Christians are one of the primary civilian targets of the Islamic State terror group, which has threatened to eradicate minorities from within the territories it controls and beyond, even as the Christian population in the Middle East has been on a steep decline.
Most recently, Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL, vowed to slaughter Christian Arabs in Jerusalem, saying its militants will “clean this country and the Muslim Quarter from these Christians during this holy Ramadan.” Although the Sunni terror group doesn’t have a known official branch in Israel, the threat issued points to its agenda, ambition and targets.
In June, ISIS kidnapped 88 Eritrean Christians in Libya. In May, ISIS captured Ethiopian Christians and executed them, three months after it beheaded 21 Egyptian Copts.
Christians in the Middle East accounted for about 20 percent at the start of the 20th century, and their number has reduced to about 5 percent. And many of those who remain are now facing the jihadists’ “convert-or-die” policy, especially in Iraq and Syria.
Syria had about 1.1 million Christians before 2011, and more than 700,000 of them have fled the country due to attacks by ISIS and other groups. Iraq had over 1 million Christians prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion, and now their number has come down to less than 200,000. And most of them have fled to regions in the north under Kurdish control, which, too, is now facing a serious threat from ISIS as it has captured Mosul.
Last week, the U.S.-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations invited experts to discuss “The Future of Religious Pluralism in the Middle East.” One of the questions they explored was whether minorities, including Christians, are on the brink of extinction in some parts of the region.
It is “certainly within the realm of possibility,” said panelist Andrew Doran, Special Advisor at the U.S.-based In Defense of Christians group.
The possible fall of Damascus, he explained, giving an example, would lead to mass migrations, that of the Druze to southwestern Syria, of the Alawites and Shiites to northwest Syria, and of Christians to Lebanon. “And there would be mass slaughter along the way if this were to happen, because if Damascus would fall, you could reasonably foresee that Aleppo and Hams would fall, and Lebanon would become suddenly very vulnerable.”
He went on to state, “It is entirely possible that the very worst for Middle East Christianity lay ahead… in the foreseeable future.”
The other two panelists – Faith McDonnell, Director of the Religious Liberty Program, Institute on Religion and Democracy, and David Saperstein, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, U.S. Department of State – agreed with Doran.
The safety of Christians is closely linked to the ongoing geopolitical power struggle between Sunni Muslims and Iran-backed Shias in the region, which created space for ISIS to establish its alleged Caliphate in western Iraq and eastern Syria. And thanks to ISIS propaganda and false portrayal of power, many terror groups from Africa to South Asia have professed allegiance to it.
ISIS, which was founded in 2006 as an al-Qaeda offshoot, identifies with jihadi-Salafism, a regressive movement in Islamic political thought that is supported by many around the world. Its leaders are known for having anti-Shiite views and for advocating strict application of Islamic law.
In its English propaganda magazine “Dabiq,” ISIS recently sought to give religious basis for its barbarity, saying it is “Islamic” to capture and forcibly make “infidel” women sexual slaves.
“Before Shaytan [Satan] reveals his doubts to the weak-minded and weak hearted, one should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffar [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shari’ah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Qur’an and the narration of the Prophet … and thereby apostatizing from Islam,” an article in the magazine said.
While the United States claims it is seeking to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, hardly any expert believes it is possible in the near future, given Washington’s extremely cautious policy towards the terror group in Iraq and Syria.
It is, therefore, difficult to say whether ISIS would cease to be a threat to Christians and others in the near future. And opinions are divided over how to save the endangered Christian minority from its attacks.
Some believe that the Christian presence needs to be preserved in the region that is known as Christianity’s cradle, while others say Christians’ safety should be the top priority in any strategy to deal with the ISIS threat.
In a recent article, Nina Shea, director of U.S.-based Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, wrote: “The only achievable strategy under the current circumstances is to prepare for an orderly resettlement of these Christians (and Yazidis) in the West. It is a bitter development for the Church and for them, being discarded after 2,000 years of history, through no fault of their own. But it is the most humane of the alternatives. Otherwise they face indigence and exile or, worse, slaughter at the hands of jihadists.”
Either way, the international community needs to deal with some urgent needs. For example, the displaced Christians must be protected from further attacks and supported with basic needs, and a system should be in place to help them recover their property that they left behind if and when they are able to return to their areas. There is also a need to foster hope for inclusive governance wherever there are civilian governments.
Christians in the region have expectations from the international Christian community. As Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad recently said, “We feel forgotten and isolated. We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West? Would they do something then?”
Let’s hope, pray and make our best efforts so that Christians in the Middle East would not feel forgotten in their most difficult time.
World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) sponsors this WEA-RLC Research & Analysis Report to help individuals and groups pray for and act on religious liberty issues around the world. WEA has a consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council.
This report was researched and written by Fernando Perez, and moderated by the WEA-RLC Executive Director, Godfrey Yogarajah. It can be used for distribution or publication with attribution to WEA-RLC. To receive this report as a monthly newsletter, subscribe here. For more information on the Religious Liberty Commission, go to: www.worldea.org/rlc