This has been a difficult couple of years for Christians in the Middle East. There has been an increasing number of attacks on churches across the region, such as the attack on the al-Qiddisin Church in Alexandria, Egypt, on New Year’s Eve, which killed more than 20, and last November’s attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, which killed more than 50.
But will the recent wave of social uprising, in which many examples of Muslim-Christian cooperation have been reported, change the political topography of the Middle East for the good? Will the political changes improve the situation of Christians in the region? A quick glance at the last 100 years -- and present-day trends -- does not offer a promising picture.
In the last century, Middle Eastern Christians have faced three major tidal waves of persecution. First, after World War I rearranged political boundaries, the nation-states in the region set out to form homogenized nations and authoritarian regimes. This proved fatal for many, including more than a million Armenians (whose ancestors were one of the first groups of people to become Christians), who experienced what is widely seen as a genocide under Ottoman rule.
In some countries, such as Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, Christians eventually found opportunities to participate in the political and economic arenas, but in the 1960s a second wave of persecution emerged, which proved to be the start of large-scale exclusion of Christians in their homelands. Emerging political Islam and its appeal among disillusioned masses, which put immense pressure on ruling secular elites, also unleashed a twofold pressure on Christians. They continued to face pressure from their governments to assimilate or accept a rigidly circumscribed minority status, and now they also faced strong grassroots movements that demanded countries be based on the creeds of Islam. Thus, while in the early 20th century one could have been a Christian and a proud Egyptian, this second wave claimed that to be an Egyptian was to be a Muslim, and that non-Muslims were simply aliens.
The third wave of persecution Christians are facing in the region began with the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The prior two waves managed to exclude Christians from their societies and deny them almost all human rights under international law. The third wave has made them easy targets for militant groups; local Christians are now trapped by global fault lines entirely beyond their control.
Facing terrorist attacks, day-to-day denial of equal access to jobs, housing, education, and protection, and conspiracy theories blaming Christians for everything that is wrong in the Middle East, it is no surprise that Christians are fleeing the region in large numbers. If the trends continue, Christians will disappear from much of the Middle East within our lifetime.
How the current uprisings may affect this is uncertain, but one thing is clear: It is high time for the global church to speak up for their brothers and sisters -- by joining in the efforts of organizations that promote religious freedom, by partnering with the churches in the region, and by prayer. As their countries are going through dramatic changes, Christians in the Middle East, now more than ever, need to know that they are not alone and that they are not forgotten.
Ziya Meral is an expert on religious freedom in the Middle East and a Joseph Crapa Fellow at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.