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Christians – the world’s most persecuted faith group

While Jews agonise over anti-Semitism and Muslims rail against Islamophobia, both of which are supposedly on the rise everywhere you look, remarkably little is being heard on behalf of arguably the world’s most persecuted religious group today, namely Christians. I say “arguably”, because anti-Buddhist persecution in Tibet and Myanmar/Burma is also an unhappy reality. Still, the scope of anti-Buddhist repression does not seem to match that being carried out against Christians, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East.

What is even more puzzling is that little is being heard from the Christian community at large about the outrages being perpetrated against their co-religionists elsewhere. In ages past, the mere rumour of Christians being maltreated was enough to whip up support for a punitive Crusade. As early as the 1850s, it was used as an excuse by Russia to go to war with the Ottoman Empire, thereby sparking off the Crimean War. Now, the silence is overwhelming. Even the Pope makes far less noise about it all than one would expect.

Anti-Christian persecution is primarily taking place in Muslim majority countries. Historically, this is a fairly new phenomenon. Christian and other minority religions have always been to some extent discriminated against under Islam, but in general its adherents, so long as they acquiesced in their minority “dhimmi” status under the law, were left alone to practice their faiths. Their legal position in society may have been at a lower level, but so long as they “knew their place”, they were at least left alone. What is happening now is that they are being systematically hounded out of the lands they have occupied for many centuries, indeed from a time preceding the emergence of Islam.

Just from the rapidly declining numbers of Christians in Muslim majority states it should be obvious that something is very wrong. According to a US Department of State report on religious freedom, there are now just 85 000 Christians in Turkey, down from 2 million. In Lebanon, where they once constituted a majority, they now make up no more than one-third of the population. Once as much as half the population in Syria, they now constitute perhaps 4%. In Jordan, they make up 2%, when they were once close to one in five.

Especially ironical is how the US-led invasion of Iraq, rather than benefiting the Christian population, has had exactly the opposite effect. Once kept in check by the Saddam regime, hard-core Islamists have now been left free to persecute their Christian neighbours and have done so relentlessly. The massacre of 37 worshipers at Baghdad’s Sayyidat al-Najat Syrian Catholic Christian Church in October last year was just one of multiple incidents of anti-Christian violence in Iraq. That the law officially strongly opposes such acts makes little difference. In practice few are arrested, let alone punished, for attacks on religious minorities, even those involving murder. The impact of this undeclared reign of terror has been dramatic, with the Christian population — 1.4 million strong at the time of the 2003 Coalition invasion — dropping 50% in less than a decade.

For Egypt’s embattled Coptic Christian minority, the Arab Spring in their country has been a disaster. One of the worst cases of violence against them took place only last month, where the military killed dozens of Christians (inter alia, video evidence shows armoured-vehicles running over civilians) protesting the destruction of their churches. The response of Western governments has been one of studied apathy. Indeed, it has been alleged that US President Barack Obama’s top Muslim adviser blocks Middle Eastern Christians’ access to the White House.

Earlier this year, the mainly Christian Southern Sudan was allowed to break away to form its own independent state. Prior to this, however, and for many years, hundreds of thousands of Sudanese Christians had been massacred, ethnically cleansed in massive numbers or (literally) enslaved.

Anti-Christian persecution is happening in the Palestinian territories as well. In Gaza, assaults, firebombings, seizures of homes and businesses and death threats against Christians happen continually and usually with impunity. Today, barely 3 000 Christians remain there. The West Bank’s Christian population likewise has dropped sharply, even in Bethlehem, Christianity’s birthplace.

What is now happening to Arab Christians has already happened to Jews in those countries. In the 20 years following the establishment of Israel, the North African and Middle Eastern Jewish communities left en masse after being subjected to systematic, usually state-orchestrated persecution. Well over 95% of those communities and their descendants now live elsewhere. It was one of the 20th century’s forgotten enforced exoduses, and now it is happening all the time to Christians, likewise without eliciting much comment from the world at large.

Perhaps the muted response is due to Christianity having for so long been the flagship faith of the marauding West and itself associated with oppression, intolerance and aggressive proselytization. So far as religious persecution throughout history goes, it is the infamous Spanish Inquisition that has become most associated with the horrors people are capable of perpetrating in the name of the Almighty. Therefore, an element of schadenfreude might be at work. Still, persecution by Christians happened a long time ago. I doubt whether there is today a single Christian majority country in which non-Christians are in any way disadvantaged, let alone actually persecuted, for their beliefs.

In past centuries Islamic countries were noted for being distinctly more tolerant of religious diversity than their Christian counterparts, and certainly they never instituted anything so horrific as an inquisition to torture and burn their way to achieving religious conformity. It is only comparatively recently that a trend of systematic mistreatment against religious minorities — the Baha’i, for example, particularly in Iran — has taken root, but it is a devastating trend indeed. Just what exactly has gone wrong?

So far as for the Christian world’s abject response to all of this goes, a number of answers could be suggested. Among them are post-colonial white guilt and weakening belief among both the (Western) clergy and laity. Christianity, certainly in Europe and Anglophone countries, has been fighting a losing battle against secularism for well over a century and a half. Whatever the reason, Christendom seems paralysed and impotent.

There is only one Middle Eastern country where the number of Christians has grown since World War II, and that country, of course is Israel. Numbering just 34 000 people in 1949, its Christian community is now 163 000-strong, and is expected to reach 187 000 by the end of this decade. Are Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, his fellow liberation theologians and sundry liberal Protestant churches aware of all this, I wonder, and does the plight of Christians subjected to an increasingly aggressive and intolerant Islam bother them at all? Given how it is Israel they wish to boycott and not countries that tolerate and even orchestrate anti-Christian persecution, the answer is apparently “no”.

That’s the Middle East for you. Just when you think things couldn’t get any more bizarre, they do.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.