In the two millennia since the child’s birth in a humble manger in Bethlehem, the good news of Christianity has spread to every continent, inspiring more followers than any other religion today. But the lands that once were the cradle of Christianity have turned distinctively inhospitable to the faith. Fiercely intolerant variants of Islam are taking hold in the region, many of them fueled with ideology and funds from Saudi and Iranian extremists.
From Morocco to the Persian Gulf, we are seeing the rapid erosion of Christian populations, thought to now number no more than 15 million. These are the communities that have disproportionately been the region’s modernizers, the mediators bridging east and west, its educators and academics, as the Lebanese Catholic scholar Habib Malik observes. For empirical evidence he has to look no further than his own father, a principal drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The loss of Middle Eastern Christianity has profound meaning for the Church. But it should not be a matter of concern to Christians only. These Christian communities, along with a handful of other non-Muslim minority groups, such as the Bahais, Mandeans, Yizidis, Jews, together with the anti-Islamist Muslims, are the front-line in the terrible worldwide struggle taking place today between Islamist totalitarianism and individual rights and freedoms. The extinction of these ancient church communities will lead to ever more extremism within the region and polarization from the non-Muslim world. This will hurt us all.
The new religious survey, Freedom in the World, produced by the Center for Religious Freedom shows that while some Muslim governments do respect religious freedom, none are to be found in the Middle East. Israel is the only “free” country, and their Christian numbers are increasing.
The survey ranks Jordan, Oman, Morocco, and Lebanon as “partly free.” Here the Christian populations are either miniscule and largely foreign, or, in the case of Lebanon, shrinking precipitously from majority to about a third of the population in recent decades.
The rest of the region is further down the freedom scale. In Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, and Tunisia there are virtually no indigenous Christian communities left, though some converts there carry out religious lives in the catacombs and expats quietly hold services. In Saudi Arabia, religious intolerance is official state policy.
Over half of Iraq’s one million Christians have fled since a coordinated bombing of their churches in August 2004 was followed by sustained violence against them. A Catholic Chaldean bishop raised the possibility last month that we may now be witnessing “the end of Christianity in Iraq.” Anglican Canon Andrew White, who leads a Baghdad ecumenical congregation, agrees: “All of my leadership were originally taken and killed — all dead,” he asserted in November.
Iraq’s Christian community, which dates from the Apostle Thomas, is not simply caught in the cross hairs of a sectarian civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. It is targeted for its non-Muslim faith — a reality U.S. policy fails to acknowledge. An extremist Sunni fatwa issued to Christians this year in a Baghdad neighborhood could not be clearer: “If you do not leave your home, your blood will be spilled. You and your family will be killed.’”