Skip Content

The Middle East: Arab Spring, Christian winter

Young Syrians clamber over a tank on the streets in Syria

Young Syrians clamber over a tank on the streets in Syria

In the Middle East, the Arab Spring has placed unparalleled pressures on ancient Christian communities whose capacity to weather storms of violence and institutionalised discrimination has been tested to a degree not seen in modern times.

In recent years there has been the exodus of Christians in response to violence, economic disadvantage and cultural changes. The mass migration of faithful was also directly related to individual acts – and in some cases longer spells – of outright persecution.

This included bombing of churches, physical attacks on Christians' homes and shops and kidnapping (especially of women and in some cases, clergy), as well as public statements in the media and by militant groups, specifically aimed against Christians. An upsurge in anti-Christian violence and intimidation was one factor, perhaps even the dominant one, in a mass movement of Christians.

Christianity in Iraq on verge of descent into obscurity

After 2002, Iraq's Christian population quickly halved as people emigrated en masse in response to the ongoing sectarian conflict. The latest statistics show that Iraqi Christians still number at least 300,000, boosted in part by refugees returning from bomb-blasted Syria. That said, in spring 2013, Raphael I Sako, the Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad, specifically warned his faithful of the dire consequences of continued Christian emigration.

Speaking at his installation Mass, he told his congregation: "If emigration continues, God forbid, there will be no more Christians in the Middle East. [The Church] will be no more than a distant memory." A country whose Christian population stood at 1.4 million – larger than the number of practising Christians in Britain – now stood on the verge of descent into obscurity.

Iraq a blueprint for other countries

The threat that now applies to Iraq is at risk of happening in other Middle East countries which until now have also had a sizeable and vocal Christian community. This is the impact of the Arab Spring.

Syria, so recently the country of choice for Iraqi Christians seeking sanctuary, has now become the nightmare that the refugees thought they had left behind.

Exact statistics of the exodus from Syria are hard to find, as is only inevitable in a country in a state of protracted flux, but what has emerged is that the number of Christians leaving Syria is disproportionately high compared to other faith groups. Entire populations of predominantly Christian towns and villages around Homs suddenly fled for their lives in early 2012.

Violence against Christians was a factor hard to ignore in the widespread fighting that swept Syria. The grotesque murder of popular priest Father Fadi Haddad of Qatana near Damascus in October 2012 was followed in April 2013 by the kidnapping of two Archbishops from Aleppo, Boulos Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim. As the months dragged on with no news, fears increased that the prelates were dead.

But it was not just the hierarchy who suffered. Aid to the Church in Need staff met Syrian Christian refugees in Jordan who reported being told: "Don't celebrate Easter or you will be killed like your Christ."

By the summer of 2013, Syrian refugees were thought to have topped two million, a significant proportion of them Christians. Those willing to give their story described a desperation to seek a new life in the West.

Egypt and the impact of the Arab Spring

The focus of attention having switched from Iraq to Syria – both with decimated Christian communities – the spotlight then settled on Egypt. Already disenfranchised by the Islamist agenda of President Mohammed Morsi, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Christians' hopes of a fresh start after his July 2013 fallf rom power were soon dashed.

Violence against the country's Coptic Christians in August 2013 saw nearly 80 churches and other Church establishments attacked in the single biggest blow to the Middle East's largest Christian community, standing at about 10 million.

Already, 200,000 Christians had left the country since the fall of President Mubarak in February 2011. Many more are sure to leave and those who remain are likely to struggle to play a meaningful role in the development of a country whose future hangs in the balance.

A domino effect of violence

Christians in the Middle East are suffering from a domino effect of violence, which began in Iraq, spread to Syria and now overshadows Egypt, leaving the survival of the Church in jeopardy. Christians want out, and an end to the presence of the Church in its ancient heartlands is no longer a remote possibility but a very real and pressing threat. These circumstances apply both to countries with a (formerly) large Christian community and to those such as Yemen, where the faithful are few in number. 

Tagged with:

Anti-Christian violence - Church attack - Civil war - Exodus - Extremism - Humanitarian crisis - Islamism - Kidnapping - Persecution - War and conflict