Christians on wane in Middle East and Africa, report says

Persecution removing Christianity from biblical heartland, says Aid to the Church in Need

Christianity could be on course to disappear from the principal countries of the “ancient biblical heartland” of the faith, according to a report issued by Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic charity.

"Christians are fast disappearing from entire regions – most notably a huge chunk of the Middle East but whole dioceses in Africa. In large part, this migration is the product of an ethnic cleansing motivated by religious hatred propagated by Muslim radicals," according to the report, Persecuted and Forgotten?

Pope Francis expressed his appreciation for the report, which he said revealed "the plight and suffering of Christians persecuted for their faith". British prime minister David Cameron said the report "serves as a voice for the voiceless" Christians who are "systematically discriminated against, exploited and even driven from their homes because of their faith".

The document says if the current exodus continues, by 2020 there could be no Christians in Iraq, where persecution is "extreme", unless "emergency help is provided at an international level on a massively increased scale".


US invasion

Since the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq, the number of Christians has fallen dramatically from one million to 275,000, with half of those displaced. In June 2014, 120,000 Christians fled Mosul and Nineveh following their conquest by Islamic State (IS).

In Syria, the fall in numbers has been more dramatic. It is estimated that, of the 1.1 million Christians in the country when unrest erupted in March 2011, 700,000 have fled Syria. The fate is still unknown of Syrian Orthodox bishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox bishop Boulos Yaziji, who were kidnapped in April 2013, allegedly by Jabhat al-Nusra.

Greek Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo Jean-Clement Jeanbart told the BBC Christians “are leaving in larger numbers” due to a “genocide” of Christians. However, he welcomed the Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict two weeks ago, which Christians in his besieged city “see as a sign and a reason for hope [that could] give the possibility to end the war”.

In Israel, according to the report, "the only country in the Middle East with a notably expanding Christian population", the "moderate to high" persecution level against Christians has increased due to rising attacks on churches by "extremist Jewish militants". The report says nothing about the occupied Palestinian territories, where the number of Christians has fallen due to emigration. The persecution level is deemed "extreme" in Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, "high" in Egypt and "moderate" in Turkey.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times