Genocide is a serious accusation. Many people have spoken of an ongoing persecution of Christians in the Middle East as genocide, a claim that has clear backing in international law. The United Nations defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” In 2016 the State Department and both houses of Congress declared that ISIS, in particular, was committing genocide against Christians and other religious minorities.
On average, it is estimated that 7-8,000 Christians are martyred each year, according to the International Society for Human Rights (though larger estimates take broader warfare and ethnic conflicts into consideration, especially in Africa.). Nine of the top ten offending countries with the highest rates of Christian persecution are found either in the Middle East or in neighboring countries. With the rise of ISIS, persecution reached a particularly intense moment, though under the Trump administration their territory has shrunk dramatically. Nonetheless, the centuries long trajectory of eliminating the Christian population of the Middle East continues.
The Persecution and Genocide of Christian in the Middle East, edited by Ronald Rychlak and Jane Adolphe (Angelico, 2017), provides a systematic overview of the historical, religious, legal, and social forces behind the persecution of Christians. The book collects proceedings from a conference held in Rome, “Under Caesar’s Sword: Christians Respond to Persecution,” co-sponsored by Notre Dame and Georgetown, as well as contributions from other scholars and experts. The book provides a comprehensive overview of the issues faced by persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
The chapter “Historical and Theological Reflections on Persecuted Christians,” by Robert Fastiggi, provides a good starting point for understanding the state of Christian in the Middle East. It describes how the Christian community fell from a strong majority following Islamic conquest to a small minority in the present day. The Islamic population increased gradually for centuries, but it was not until the late 900s that sustained violent persecution began, inspiring the Crusades. From that point on, Christianity fell into a steady decline: from 21 to 3.4 million between 1200 and 1500 alone, followed by even more aggressive persecution from the Turks (103-04). Major massacres occurred in 1895 and during World War I, especially the Armenia Genocide. Fastiggi notes how Christians fell from 10 to 3% of the Middle East’s population in the twentieth century alone (110).
After this long period of decline, the Iraq War and the civil war in Syria may have set off the final elimination of Christians from many parts of the Middle East. The book details the tactics used by ISIS and other radical groups to commit genocide: sexual violence, torture, financial extortion (falsely portrayed as the jizya tax), and outright murder. It also describes the efforts and many failures of the international community to address the problem. The Holy See, for its part, has supported Christian refugees, encouraged prayer and fasting, organized diplomatic meetings, and even cautiously supported military intervention (254-57).
The final chapter, by radio host Al Kresta, reflects on how “Christians in the West can respond” in solidarity with persecuted Christians (364). The issue of religious liberty should unite all people of good will, as threats to religious expression are common throughout the world, especially in China and North Korea, but increasingly in the West. Christians throughout the world need to overcome a “lack of urgency” and even indifference to religious persecution. Even though ISIS has been largely subdued, Christians still suffer disproportionately in the Middle East from violence and displacement and remain extremely vulnerable. One concrete way to support them financially comes from the papal agency, the Christian Near East Welfare Association (www.cnewa.org).
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