How much longer will the Middle East celebrate Christmas?
The birthplace of Christianity may soon be uninhabitable for its believers without reforms to help them survive.
(RNS) — Days before the start of Advent, mobs in a city 200 miles south along the Nile from Cairo burned Coptic Orthodox Christian homes and ransacked Christian businesses before attacking a church with stones and Molotov cocktails. Why? Because of a Facebook post that allegedly mentioned the Prophet Muhammad and the attackers found offensive.
These kinds of attacks are all too common in the Middle East. In addition to their neighbors, many Christians fear terrorist attacks by ISIS and al-Qaida, who are still carrying out beheadings and kidnapping women and children. Christians often face a Hobson’s choice: Align with a brutal dictator (as in Egypt or Syria) or be left exposed to these forces of discrimination and destruction.
It is poignant at Christmastime to consider that the birthplace of the Christian faith may become uninhabitable for its members.
The strain is evident. More than a million Christians have fled Iraq’s once robust community over the past decade after years of instability following the U.S. invasion and ISIS horrors. Next door, Syria’s ancient Christian presence has faded due to the grinding civil war. The Iranian regime continues to pressure Christianity, both traditional and evangelical. Saudi Arabia steadfastly refuses to countenance any churches. It is the only country in the world without a single Christian place of worship.
Christians are far from the only group in the region that suffers. Iran relentlessly persecutes Baha’is. ISIS remnants in Iraq continue to target Yezidis. Anti-Semitism continues, and atheists, agnostics, and liberal Muslims face threats everywhere in the Middle East for merely thinking differently. Diversity of thought is under attack by governments and extremists.
But there is hope. The news is not all bad this Christmas. Lebanon, the only Middle East country with a Christian head of state, has served as a life raft for Christians fleeing Iraq and Syria. Undeterred by attacks such as the one described above, or the systemic injustice that ignores or dismisses violence by their Muslim neighbors, Egypt’s Coptic Christian community remains vibrant, the largest in the region, with new churches opening. Communities in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories maintain their historical presence. None of these situations is perfect, but they are stable. Revitalizing Christian life in the Middle East is possible but will take focused effort. New churches are being built in the Persian Gulf for expatriates, saving Christian life there from virtual extinction. While some communities of converts are more comfortable operating out of sight, large and visible “church cities” are present in each emirate, something unthinkable a generation ago.
But if Christianity is to survive in its ancient homeland, governments in the region need to undertake serious reform. Praying for them will help, particularly for their security. Christians must feel safe, or they will not stay in the region. Guarantees of equal citizenship regardless of faith should be expected, while religious freedom must be extended beyond mere worship so that Christians can engage their societies as Christians.
To give them impetus to change, the United States can leverage its influence to help spur improvements. In the past four years, the Trump administration has highlighted international religious freedom, but the regional dynamics have not changed, and no Middle Eastern country has found the political will to undertake needed reforms.
The incoming Biden administration can build on and expand these efforts, encouraging change through partnerships with like-minded governments, civil society organizations and religious leaders, holistically advocating for religious freedom for all — Christians, Muslims and all others. Doing so will require uncomfortable conversations, steadfastly insisting on reform with friends and partners. But ensuring freedom of conscience for all is the surest way to secure a brighter future for Middle Eastern Christians.
Until such reforms take root, getting vulnerable Middle Eastern Christians out of harm’s way can save lives. United Nations agencies can proactively reach out to Christian refugees living on the margins in countries where they have temporarily fled. Biden’s plan to restore the U.S. refugee program can save Christians and other targeted minorities who need immediate rescue from persecution. While forced to leave, they will carry their culture and faith with them, keeping intact their unique way of life.
Advent teaches the faithful to expectantly wait for good news, the birth of Christ. Despite today’s uncertainties, hope is still present in the region. Light can emerge from darkness. These communities can rebound. Middle Eastern Christians believe in the Resurrection, after all.
(Knox Thames is a former special adviser for religious minorities at the U.S. Department of State, serving in the Obama and Trump administrations. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)