In a disheartening report on the state of Christians worldwide, Aid to the Church in Need warns that as persecution and conflict continue to threaten and dislocate Christian communities, the Christian presence throughout the Middle East may be brought to an unwilling end within 10 years—even sooner in particularly troubled states such as Iraq.
The analysis, “Persecuted and Forgotten? A report on Christians oppressed for their Faith 2013-2015,” assessed the deepening plight of Christians in 22 countries. ACN researchers reviewed a “pattern of events” driving an “ethnic cleansing” of Christians over a large geographical area in the Middle East and Africa. The status of Christians globally has deteriorated significantly since the last ACN report was issued two years ago as persecution and violence against Christians accelerated in hot-spots like Syria, Iraq and Nigeria.
The contraction and displacement of Christians has been driven by the well-founded fear of genocide after a number of well-publicized and brutal attacks conducted by Islamic State militants, described in the report using the Arabic “daesh,” and other extremists groups like Africa’s notorious Boko Haram.
“Persecution has emerged as a key factor in a global upsurge of forcibly displaced people,” the report notes. The numbers of internally displaced people and refugees, in fact, hit an all-time record high of nearly 60 million in 2014, according to the UN.
“With people fleeing their homes as never before, Christians are fast disappearing from entire regions—most notably a huge chunk of the Middle East but also whole dioceses in Africa. In large part, this migration is the product of an ethnic cleansing motivated by religious hatred. This systematic violence and intimidation is to a large degree the work of militant Islamists – terror groups which have apparently appeared out of nowhere and exercise a potency and a cruelty far greater than that of the radical organizations from which they have sprung.
Daesh and other movements which have “acted strategically to instill a fear of genocide, a threat made real by the massacre of specific Christian groups,” has prompted hundreds of thousands of Christians to flee.
“It is a primary cause in the contraction of Christianity—changing from being a global faith to a regional one, with the faithful increasingly absent from ever-widening areas. …The regions the faithful are emigrating from are frequently those where until barely a generation ago Christians were both numerous and influential.
According to the report, the vast exodus of Christians from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East “highlights the very real possibility that Christianity could soon all but disappear from much of its ancient homeland.” Aid to the Church in Need researchers found that Christians in Iraq now number as few as 275,000. They add, “Many, if not most, of those who remain want to leave Iraq.” Up to 50 percent of Christians who remain in Iraq have been internally displaced within the last 18 months, according to ACN—“the sack of Christian Mosul and Nineveh arguably tearing the heart out of the Church’s presence in the country.
The report tracks the persisting decline of Christians in Iraq—there were about 1 million in 2003; 700,000 in 2006; and in 2013 below 300,000. ACN researchers say about 60,000 and 100,000 leave each year, adding that “unless there is a change for the better, Christianity will be all but extinct in Iraq within five years.”
And the dwindling population which remains “may yet find the contraction of the native Christian community and the continuing pressures too much to bear.”
Father Douglas Bazi works with displaced Christians in Erbil. As a victim himself of a kidnapping orchestrated by an Al Qaeda group in Baghdad, he is well aware of the anxieties that afflict Iraqi Christians. Still he hopes the majority of those he servies in northern Iraq will remain and rebuild their lives. “We are here to serve,” he told ACN researchers. “I cannot force the people to stay—there is no eleventh commandment saying ‘Do not leave.’”
Iraq’s Christian diminishment is being replicated, according to the report, in Syria, parts of Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa.
ACN warns, “If the situation does not improve, Christianity is on course for extinction in many of its biblical heartlands within a generation, if not before. The prognosis for the Church’s survival in parts of Africa is almost as bad. It is this theme—religio-ethnic cleansing powered by the well-publicized threat of genocide—that emerges as a predominant finding in this 2015 edition of ‘Persecuted and Forgotten?’
“Such an exodus has profound consequences, reaching far beyond the Christian community,” ACN says. “The absence of Christians represents a crucial societal, organizational and cultural rupture with the past. Breaking from a process towards pluralism, this emptying of Christians from regions which had been their home for centuries, is bound to be seen by future historians as a decisive move towards religious totalitarianism.” Noting that Christians often serve a social role as bridge builders between other Middle East communities, the report warns that the disappearance of Christians is a threat to regional social cohesion.
But the threat to Christians is not limited to nations in the Middle East or Africa troubled by Islamic extremists. Christians are also facing renewed persecution in China and North Korea, according to ACN. “Totalitarian regimes such as those in China and North Korea have put Christians under pressure due to the perception that Christianity is linked to the West [and] seen as corrupt and exploitative by communist states.”
According to ACN, Christians face extreme persecution in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, China, Vietnam, Nigeria, Sudan, Eritrea. States where Christians endure moderate to high persecution include Egypt, Turkmenistan, Kenya, Belarus, Ukraine, India and Indonesia.
The report described Islamic extremism as by far the gravest threat to Christian communities, which are often caught in the geopolitical and actual crossfire between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, but it also noted that the world’s Christians, who amount to 75 to 80 percent of the contemporary victims of religious persecution, face threats from other faith groups. “In some countries, Christianity was considered offensive to an increasingly numerous and influential radicalized religious elite who perceived the religion as a threat both because of its faith content and also because of its links with the colonial era.” Christians have been threatened or assaulted and their churches and facilities attacked or burned by Hindu radicals in India and nationalist Buddhist extremists in Burma and Sri Lanka.
Even in Israel, “the only country in the Middle East with a notably expanding Christian population,” attacks on church sites increased in number and ferocity. Church leaders described an arson attack by Jewish militants on Galilee’s Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves in June 2015 as part of an emerging pattern of attacks both in Galilee and elsewhere.
In North Korea the Kim regime carried out a fresh campaign of violence and other intimidation against the faithful as part of a clampdown on perceived dissent against “and the pseudo-religious ideology surrounding the Kim dynasty.”
The repression of Christians, ACN reports, include the killing of 33 Christians, accused of being spies. At least 10 percent of North Korea’s estimated 400,000–500,000 Christians are detained in labor camps and subject to torture, murder, rape, medical experimentation, forced labour, forced abortion and execution. ACN researchers not that in North Korea religious detainees routinely receive the harshest treatment.
The report concludes that Christian worshippers in China suffered the harshest persecution seen in over a decade in 2014: 449 church leaders were detained compared to 54 in 2013, and as of January 2015 Christian Solidarity Worldwide noted more than 650 incidents of government aggression in Zeijang province, involving the partial or full demolition of churches—many of which had already been registered and approved by the state.