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Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

July 30, 2014

Christians in the Middle East: A Crucial Issue to Keep in the Forefront

Christians in the Middle East and North Africa are facing a crisis. Forced to leave their ancestral homes and abandon their churches or face death, the situation is truly harrowing. Pope Francis prayed for an end to Christian persecution in the Middle East after Christians were forced to flee the village of Mosul in Iraq following threats from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a jihadist militant group.

Mosul’s Christians (who had been in the Mosul for 1700 years) and had numbered over 30,000 dwindled to just a few thousands. Besides ISIS, other minority groups such as Yazidis, Shabaks, and Shiite Turkmen have killed a significant number of Christians in extrajudicial executions. They also destroyed churches and Christian symbols.

Christians have faced persecutions in the Middle East for centuries. After the seventh century Arab Muslim conquest of the Middle East and North Africa, the Christian population dwindled there until Christians comprised only ten percent of the Islamic Empire. Internally, the Great Schism of 1054 that caused a divide between the Eastern churches and the Western or Roman Church played a factor in limiting the number of Roman Catholics in the Middle East. However, many Roman Catholics did participate in the Crusades and some remained in the Middle East as a minority after the Crusades ended.

Then, in the thirteenth century, the Maronite Church (the largest Christian Church in Lebanon today) came back into communion with the Roman Catholic Church. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some members more Eastern Churches returned to communion with the Roman Church; for example, Greek Catholics, Syrian Catholics, Armenian Catholics, Coptic Catholics, and the Chaldean Catholic Church. In modern times, Chaldean Catholics have made up the largest Christian community in Iraq.

The number of Christians in the Middle East began to decline in the twentieth century. Why? Obviously, there has been a rise of more aggressive forms of Islam rather than forms that coexisted peacefully with Christians. Also, in the Holy Land, ten percent of the population was Christian prior to the foundation of the State of Israel. As Jews immigrated to the area, Christians emigrated away. Emigration and a declining birth rate have caused the number of Christians to fall to two to three percent of the population in Israel.

Unfortunately, whatever freedom allowed Christian communities in the past has come back to haunt them. That Christians were allowed by previous regimes such as those of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and Mohamed Morsi and his predecessors in Egypt to coexist peacefully may have become justifications for Islamic groups to consider Christians their enemies. These regimes were associated with Western imperialism. Christians are also facing attacks from militant Islamic groups in other parts of the world, particularly South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Nigeria.

Sadly, if nothing is done soon, Christians may disappear from the very lands that Jesus walked, the birthplace of the faith. The United States and European governments have not yet done much to advocate on Christians’ behalf:  Time Magazine correspondent Roland Flamini wrote:  “Christians see themselves as between a rock and a hard place. Arab fundamentalists increasingly see them as pawns of the West, while the West actually ignores their plight.”

Pope Francis preached to the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square: “Violence isn't overcome with violence. Violence is conquered with peace. Our brothers and sisters are persecuted, they are chased away."

Further Information

Daniel Estrin, “Christian Exodus from Middle East Shadows Papal Visit to the Holy Land,” Huffington Post.

Roland Flamini, “Forced Exodus: Christians in the Middle East,” World Affairs, November/December 2013.

Alissa J. Rubin, “ISIS Forces Last Iraqi Christians to Flee Mosul,” The New York Times, July 18,


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