The problems of the Christian community in West Asia are very complex. The recent political upheavals in the region, particularly in Syria and Iraq in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, have further complicated and aggravated the situation for the already dwindling community. Iraq is home to the world’s ancient Arab Christian communities and had a sizeable Christian population of nearly 1.2 million prior to the American invasion in 2003. Ironically, after the occupation of Iraq by American-led allied forces, the rise in attacks on churches and Christian institutions by extremist groups has become unprecedented. The American invasion has aggravated the perception of Christians being the agents of the United States. According to church sources, the Christian community in Iraq has now been reduced to a population of 4,50,000. This is largely due to the absence of a democratic and secular political system.
ISIS threat Presently, the strengthening of Islamic militant groups, particularly the ascendancy of the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has led to the mass exodus of the Christian community from Iraq. Ever since the establishment of the Islamic State, ISIS has stepped up its attacks against the Shiite, Christian and Yazidi communities. Mosul, which is the stronghold of ISIS, is one of the ancient Christian cities in the region and is believed to be the birthplace of the Biblical prophet Jonah. Ironically, since the beginning of June, ISIS militants have torched hundreds of Shia tombs and churches including the tomb of Jonah. Hundreds of Christians and Shiites have been killed and women raped by extremist forces; nuns have been kidnapped from monasteries. Last month, ISIS issued an ultimatum to the Christian community — either convert to Islam, pay a religious tax or “ jizya ,” or die.
The ISIS declaration states that “we offered them three choices: Islam, the dhimma contract — involving the payment of jizya : if they refuse they have nothing but the sword.” Moreover, Christian houses, buildings and shops have been marked with the Arabic letter “N” as it stands for “Nazarene,” the Koranic word for Christians. At the same time, Shiite homes have been marked with the letter “R” which means “rwadish” (rejecters). This ultimatum has led to the mass exodus of the Christian population to the Kurdish cities of Dohuk and Irbil, which has invariably ended the centuries-old peaceful coexistence among communities and the fraying of the secular fabric of Iraqi society. Incongruously, ISIS has reiterated that there is no space for Christians in the Islamic State. Mosul, which had a sizeable Christian population of 60,000, has now been reduced to a few families. Iraq was one of the peaceful havens of Christian communities and has sent numerous bishops and patriarchs to various orthodox sects.
During my field research in West Asia, the common response of Iraqi nuns and priests of Bethlehem was: “We were very safe in Iraq under Saddam Hussein but the American occupation has made our position very horrible.”
In his recent appeal to the Iraqi community, the Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad pointed out that “Christian and Muslim blood has been mixed as it was shed in the defence of their rights and lands. Together they built a civilization, cities and a heritage.”
The situation is not as different in Syria, as ISIS first experimented with its fatwa to “convert, pay tax or die” in the Syrian city of Raqqa. Like Iraq, Syria is another West Asian country where Christians have lived peacefully for centuries. The al-Qaeda-oriented anti-regime rebels have attacked the Christian community mercilessly in many parts of Syria; hundreds of Christian properties and churches have been razed to the ground. In Syria, Christians have been accused of being the supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by extremists who have kidnapped two bishops belonging to the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. Their whereabouts are still unknown. Furthermore, most Christian cities like Aleppo, Homs and Ma’loula have fallen into rebel hands which has further intensified the persecution of the community.
Deep roots, ancient denominations West Asia is the birthplace of Christianity and home to some of the world’s most ancient Christian denominations — the Maronite Church, Greek Orthodox, Chaldean, Nestorian, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic, Assyrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic and so on. The Arab Christians are one of the main victims of the volatile and unstable political situation in West Asia. The colonial “God trick” of nation-state creation and the carving out of modern Arab states have made Arab Christians victims of a potent combination of colonial and ethno-religious geopolitics. Arabic-speaking Christians have been marginalised in the region due to various socio-political and historical developments like Islamisation, extremism, massive migration, poverty and terrorism.
The Arab Christian community has always boasted of a deep literary, cultural, spiritual and historical heritage and tradition. Today, it faces the threat of oblivion, with its rights getting trampled. The Christians were never lonely travellers in the Arab street. They have traditionally been connected with major socio-political movements like Pan Arabism, Ba'athism, Communism and the various West Asian liberation movements, including the Palestine Movement. The Christian community is an educated group with most of its members engaged in business and professional jobs, mainly because of its proximity to Christian missionaries, largely from Europe.
At present, the community is trying hard to prove its nationalism and allegiance to the West Asian movements as it is very difficult to identify itself with Islamic groups. A recent study shows that a majority of people in the community are planning to migrate to western nations out of a sense of fear and a lack of “belonging.” The conflict over reclaiming space and the Arab Christian identity in the region, especially in Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Iraq is therefore an issue of contemporary relevance in West Asian geopolitics and deserves a detailed examination for policy implications and peace negotiations here.
The Christians of Palestine/Israel were in the forefront of the Palestine movement and many paid for it with life and limb in the struggle. The Arab Christians are also victims of five decades of Israeli occupation, with the boundary wall between Israel and Palestine greatly affecting the Christian community living on both sides of the divide. Spitting at clergies by orthodox Jews, especially Yeshiva students, is a recurrent phenomenon in Israel. Many a Jerusalem clergy has been subjected to abuse of this kind.
Policies of the West The ever-increasing clout of Evangelical Christians of the West and their unqualified support for Israel has in recent years drowned out the voices of Arab Christians in West Asia, who are now subject to suppression by multiple forces. While Arab Christians are fighting Israel’s repressive measures, paradoxically, the white American churches in the U.S. are propagating the idea of a “Biblical Israel” and directly supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The notion of a Biblical Israel was coined by the American Episcopal Church in the 1970s and it also had the indirect support of the U.S. administration to justify enormous financial support to Israel. The conservative Christians in the U.S., particularly the Republican supporters, believe that the unequivocal support for Israel fulfils a Biblical injunction to protect the Jewish State. It is an insular and strategic philosophy to justify the occupation of Israel through the lens of the Bible, and American tele-evangelists often lay stress on this aspect. Hence, the parochial approach of western Christian groups further aggravates the volatile atmosphere for the Christian community back in West Asia.
The wayward interference of the West and the Israeli occupation of Palestine are the most important reasons for the terminal decline of Christian life and livelihood in the region. The West, with its short-term military gestures and quest for immediate pay-offs, has deepened the divide between the two communities which once lived peacefully in the region.
The unprecedented attacks on Arab Christians have resulted in the mass exodus of the community with thousands now having taken refuge in the Scandinavian, Latin American and European countries. The narrow policies of the West with hidden political interests have damaged the progressive and secular fabric of West Asian society to a great extent. The ancient Christian community is fast becoming extinct. If this trend continues, Christians will have no other choice but to leave en masse from their homeland.
(Ginu Zacharia Oommen is a junior fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teenmurti House, New Delhi.)