Terma Harrak had lived all of her 94 years in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. She was devoted to her Assyrian Christian church, spoke the language that Jesus spoke, communed at peace with her Muslim neighbours.
Then the U.S. invasion toppled Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003 and plunged her city into chaos. Three times, Islamist fanatics forced her to flee. Three times, she came back. But then the Islamic State known as ISIS or Daesh captured the city in 2014. Convert to Islam, they told her, or pay a fee (far more than she could afford) — or die.
It was not really a choice. With her daughter and her family, she collected identity papers and her jewels and escaped to Lebanon in the family car. They were lucky. Only hours later, other fleeing Christians were intercepted by jihadists who took everything they had, even their shoes.
Mosul used to be the largest Christian city in Iraq, with some two dozen churches in town and many more in the villages of the Nineveh Plains around it. All are abandoned. The 1,800-year-old Syrian Orthodox Church of St. Ephraim, emptied of its Christian symbols, has become a mosque. “There’s no more room for Christians in Mosul,” ISIS publicly announced, according to Syrian Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan.
Nor is there room in many other places in the Middle East. The proportion of Christians in the region has dropped from 13.6 percent in 1910 to 4.2 percent in 2010. Projections published in the Harvard Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy in 2014 predict Christians will be down to 3.6 percent in 2025. Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church joined in February in warning of a “massive exodus of Christians from the land in which our faith was first disseminated and in which they have lived since the time of the Apostles. . . . whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being exterminated.”
If the killing and the exodus continue, Christianity will all but disappear from its cradle.
How much does that matter? The Middle East was a battleground before and after the rise of Christianity. Some of its most important centres, such as Jerusalem, were under Muslim control by the ninth century. And descriptions of the reported ghastly treatment of Christians in Jerusalem stirred up support for the Crusades, just as the atrocities of the Islamic State have prompted the bombings of today.
Christians have been deserting the Middle East for decades, originally for economic reasons. Nobody noticed, until videos of jihadists cutting off Christian heads appeared on television. Now Christians are suffering — from invasions, civil war, militant Islamists — but no more than others, and less than Shia Muslims. Sometimes, they are just collateral damage in the sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The Middle East isn’t even the most dangerous place to be a Christian: that honour goes to Nigeria. More Christians were killed there because of their faith last year than in all the rest of the world, according to Open Doors, a non-denominational agency.
And yet, the Christian population in the Middle East matters to Ashraf Tannous, a Lutheran pastor in Palestine. A living Christian presence helps to preserve the biblical sites.
It also matters to Wendy Gichuru, the United Church’s program co-ordinator for Africa and the Middle East who is in regular touch with Middle East church leaders. She calls the situation “dire. . . . It’s a small community, and it’s frightened, like the small community 2,000 years ago.” The Middle East church is a “bridge between Islam and Christianity,” she adds.
And it matters to Phyllis Airhart, professor of the history of Christianity at Emmanuel College, University of Toronto, not so much because of the loss of Christianity’s “cradle” as the “loss of Christianity’s narrative of universality. . . . Its disappearance in a whole region is a symbolic blow.”
It was the apostle St. Thomas who brought Christianity in the first century to a region of Iraq then known as Assyria. Its people spoke Aramaic, the language of Jesus. They still do. Massacres are nothing new to them. When the Turco-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane came through in the early 14th century, he butchered tens of thousands of Assyrian Christians. The Ottoman Empire killed still more. “Some historians call our church the martyred church,” says Mar Emmanuel Yosip, bishop of Canada of the Assyrian Church of the East. “We can’t force anyone to stay. Everyone is free. But it’s a matter of the existence of the church.”
What’s happening to the Assyrian church now, under ISIS, means its death, says Amir Harrak, professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of Toronto (and the son of Terma Harrak). It’s more than a loss of religion, he says. “It’s loss of a way of living, of language, of culture, of mentality.” As its people are assimilated into other societies, he fears the Aramaic language they have preserved for 3,000 years will be lost.
Iraq’s 1.4 million Christians were no fans of former president Saddam Hussein, but under his rule they were safe. Since the U.S. invasion, more than a million have gone, and they’re not coming back. They have nothing to go back to, says Aneki Nissan of the Centre for Canadian-Assyrian Relations in Toronto. “Their homes are burned down; their churches are burned down. When a million Christians have been displaced or disappeared, that’s genocide by definition,” he tells me. But the problem is deeper than whether Christian villages can be rebuilt. It’s whether a Christian minority can ever again live peacefully with its neighbours in Iraq.
