Christianity currently faces an existential crisis in its place of origin which is seeing an exodus of Christian migrants in the face of persecution and substantial socio-economic decline. The crisis is being overlooked or ignored by many states of Christian heritage and even by many churches. Few institutions have taken the opportunity to extend an interest in the crisis sufficient to alleviate the situation for the native Christian communities.
Since the emergence of Islam in the seventh century Christians in the Middle East have been persistently challenged to maintain their faith and communities in the region. However, in all the years of sometimes tense encounters, sometimes open conflict, and often relative inter-communal peace the Christians have never faced such a crisis as they have in the present. Since the end of the Cold War there has been a persistent struggle to retain a critical mass of population sufficient to retain more than a token presence and capable of acting in a variegated manner throughout Middle Eastern societies.
In the contemporary context the Christian presence can, to many observers, seem as something of an anachronism with the Middle East perceived as a Muslim ocean with an island of Judaism. Whereas to the late eleventh/early twelfth centuries the Christians formed the largest religious body in the region even despite the emergence of Islam and its political dominance since the seventh century.
The numbers of Christians who have departed the region in more recent times and particularly since the rise of Da’esh/ISIL in 2014 to Iraq and Syria are challenging to accurately outline and this has inhibited the Christian demographic decline being taken more seriously. However, some estimates are available with perhaps the most badly affected communities those in Iraq: as of 2017 possibly up to eighty percent of all Christians have left since the 2003 invasion (about 750,000 people). Nevertheless, given the rate of change and the ongoing conflict in Iraq since the Coalition invasion exact figures are very difficult to compile. When looking at the region as a whole the relative proportion of the size of the Christian population compared with Muslim and Jewish communities in the region give us some idea of the scale of the problem and its implications for the long-term viability of the Christian presence. Up to a third of all Jews and twenty percent of all Muslims reside in the Middle East whereas less than one percent of all Christians are resident. The implications for Christian identity are serious: with no more than a token presence in their place of origin Christians internationally are weakened in their metaphysical sense of self. By way of comparison could Islam as a religion sustain itself without access to Mecca or Medina or Judaism to Jerusalem?
The nature of the crisis
Christians in the post-Cold War era have the distinction of being a largely forgotten community in the Middle East. Whereas others have gained the patronage of major external powers and a voice internationally the Christians of all the major monotheistic religions have lost out and lack a wider support for their presence.
The crisis could have been inhibited or at least the situation alleviated if a wider response had been more effectively co-ordinated. However, Christians in the Middle East since the mid-twentieth century have also been held back by a reluctance to speak in unison with only sectional interests or one or other community being represented in media and popular narratives. We might think of the Maronites in the Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt as being the Christians most popularly referenced but this can ignore the presence of substantial numerical minorities of Christians to nearly every other state in the Middle East particularly in Palestine-Israel, Jordan, Iran, Syria and Iraq.
Another challenge facing Christians is that when they are referred to they are also perceived as being slightly unusual and not fitting within the supposed “real” nature of the Middle East. This issue is related to the overwhelming loss of an appreciation for plurality as normative to the region and the huge growth in Islamic and Jewish Studies in academia and a subsequent narrative in the mainstream media which supports dichotomous views of the Middle East (Arab-Persian, Jewish-Muslim, Sunni-Shia etc) but which denies the Christian presence and fails to portray the challenges of the Christians and the need for increased focus on these once great but now struggling communities. This is, to say the least, unfortunate and in part as derived from a misplaced sense of Western liberal guilt within the academy about studying Christianity and a preference, instead, for knowing the other. Whereas, in reality, the Christians are as eastern and at home in the region as any Muslim community if not more so given their antecedence to the Middle East. This awareness of religious plurality may be better understood in the wider eastern Christian context and explains at least in part why the Russian state and church have been able to more effectively respond to the Christians’ challenges in the region particularly in Syria since September 2015. Indeed, aside from a few and often notable state and church actors the international Christian response to the crisis has been very weak and often highly ineffectual.
Paucity of Western Christian responses to the crisis
I suggest the absence of a wider response to the crisis can be related to four factors:
– The loss of a sense of public Christianity in what were once broadly Christian states in the West and thus interest in responding to those of shared religious tradition internationally
– The diversion of and popularisation of contemporary Christian interests to matters outside of issues of survival or countering physical persecution e.g. questions of sexuality, socio-economic affairs and climate change.
– A broad lack of religious literacy and assumptions about the homogeneous character of the Middle East.
– An unwillingness for states to engage with more than one or two narratives in the Middle East. There is a tradition of, for example, the British government being able to comfortably engage with Turkish interests since the Crimean War and Sunni led Gulf States since the late nineteenth century but it has struggled to deal with plurality when present to the region such as in Syria and Iran.
One key actor and which could make a significant difference to the overall direction of external Christian efforts to alleviate the crisis is the Holy See. However, since the start of the pontificate of Francis I there has been a lack of concerted effort and indeed real policy developed to meet the challenges of the situation. Under John Paul II and Benedict XVI Vatican foreign policy and interest in eastern Christianity was more sharply focused based on the former’s interest in ending Soviet rule and raising awareness of Christianity in eastern Europe and Russia. Whilst the latter held a strong interest in sustaining the Christian presence to the Holy Land and determining realistic means for Christians to survive in predominantly Islamic societies and cultures. That being said given Pope Francis’ February 2016 meeting with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, in Cuba it might be thought that a closer level of co-ordination to support the Christians of the Middle East could be forthcoming — a practical ecumenism which sees the joint efforts of the principal figures in eastern and western Christianity directed towards highlighting the Christians’ plight and seeking action from those states now committed to interventions in the region and raising awareness of the particular difficulties of the Christian communities. Nonetheless, action is required now and on a wide scale if the Christians are not to be reduced to a token minority, further forgotten in the West or only to be known via museum exhibits.
Kristian Girling, PhD is a researcher and writer with expertise on Christianity in the Middle East.