international community. Efforts are now underway to secure his release, including a Twitter campaign in which users have sent nearly three million tweets a day with the hashtag #TweetforYoucef.

U.S. president Barack Obama said last September that

The United States condemns the conviction of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani. Pastor Nadarkhani has done nothing more than maintain his devout faith, which is a universal right for all people. That the Iranian authorities would try to force him to renounce that faith violates the religious values they claim to defend, crosses all bounds of decency, and breaches Iran's own international obligations.

But Iran is not alone in such breaches. In March, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority openly called for such treatment of Christians.

Indeed, Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, the grand mufti of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, told a crowd that it was “necessary to destroy all the churches in the Arabian Peninsula.” The crowd, it should be noted, was a group of Kuwaitis from the Al Qaeda-linked Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, which was designated by the U.S. Treasury for its terror-finance activity.

Under fire for intolerance in 2006, the Saudi government assured the international community that it would permit religious freedom to be practiced by non-Islamic believers. This was a reference to Shiites and the 4.4 percent of Saudi Arabia’s total population that are Christian foreign workers performing tough manual-labor jobs.

Yet, Saudi religious-police authorities—mutaween—raided the Jeddah home of an Ethiopian worker last December because the worker held a private religious service during Advent. According to human-rights groups and the U.S. government’s Commission on International Religious Freedom, the twenty-nine women and six men who were arrested faced beatings and sexual assault. After over seven months of captivity, the Saudi authorities released in early August the thirty-five Christian Ethiopians and deported the workers back to Ethiopia.

Christians are also under fire in the tiny Palestinian enclave of the Gaza Strip, where the terrorist organization Hamas has gained control. Recent reports have alleged that Christians have been forcibly converted to Islam, prompting protests. The diminishing Gaza Christian community of 2,500 also accused the Hamas-affiliated Palestine Scholars Association and its chairman Salem Salama, a senior Hamas figure, of stoking anti-Christian bias.

The plight of Coptic Christians in neighboring Egypt is plagued by a wave of government exclusion and indifference to violence. This is nothing new. Copts suffered under former president Hosni Mubarak. Nevertheless, the current head of the Egyptian Coptic Church, Bishop Bakhomious, bitterly complained about the politics of exclusion in the new government. Coptic Christians make up 10 percent of Egypt’s population.

Egypt’s newly elected president, Mohamed Morsi, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, is not only under fire for the political disenfranchisement of Coptic Christians. His new government has stood by and watched a wave of Christian cleansing. In early August, the roughly one hundred-family Christian community in Dahshour was forced to flee after Muslim neighbors launched attacks against the Christians’ homes and property. Morsi downplayed the violence as "an individual incident and its origin is not about Muslims and Christians, and it happens every day. It was blown out of proportion.”

Of course, all of this anti-Christian sentiment and violence belies a weakness of leadership. Indeed, as leading German-Iranian intellectual Nasrin Amirsedghi argues, “the systematic and state-sponsored persecution of Christians in Iran . . . is a sign of an increasingly weakened regime leadership. Wherever there is a fear of losing legitimacy, the regime employs violence and repression.”

While this may be true, it does not protect the region’s Christians from persecution. With regional instability mounting, this embattled minority increasingly appears to be in a fight for its very survival.

Benjamin Weinthal is a Jerusalem Post reporter and writes about Christians in the Middle East. He is a Berlin-based fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.