Christians aren’t the only victims in Iraq. Shia Muslims, seen as infidels, are the major target for fanatic Islamists, along with Shabaks, Sabaeans and especially the Yazidis, an 11th-century sect in northern Iraq that worships a peacock angel.
Christians have been in Syria for 2,000 years. Before the civil war broke out in 2011, they made up about five percent of the country’s population of 22 million. Jesus was known there even before Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus in AD 34, and it was Paul who established the first organized Christian church at Antioch, part of ancient Syria. It’s the purported home of the head of John the Baptist (which is also said to be resting in Rome, Turkey and France), the chapel of Ananias where Ananias cured Paul’s blindness, and the church of St. Simeon Stylites.
“We belong to all this history and all this civilization,” Jean-Clément Jeanbart, the Greek Melkite Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo, declared to the media last fall. “More than half of the city’s population left over the last four or five years.” Describing the daily onslaught violence, he told Express.co.uk: “If nothing is done, it is not impossible that all the Christians in Syria may be wiped out. There is a fundamental threat to Christianity from ISIS. They have killed plenty of us. There is an existential crisis.”
The Greek Catholic patriarch Gregorios III Lahan told the BBC last year the future of Christian Syria “is threatened not by Muslims but by . . . chaos . . . and uncontrollable fanatical, fundamentalist groups. . . . There is no safe place left in Syria.”
While the civil war imperils Muslim and Christian alike, it was the Islamic State that wiped out the Christian Assyrian villages near the Iraqi border. Homes and churches were burned, an estimated thousand people were killed and hundreds were captured for ransom or as slaves. Those who escaped fled to territory under government control. The constitution of Syria provides for religious freedom, and under its ruler Bashar al-Assad, that was more or less observed. In return, Christians, who tended to be better educated and more affluent, generally supported the government.
Thousands of Christians and Muslims have fled from Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial centre, and from Homs, its third-largest. The Catholic news service Agenzia Fides reports “ongoing ethnic cleansing of Christians” by the Free Syrian Army. It claims over 90 percent of the Christians in Homs had been expelled by militant Islamists going door to door, confiscating homes and belongings. Both cities have been bombed into rubble by all sides and have lost most of their infrastructure. Some Christian parishes in both are still functioning and providing services to the survivors, says Carl Hétu, director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association in Ottawa.
Whether the churches can ever recover is a question for Marie-Claude Lalonde, Canadian director of the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. “Almost everyone wants to leave,” she says. “Everybody used to get along. Can the relationship be reset?”
Israel and Occupied Palestinian territories
In Israel and
occupied Palestine, it’s not the Islamic State, or the periodic
violence, that is driving Christians out. It’s harassment. Life under
military occupation is hard, perhaps deliberately so. Christians and
Muslims in the West Bank face the same oppression, says Nora Carmi,
peace activist and retired Kairos Palestine staffer in Jerusalem.
Attacks by settlers on both churches and mosques have increased in the
past year. The Sea of Galilee church, where Jesus is said to have fed
the 5,000, was defaced by Hebrew graffiti and set afire last year.
Systematic closure of entrances to Jerusalem at Easter this year made it
impossible for Christians coming from the West Bank to worship as they
Palestinian Christians in the West Bank, Gaza and east
Jerusalem now number 50,000. About 120,000 Christians, mostly of
Palestinian origin, live in Israel proper.
Jerusalem itself has
seen a major exodus. In 1966, Christians numbered 25,000 in the city;
today, there are fewer than 9,000. If right-wing groups in Israel had
their way, there would be none. Last Christmas, Benzi Gopstein, leader
of the far-right Jewish organization Lehava, who had previously called
for the burning of Christian churches, called on “impure” Christians to
leave the Holy Land “before they drink our blood again.”
leave do so with regret, reluctant to abandon their people but
believing it is hopeless to stay. The result is a voluntary ethnic
cleansing that suits both the Israeli government and North American
Christian fundamentalists who believe Jesus will return once Jewish
people take over the Holy Land.
