By Charles Collins
LEICESTER, United Kingdom (Crux) — A new report says Christians are faring better in conflict-ravaged regions in the Middle East, but the precarious situation means the Church could vanish in places like Syria and Iraq if the Islamic State mounted another campaign in the region.
Produced by the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the annual report – called ‘Persecuted and Forgotten?’- was as launched on Oct. 23 at the UK Parliament in London.
The report found that the persecution of Christians in core Middle East countries such as Syria and Iraq declined greatly in 2017-2019 following a period of genocide earlier in the decade, but warned the situation was fragile and warned the Church in the region “could vanish if radical Islamists were to mount another attack on vulnerable communities.”
The report said there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq before 2003 but by mid-2019, they had fallen to well below 150,000 and perhaps even less than 120,000 – a decline of up to 90 percent within a generation. In neighboring Syria, Christian numbers have fallen by two thirds since the conflict began in 2011.
However, the conditions have slowly improved after the Islamic State group was largely dismantled in the country.
“An Aid to the Church in Need fact-finding trip to Syria in February 2019 revealed that in many parts of the country extreme poverty had supplanted persecution as the main problem facing Christians,” the organization said in a statement.
“Hence, this is the first edition of ‘Persecuted and Forgotten?’ since 2011 in which Syria does not appear among countries selected for special consideration in this report,” it said.
However, officials at ACN are concerned the recent Turkish incursion into Kurdish area of Syria – home to a large Christian community – could be catastrophic.
“The current crisis poses the distinct threat that Daesh [the Islamic State group] fighters may be freed in the chaos of any fighting,” said ACN’s Fionn Shiner.
Kurdish militias have been holding thousands of captured Islamic State group fighters, and it is unclear what is happening as the Turkish military advances.
Shiner said the release of Islamic State group fighters poses an “existential threat” to Christians in the region.
“Daesh’s actions during the Syrian civil war were widely regarded as genocidal,” he told Crux.
“It’s not just the first-hand atrocities – rape, murder, torture, etc. – but the increased exodus their revival would lead to. Many Christians would understandably leave,” he explained.
“If they were able to regroup it could literally spell the end of Christianity in Iraq. Daesh fighters attempted to eradicate any sign of Christianity in the region. There is no reason to doubt that they would do the same again,” Shiner said.
Although ACN is aware of the dangers in the region, it still trumpeted the main good news in the report: Islamist violence has steeply declined in Iraq and Syria, and Christians are being able to return to their homes is some areas of both countries.
The report noted that by June 2019, 9,130 Christian families were back in Nineveh, 46 percent of the total in 2014.
“The defeat of Daesh was a victory for Christians in the region and has led to a huge decline of persecution,” Shiner told Crux, but he warned “the effects of the genocide – migration, security crises, extreme poverty and slow recovery – leaves Christians in a perilous position.”
The 2019 report noted that although the scale of violence against Christians is much reduced, the evidence suggests that the retreating Islamic State fighters left behind a legacy of increased hostility towards Christians among sections of the local community.
“Church leaders described how the militants have kindled a caliphate mentality, which brands Christians as unwelcome outsiders in spite of the fact that their presence in the region pre-dates the coming of Islam,” the report says.
“In general terms, military victory over Daesh has failed to stem the flow of Christians fleeing Syria. ACN interviews with Christian refugees in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan show the faithful have little appetite to return. Although moderate Muslims did indicate a wish for Christians to stay, ACN reports highlight a growing marginalization of Christians in society, with increasing discrimination in the workplace and in public,” the report explains.
In 2018 alone, ACN provided around $15 million in support for the Church in Syria and Iraq, including the construction of churches, emergency aid, training of priests, and providing Bibles to the Christian population.
“In Iraq, ACN’s focus is on areas not covered by other aid agencies. For example, the reconstruction of churches and ecclesiastical institutions, monasteries, schools, kindergartens, rectories and parish centers,” Shiner said.
The pontifical charity also established the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee – working along with the Syrian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox and Chaldean Catholic Churches – which is attempting to persuade refugees to settle back in the Nineveh Plains.
“Another positive development is the increase in international concern for Christian persecution. The Bishop of Truro’s review was a boon in the UK, whilst Trump’s administration has put money into the region, as have Hungary with their Hungary Helps campaign,” Shiner added.
Anglican Bishop Philip Mounstephen of Truro was asked by the UK Foreign Office to write a report on the persecution of Christians around the world, which came out in the summer.
ACN also highlighted the fact that both the UK and European Union recently an official envoy for international religious freedom as a sign that the world leaders are waking up to the problem of Christian persecution.
“The international community could to preserve Christianity in the Middle East. As the report writes: If security can be guaranteed there is every indication that Christianity could survive in Nineveh and Erbil,” Shiner told Crux.
“In many ways Christians in the Middle East are at a crossroads: Will the international community mobilize itself enough to secure their future? There is certainly hope. The threat of a Daesh resurgence is exactly that: A threat. If it does not come to fruition – God willing – and if families continue to return to their homes, then Christians could begin the slow process of rebuilding.”