The Crushing of Middle Eastern Christianity

May 10, 2013 Topic: Religion Region: Middle East

The Crushing of Middle Eastern Christianity

Popular uprisings, social transformations and American interventions have hurt the region's second-largest religion.

Americans of all political stripes have embraced the promotion of democracy as a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy. But this American democracy crusade has caused huge, and largely overlooked, collateral damage since the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks against the United States in 2001. The fall of authoritarian regimes throughout the greater Middle East has fueled growing persecution of minority Christian communities. The Pew Research Center has charted extensive government restrictions on non-Muslim religions in numerous countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen and Algeria. Pew also has gauged very high social hostilities in Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

These government restrictions and social hostilities directed against Christians are causing many to flee the region. In the early twentieth century, Christians accounted for about 20 percent of the Middle East population, but now that figure is down to only 5 percent. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the “Arab Spring,” Christian communities throughout the greater Middle East find themselves increasingly besieged. While the United States seems to notice bits and pieces of this picture, the full magnitude of the horrific Christian plight is largely ignored.

Sieges against Christians in Lands “Liberated” by the American Military

A democracy enthusiast would anticipate that the Christian community would be thriving now that a “democratic” Afghan government was installed by American military power after the ouster in 2001 of the Taliban regime. After all, Afghanistan’s constitution, adopted in 2004, guarantees freedom of religion. But Afghan Christians today are compelled to worship in secret lest they be accused of apostasy for converting to Christianity from Islam, a charge punishable by death. Such persecution no doubt will grow after 2014, when American soldiers are largely gone and Washington is less able to influence the government in Kabul.

Across a troublesome border, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are wielded more and more aggressively against Christians by a weak civilian government propped up by Pakistan’s Islamized military and society. Christians, who make up only about 2 percent of Pakistan’s 180 million people, are living under growing fear of persecution and economic discrimination. The assassination in March 2011 of the only Christian minister in Pakistan, who bravely criticized harsh blasphemy laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam, has chilled the willingness of secular and liberal Pakistanis to speak out.


Iraq’s open warfare against its Christian community has led to a mass exodus of Christians from that country since the 2003 American and British military invasion ousted Saddam Hussein, whose repugnant regime was nevertheless relatively hospitable to Christians. Iraqi Christians are severely embattled by Sunni extremists linked to Al Qaeda and are discriminated against by Iraq’s Shia majority, largely in control of the government. Incidents such as the 2010 suicide bombing of Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, which killed fifty Christians and two priests, have terrified Iraq’s Christian population, which has dwindled to less than 500,000 from between 800,000 and 1.4 million in the time of Saddam.

Sieges against Christians in Lands Coping with the Arab Spring

The current Egyptian regime, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, poses a far greater threat to Egypt’s sizable Coptic Christian community than its authoritarian predecessor under Hosni Mubarak. A Coptic church in Cairo was set ablaze by Islamists in 2011 and many Copts—an estimated 10 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people—live in fear that Egypt is on the path to being governed by Islamic law, or Sharia. In early April 2013, Egypt’s police sided with an angry crowd of young Muslims throwing rocks and firebombs in a siege of Egypt’s major Coptic Cathedral. Nor have Egyptian Copts, who have sought work in neighboring Libya, fared well in the chaos that has reined in that country since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. Christians were shocked in December 2012 by the bombing of a church in Misrata, Libya. That attack has stoked fears that Libyan Islamists are growing in power and more such attacks against Christians are in store.

Islamists also are emerging as a powerful force in Syria, generating fears that, should they gain power, they would persecute Syria’s Christian community. About three hundred thousand Christian Syrians have already fled the country and are refugees. A Christian patriarch in April 2013 warned, “The future of Christians in Syria is threatened not by Muslims but by…chaos…and the infiltration of uncontrollable fanatical fundamentalist groups.”

Now Syria’s violence is spilling over into neighboring Lebanon. The Shia Islamist group Hezbollah is flexing its military muscles and lending support to embattled Syrian forces. Many Lebanese Christians have fled over the years due to civil war and, more recently, in fear that Hezbollah eventually will control the country and turn it into an Islamic state. Christians made up about fifty percent of the country in 1932, during the last national census, but now by some estimates are only 34 percent of the population. A similar trend has long been under way in the Christian Palestinian community, caught in the middle of the conflict between the Israelis on one side and secular and Islamist Palestinians on the other. The Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem has lamented that the Holy Land is fast becoming a “spiritual Disneyland,” with holy sites as theme park attractions bereft of worshipping Christians.