By Sabrina Ferrisi, Legatus Magazine
The Middle East is experiencing a new kind of exodus. This time it’s Christians who are leaving the region in droves, driven out by Muslim fundamentalists. Christians make up less than 5% of the population today, down from 20% in the early 20th century, according to a 2010 BBC report. If the exodus is not stopped, it will empty the Middle East of the oldest Christian churches on the planet.
The Vatican reported in May that a staggering 100,000 Christians around the world are martyred annually for their faith, and human rights groups claim such anti-Christian violence is on the rise in Muslim-dominated countries like Iraq, Syria and Egypt.
Iraq, Syria and Egypt
“The biggest exodus is from Iraq and it has been taking place over the last 10 years,” said Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute. “Many have gone to Syria and they are now caught up in the situation there.”
Most Iraqi Christians come from the Chaldean Catholic Church, one of the oldest of the Eastern churches. In October 2010, a brutal massacre in Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Church left 58 dead and 100 taken hostage. Today only a handful of Christians remain in the Iraqi capital.
At the time of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Iraq was home to 1.3 million Christians; today there are less than 200,000, according to Michael La Civita of the Catholic Near East Welfare Agency (CNEWA). “Since the 2004 insurrection in Iraq, there has been a rise of extremist groups. Christians are middle class with disproportionately more money. When people break out of jail, they look for people with money. Christians are also attacked because they are seen as agents of the West.”
Similarly, Iraq’s neighbor to the northwest, Syria, has been plagued by civil war since 2011. Although few are safe in the war-torn country, Christians — who comprise 10% of the population — have become a target for radical Islamic groups. Two Syrian bishops were kidnapped in April near the Turkish border, putting all Syrian Christians on high alert. It’s believed that up to 300,000 Syrian Christians have already fled to Lebanon and Turkey.
Since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was deposed in 2011, the situation has worsened for Egypt’s 10 million Christians. Most are Coptic Christian — an Oriental Orthodox church not in communion with Rome. Copts are the largest Christian community in the Middle East.
“The situation has just deteriorated,” explained La Civita, a Knight Commander of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre. “It was not good to begin with. Now there is a power vacuum. Any minority is in jeopardy.”
Under Mubarak, radical groups were oppressed. With Mubarak’s removal, militant Muslim groups have become stronger.
“There are reports that 100,000 Christians have left Egypt,” said Marshall of the Hudson Institute. “Some have gone to the U.S., and quite a few have gone to the country of Georgia.”
Attacks on the Copts have doubled over the past three years. Egypt implemented a new constitution last year based on Islamic law which criminalized blasphemy. About 40% of all accusations of blasphemy have been leveled against Christians.
There are 150,000 Christians living in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and about 500 Christian families leave every year.
Father Peter Vasko, president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, recalled one conversation he had with a Palestinian youth who wanted to move abroad.
“I asked him, ‘What would make you stay?’ And he said, ‘We need a college education. We want to become professionals,’” Fr. Vasko explained.
The Franciscans, custodians of the holy sites in the Holy Land for the last 800 years, decided to do something about it. They set up a foundation for college scholarships in 1997, which has already doled out $4 million. Their applicants are poor Christian Palestinians or Israeli Arabs. Students receive $6,000 per year and must attend one of six local universities. They must also promise to stay in the region.
“Seventy percent of these kids become dentists, engineers, lawyers, architects, nurses or work in the pharmaceutical business,” Fr. Vasko explained. “They give hope to our society and they give back.”
Besides the university scholarships, the Franciscans offer 14 other programs to help Christians in the area with vocational training, housing, child sponsorships and musical scholarships, among others.
The Catholic Church’s aid to the region can be traced back to Pope Pius XI’s efforts in 1926 and Pope Paul VI’s 1964 trip to Jerusalem.
“If possible, the Church wants Christians to stay in the region,” said Marshall. “The Coptic Church, Orthodox, and Catholic Church seek to provide whatever aid it can locally.”
CNEWA, which works under the auspices of the Holy See, is active in the region. With offices in Lebanon and Jordan, they have been providing aid for decades to religious organizations throughout the Middle East.
One of the biggest complaints analysts have is that Western Christians are seemingly unaware of what’s happening to their brothers and sisters in the Middle East. They say it’s likely the result of poor media coverage and geography.
“Christian churches need to highlight this issue,” Marshall said. “European churches are more outspoken — perhaps because they are closer and have more historic ties.”
The analysts we spoke to for this article agree that the U.S. government does little to aid Middle Eastern Christians. The State Department has an office for religious freedom, which is rarely mentioned by the news media.
Legislatively, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) introduced a bill earlier this year — H.R. 301 — that would create a special envoy to promote religious freedom for minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia.
Ultimately, however, the situation for Christians in the Middle East is increasingly desperate. Fleeing the region seems to be the only, if painful, solution. But many Christians, with a little help, will do anything to stay.
“In Israel, as you drive through, you often see olive trees in some people’s yards,” said Steve Ray, Catholic apologist, author and Israel pilgrimage guide. “The Palestinian Christians have a saying that they are like the olive trees. When the Persians killed them, they were pruned, but the fruit was better. All through history the Christians in the Holy Land have been pruned. So now, even though it is hard to stay, they will stay, be pruned, and bear good fruit.”