For two thousand years, the idea has been unimaginable, but now it seems more likely that Christians will no longer have a home in the region that gave birth to their faith. From the beginning of the church to the turn of the 20th century, Christians were a powerful force from Africa through Palestine and into central Asia.
Long before Christianity entered Europe, it was thriving in the Middle East and Asia, according to Baylor historian Philip Jenkins’ book The Lost History of Christianity. Jenkins traces the powerful Middle Eastern and Asian church from its peak in the sixth and seventh centuries to its near extinction today.
One word I use to describe attacks on Christianity, as well as other religious groups, is “religicide” – the "intentional, systematic, and institutionalized effort to eliminate a religious belief and its followers from a country or region."
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported “the flight of Christians out of the region (Middle East) is unprecedented and it’s increasing year by year. In our lifetime alone “Christians might disappear altogether from Iraq, Egypt and Afghanistan.”
There are examples of “religicide” in most of the countries in the Middle East today.
Late last year saw the extinction of Christians from towns and cities in Syria where churches had worshiped for two thousand years. Christians have been targeted both by supporters of the country’s president Bashar al-Assad as well as by Syrian rebels, many with extremist Islamic agendas.
One girl described her family’s escape from the devastated city of Homs last October. “We left because they were trying to kill us … because we were Christians. Those who were our neighbors turned against us. At the end, when we ran away, we went through balconies. We did not even dare go out on the street in front of our house.”
The family is among the estimated 4.25 million people in Syria who have had to flee their homes. Another 1.4 million have fled the country.
The Egyptian Coptic Church has survived 1,400 years under Muslim rule and been one of the most successful minority churches in the region. Christians make up as much as 10 percent of the population. Still, Coptic Christians have suffered under a spate of violence against Christians since the uprising that overthrew long-time president Hosni Mubarak. Dimiana Abdul-Nour, an Egyptian Christian teacher, was arrested for allegedly insulting Islam (blasphemy) in her classroom. She later was released on bail. Egypt is witnessing a surge of blasphemy-related allegations since the coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood regime. Also, many Christians are leaving the country due to the increase in persecution and the poor economy.
Sectarian violence following the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein caused more than half of Iraqi Christians to flee. Open Doors estimates in its 2013 World Watch List that only 330,000 to 350,000 Christians are left in Iraq. There were more than 1.2 million Christians 20 years ago. Charles J. Chaput, Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia and former member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, writes of the destruction of Iraq’s Christian minority: “Patriarch Sako, elected earlier this year to lead the Chaldean Catholic Church, recently noted that in the past, ‘There were 300 churches in Iraq, and now there are only 57 left. Even those that remain are targets.’”
Political uprisings have given opportunity for radical Islamic groups to attempt to completely exterminate Christians from countries across the Middle East. In other Muslim regions, anti-Christian terrorism is becoming an everyday reality. In Arusha, Tanzania, a bomb exploded during a high-profile church service in early May. In Morocco, a governmental Islamic body issued a fatwa calling for the execution of Muslim converts to Christianity. Mali terrorists have forced thousands of Christians to flee their homes in the past year.
Even under modern Muslim rule, Christian minorities have been essential members of their societies. They have contributed culturally and politically in ways that have fostered inclusion into the modern world, rather than violence against it. Christians have resisted political oppression through non-violence, and have fostered peace among the region’s many ethnic and religious groups.
For Christians, the potential eradication of the church in the Middle East is more than a worrisome political trend. For two thousand years, Christians have served as witnesses to Jesus Christ among people who have an incomplete picture of the true person of Jesus. The church has served as a witness for Jesus through its growth and then through centuries of persecution and suffering. As the church dwindles, sharing the message of Jesus from Gibraltar to Jakarta will become more difficult. However, there is heartening news that many Muslims are coming to Christ in the Persian World, often through dreams and visions as well as social media and satellite television. But these Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) face a precarious life in their Islamic communities.
1 Corinthians 12:26 tells us that if one part of the Body of Christ suffers, every part suffers with it. Certainly we as Christians in the West need to be one with them.
Christians can help support the church throughout the Middle East in several ways. First, all Christians can pray for their brothers and sisters who are suffering -- and even facing death -- because of their witness for Jesus Christ. Go to www.onewiththem.com to find out how you can pray for them. Also, read and advocate on their behalf. To get the latest information about persecuted believers, go to www.worldwatchlist.us.
Jerry Dykstra is media relations director for Open Doors USA (OpenDoorsUSA.org, based in Santa Ana, California), the American arm of Open Doors International, a worldwide ministry supporting persecuted Christians since 1955.
Publication date: May 20, 2013