But they’re not all going. “The
church in the Holy Land started with 12 disciples,” says Carmi. “It will
survive. Though small in numbers, we continue to witness our faith. . .
. What is needed is ecumenical unity and a steadfast prophetic voice
condemning injustice and working for a just peace.”
largest population of Christians in the Middle East is in Egypt, nearly
all of them members of the Coptic Church. Mark the Evangelist founded
it early in the first century, and Coptic scholars in Alexandria were
dominant theologians in its early years. It too has its holy sites,
including the crypt where the holy family is said to have sheltered on
the flight into Egypt.
Over the last century, Christians have
been emigrating from Egypt, mostly for economic and social reasons; the
Christian population is now estimated at nearly eight million, or 10
percent. A branch of al-Qaida has chased Christians out of north Sinai,
but in the rest of the country they are uneasily safe under the current
strongman, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose polls indicate has high
Christian support. While freedom of religion is guaranteed in the
constitution, that does not include freedom to proselytize or to accept
converts, and it doesn’t necessarily apply in rural areas where, in
widespread attacks by Sunni Muslims in 2013, 40 churches were burned
down and dozens of others heavily damaged, sometimes while police stood
Are Christians in Christianity’s historic homes
experiencing genocide? The parliament of the European Union thinks so.
In February, it voted almost unanimously that the Islamic State is
“committing genocide amongst Christians and Yazidis” and “other
religious and ethnic minorities,” and adopted a resolution calling for
“urgent action.” It didn’t say what that might be.
for Christians in an election year was a no-brainer for the U.S. House
of Representatives. It voted unanimously in March — the only time this
year it has agreed about anything — to declare Middle East Christians
and other minorities victims of genocide. U.S. Secretary of State John
Kerry agreed, though there wasn’t any indication he would do anything
Canada waffled. In March, Chantal Gagnon, press
secretary for Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, stopped short of
calling the situation a genocide, saying only that “Canada strongly
condemns the crimes perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State,
including those committed against religious and ethnic minorities.” In
general terms, she added that Canada “is committed to preventing and
As for Canada’s ambassador for religious
freedom — a post created with much fanfare by the previous government
three years ago — he hadn’t been heard from before his job was quietly
abolished at the end of March.
And the United Church? In several
statements over the last three years, jointly with other churches, it
has deplored the “displacement and murder of historic Christian
communities” and warned that for its Middle East partners the answer is
not “violence that further fractures society.”
defined in a UN convention as acts “with intent to destroy, in whole or
in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The catch is
that, under the convention, if a state calls something genocide, then it
has to do something about it. The convention also assumes that it is
states that commit genocide. But what if the perpetrator is a non-state
movement like ISIS? And when others are suffering as much, or more, as
Christians, how can a prosecution avoid looking like a Christian crusade
Like most things in the Middle East, it’s
complicated. There’s a “level of nuance,” Gichuru says, that is not easy
to deal with. “It’s not just good guys versus bad.” Dictators in Iraq
and Syria protected Christians; when the U.S. toppled or attacked the
strongmen, violence against ethnic and religious minorities, including
Christians, ensued. And now, in offering Christian refugees sanctuary in
Canada, we may be inadvertently helping to empty Middle Eastern
Gichuru says church leaders in the region are telling
their people, “Do what is right for you, but stay if you can.” And
they’re telling those of us in the West that the best way to help is to
call off the bombs, work for peace and reconciliation, and support those
who are struggling on the scene.
Pastor Tannous puts it this
way: “The churches are dead stones. We are the living stones who are
carrying the treasure Jesus conferred to us. If we leave, who is going
to keep and save all these holy places? I am afraid they will become
museums for tourists to visit.”
What disturbs Airhart is “the
loss of hope that different faiths can coexist without fear of reprisal.
I worry that the alternative is ‘winner take all’ for the dominant
religion and persecution of others. Christianity in the Middle East, and
in many countries where it is the minority, will not fare well under
that scenario. . . . Those of us who take freedom of religion for
granted may not fully appreciate their loss — and ours, if we take
seriously the notion of the church as the body of Christ.”
Terma Harrak, she’ll never go back to Mosul. Safe in Lebanon, she waits
for permission to join a son and two daughters in Canada. She is 96
now. Her visa interview is scheduled for next year.
Patricia Clarke is a writer and editor in Toronto.