Prospects of Christianity surviving in its birthplace, the Middle East, appear as grim this present time as they have at any time in the last two millennia.
Persecution of the world’s largest religion has intensified, especially in Muslim-dominated countries. Jihadists appear to have repeatedly carried out one of their oft-stated goals of erasing any trace of Christianity in some regions, while in others persecution against Christians and other religious minorities are being held at bay — for now.
The prospects facing Christianity in three of its longest-standing strongholds, Syria, Egypt and Iraq, vary significantly:
Egypt’s Coptic Christians make up around 10 percent of the population and have long been a target not only of Islamic extremists but the majority Muslim population’s resentment.
Coptic leaders have reported that since February 2011, after the election of a Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Morsi, as president, persecution worsened. Since then, at least 200,000 Christians have fled the country.
When a military coup ousted Morsi, many of his supporters blamed the Copts. As a result, violent incidents against Christians have steadily increased.
And while current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has made concerted efforts to protect the Coptic community, this year has shown some of the most violent attacks against Christians.
That is especially so in Egypt’s northern Sinai region, where the Islamic State is taking direct aim against Christians. Before 2011, that community numbered up to 5,000; it has now dwindled to fewer than 1,000.
“The Copts, like most Christians around the region, are victims of religious hatred. But they are also pawns in a larger game to destabilize ‘apostate’ Arab regimes and invite Western intervention,” Robert Nicholson, of the Philos Project, a US-based advocacy group for Christians in the Middle East, tells Fox News.
In 2003, Iraq’s Christian population was an estimated 1.4 million. Christians enjoyed relatively many civil rights and were able to rise to high levels in private and public life.
The Nineveh Plain region, also known as the Plain of Mosul, was a centuries-old homeland for the country’s Chaldean, Syriac and Assyrian Christians. Then the United States invaded Iraq, unleashing an orgy of sectarian violence that hammered churches. Christians fled the Nineveh Plain, and as of late last year the number of Christians in Iraq had fallen to an estimated 275,000.
One reason was ISIS. The terror group launched a pogrom against the church, as well as other minority religions. But today, a US coalition has eliminated the Islamic State’s chokehold on much of northern Iraq, including the city of Mosul.
Prospects for Christianity surviving in Iraq now turn on whether the Chaldean, Syriac and Assyrian believers will be allowed to return to their ancestral homelands. A majority of the Assyrian towns have been decimated.
“Everything is damaged,” Jalal, an Assyrian from the village of Karamles, told Fox News in December. “Houses have been burned by fire. There’s no water, no anything. People will only return if there is some sort of promise of protection.”
One proposal is to create a safe zone for Christians, an area that could evolve into a semi-autonomous region. Some groups favor a go-slow approach:
“It’s a little early to jump to safe havens,” David Curry, CEO of Open Doors USA, which monitors incidents of Christian persecution worldwide, tells Fox News. “They often wind up creating a bigger target.”
No matter if or how quickly Christians are able to return home, persecution of believers will remain a fact of life.
For a majority of the last century, this country has had a relatively sizable Christian presence, comprising at least 10 percent of the population.
Many of Syria’s Christians, known as Eastern Orthodox, have historically seen their country as an oasis of religious freedom compared to neighboring countries. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has long allowed churches to evangelize, publish religious materials and build sanctuaries.
The Christian population has also had access to education and employment, and many are more financially well off than their Muslim counterparts.
However, things may be growing worse. While many Syrian Christians do not want to become refugees, there is an underlying fear among the community that their country could have the same issues seen in Iraq if the regime is toppled.
Prospects for Syrian Christians will turn on whether the Assad regime survives and, if it does not, whether a successor government maintains the current regime’s protection of the church.