In 2015 more Christians were persecuted than were the members of any other religious group in the world. Persecution has also been the primary cause for the global upsurge of forcibly displaced people. According to the United Nations, the number of internally displaced people and refugees abroad hit an all-time high last year of 60 million.
The impact of this deepening cycle of persecution has created the most significant exodus of Christian faithful in Middle Eastern history.
With huge populations fleeing their homes as never before, Christians are rapidly disappearing from entire regions – and not just in the Middle East, but also in Africa where several dioceses have emptied out.
In large part, this migration is the product of ethnic cleansing driven by religious hatred. This systematic violence and intimidation is mostly the work of militant Islamist terror groups, ISIS in particular.
ISIS’ ruthless pursuit of religious and territorial cleansing clearly fits the U.N. definition of genocide:
any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group and causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group. . .
The genocidal acts of ISIS are directed primarily against Christians. Their online publication Dabiq boasts: “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave women, by the permission of Allah.”
ISIS is led by ideological fanatics who blindly adhere to an extreme form of Salafi Islam that holds they are the only true Muslims. The sine qua non of this sect requires the caliphate to cleanse Islam of Shi’ism and infidels. According to Abu Bake Naji, a noted ISIS intellectual, this means the terrorists must employ jihad, defined as “nothing but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening people, and massacring.”
In Syria, this ISIS policy and the civil war are responsible for the deaths of over 250,000 people and the dislocation of 11.6 million – half the nation’s population. At least 3.9 million Syrian refugees are stranded in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. An astonishing 25 percent of Lebanon’s population now composed of Syrian refugees.
Yet most exiled Christians refuse to join refugee camps or to register with aid agencies – fearing that they will be harmed or kidnapped by Muslims. Instead, they rely on the aid of international Catholic relief organizations, such as Aid to the Church in Need, and fellow Christians to feed and clothe them and to educate their children.
ISIS hopes to erase the past, present, and future of Christianity. In 2015, churches have seen their infrastructures dismantled, ancient manuscripts and sites destroyed, and a rich patrimony jeopardized – a heritage centuries older than Islam.
Over 150 churches, pastoral centers, and monasteries have been damaged or destroyed in Syria, including the historic Church of St. George in Qaber Shamiya, which was first looted and then set on fire. The Armenian Apostolic Church of the Forty Martyrs in Aleppo was destroyed in response to events held by Christians commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
In Mosul, Iraq, its forty-five Christian churches have either been destroyed, turned into military installations, or converted to mosques. In January 2016, satellite photos confirmed that St. Elijah, the oldest monastery in Iraq, located on the top of a mountain outside of Mosul since 590 A.D., has been reduced by ISIS to a pile of rubble.
There has also been intense Christian persecution in other Middle Eastern countries; here’s an overview:
Iran: Christians have endured increased raids and arrests. The number of Christians in prison doubled in 2015, despite government promises to promote religious tolerance.
Saudi Arabia: This nation, which does not allow for any Christian churches, continues to have the worst record regarding abuse of religious freedom, and the new king has heralded an even more hard-line approach.
Sudan: President Omar al-Bashir stepped up his hard-line ultra-orthodox Islamist agenda. The number of Christians in Sudan continues to decline rapidly.
Turkey: Despite claims of government reforms, Christians are still treated as second-class citizens. Christians also fear the rise of radical Islamism in Turkey.
Egypt: Attacks on churches have declined since President Morsi left office, yet individual Christians continue to be attacked and killed.On January 7, 2015, President el-Sisi sent a strong message by attending a Christmas Eve liturgy alongside Coptic Pope Tawadros II at Cairo’s St. Mark’s Cathedral. He also condemned the violence of ISIS and other radical groups at a celebration of Muhammad’s birth. “[I]t’s inconceivable,” el-Sisi said, “that the thinking we hold most sacred should cause the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing, and destruction for the rest of the world.” The president’s words and gesture were momentous. Unfortunately, there has been little follow through by the Egyptian government in granting Christians basic rights.
As for Western governments, while many have condemned the Islamist radicals’ crimes against humanity, they have not implemented any effective plans to stop the violence or to ensure that Christians and other minorities receive protection or safe haven. Just the other day, however, the European Parliament did declare that ISIS is engaged in genocide and called on its member states to bring “protection and aid, including military protection and aid” to all targeted groups in conformity with international law.
But as most of the West passively looks on, many Middle Eastern Christians continue to stand their ground despite the hardships. The position of these struggling Christians was best characterized by the Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, the Most Reverend Jean-Clement Jeanbart:
We are confronting one of the most important challenges of our 2,000-year history. We will fight with all our strength and act with all available means to give our people reasons to stay and not to leave; we know the road ahead will be very hard; nevertheless, we are convinced that our beloved Lord Jesus is present in His Church and will never abandon us. We know that nothing can come between us and the love of Christ – and that through all these trials we triumph through the power of Him who loves us.