Christians disappearing from Syria, Iraq—a call for global intervention

THE CHRISTIAN EXODUS from parts of the Middle East has reached alarming proportions. It can only be stopped if the international community acts now. That is the conclusion of a new report on Christian persecution published Oct. 23 by Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity.

The 2019 edition of “Persecuted and Forgotten?”, a biennial study of the persecution of Christians around the world, warns that Christianity is disappearing from towns and cities in the faith’s ancient homeland. Despite the defeat of ISIS, the impact of genocide has led to the hemorrhaging of great numbers of Christians from the region, says the report.

Inside St. Sebastian’s Church , one of three churches bombed Easter Sunday 2019; faithful surround blood-spattered statue of Christ.

There were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq before 2003, but by mid-2019 that figure had fallen to well below 150,000; by some estimates the number of Christians there may have fallen as low as 120,000—a decline of more than 90 percent within a single generation. In Syria, the size of the Christian population has fallen by two-thirds since the country’s civil war began in 2011, when Christians still numbered more than 2 million.

The report, which covers the period 2017-2019, notes that the international community has shown unprecedented concern about the persecution of the region’s Christians. But the report charges that “governments in the West and the UN failed to offer Christians in countries such as Iraq and Syria the emergency help they needed as genocide got underway.”

“Persecuted & Forgotten?” warns that the Church in the region could vanish if radical Islamists were to mount another attack on vulnerable communities—a threat highlighted by reports of jihadists escaping prison, as a result of renewed violence in northeastern Syria. The report concludes: “Were there to be another ISIS-style assault on the faithful, it could result in the Church’s disappearance.” However, says the report, “if security can be guaranteed,” there is every indication that Christianity could survive on Iraq’s Nineveh Plains and in Erbil, Kurdish Iraq.

The report finds that “an increasing unity of purpose between religio-nationalist groups and governments represents a growing—and largely unrecognized—threat to Christians and other minorities in India, Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar) and other core countries in South and East Asia,” where the persecution has worsened the most. In 2017, 477 anti-Christian incidents were reported in India. More than 300 people died—and more than 500 were injured—in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday 2019, when jihadists bombed three churches and three hotels.

In a number of African countries Christians are threatened by Islamists seeking to eliminate the Church—either by use of force or by dishonest means, including bribing Christians to convert to Islam.

In Nigeria’s north and in the ‘Middle Belt’ regions, Islamist militants continued a reign of terror against Christians and Muslims alike—3,731 Christians were reportedly killed in 2018. In other parts of the African continent, the main threat to Christians came from the state—in a 12-month period, more than 70 churches were attacked in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains; with 32 of these churches burned down.

Surveying the past two years, “Persecuted & Forgotten” also records instances of Christian persecution in Central African Republic, China, Egypt, North Korea, Pakistan and the Philippines.

The full report can be found here.

—John Newton