Islamists’ War against ‘the Other’
Under Islamist pressures, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians are vanishing from their ancient homelands.


Nina Shea

The majority are Egypt’s Copts, numbering between 8 and 12 million. A year ago, Coptic worshippers were massacred during a Christmas Eve attack on their church in Naga Hammadi in southern Egypt, and several Coptic villages have been targeted by pogrom-like mob violence. In recent decades, Lebanon’s Christians have seen a sharp drop in their numbers, down from the majority there to one-third of the population, about 1.5 million. Syria has about 1 million; Jordan, about 185,000. The West Bank has about 50,000, and Gaza, 1,000 to 3,000. In Turkey, the site of Constantinople, which was the center of Byzantine Christianity from the 4th to the 15th century, some 100,000 Christians remain, less than 0.2 percent of the population. Iran counts about 300,000 Christians. Not all those who have fled from Iraq have left the region. About 60,000 have found refuge in Syria, for example. However, their presence is tenuous: They are barred from working and aid from abroad is scarce; some of the women have turned to prostitution, according to the Chaldean Catholic bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo, SJ.

The Persian Gulf region and northern Africa have long since been “cleansed” of their indigenous Christian churches. Native Christians — mostly evangelicals, probably numbering in the thousands — worship largely in secret; Saudi Arabia has only one publicly known native Christian, the oft-imprisoned and extremely courageous Hamoud Saleh Al-Amri. Foreign workers, including over a million Christians, now living in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are denied rights of citizenship and, in the former, even the right to have churches. Morocco summarily deported scores of foreign Christian educators and social workers last spring.

The other religions have contracted even more sharply in the Muslim Middle East. Since the establishment of the state of Israel, some of the region’s Jews voluntarily left Muslim-majority countries; but as many as 850,000 of them, such as the Jews of Baghdad sixty years ago, were driven out, forced to leave land and possessions behind, by freelance terror and government policies. The parts of Iraq, Egypt, and Yemen that had been great Jewish centers since Old Testament times now have Jewish populations numbering in single, double, and triple digits, respectively. Estimates of Morocco’s native Jewish community, now the largest in the Arab Middle East, range from 2,000 to 6,000. Iran is home to 20,000 or so Jews. Turkey has 25,000.

Zoroastrians, based on the plains of Iran since their religion’s founding somewhere between 1800 and 1500 b.c. by the devotional poet Zarathustra, are estimated to number between 45,000 and 90,000. Iran scholar Jamsheed Choksy has documented (see “Religious Cleansing in Iran,” by Nina Shea and Jamsheed K. Choksy, July 22, 2009) a “steady decline through emigration away from Iran since the Islamic Republic’s intolerance toward minorities began in 1979.” Iran’s largest non-Muslim community is the Baha’i, founded after Islam in Shiraz, in southeastern Iran, and severely repressed as a heresy; Baha’is in Iran number about 350,000. Non-Muslim communities collectively have diminished to no more than 2 percent of Iran’s 71 million people.

Yezidis, who draw upon Zoroastrian beliefs, are found in northern Iraq; hundreds of thousands of them have fled in recent years, leaving half a million still in their native land. Sabean Mandeans, mostly based in Baghdad and Basra, are down to one-tenth of their pre-2003 population of 50,000.


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