After months of restrictions and a war of words between bishops, pastors and governments, church services have finally returned to parts of the Western world, especially Italy and the United States, albeit with social distancing restrictions and hygiene practices firmly in place. Whilst some believers in parts of the West have lamented the closure of their churches during the pandemic as “persecution”, many of their brethren in the Middle East have lived for years under far worse persecution.
This past weekend, Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the last havens for Christians in the Middle East, have also seen their services restored. Their continued existence in Iraq is a miracle and this pandemic makes their lives even more perilous, but after years of horrible persecution, dare we say that hope is returning to Christians in the Middle East?
In this article, we will look at two nations, Egypt and Iraq, where in the face of extreme adversity, things might finally be looking up for the beleaguered Christians.
Coptic Christians in Egypt are now the single largest group of Christians remaining in the cradle of Christianity. Estimates of their population have always varied. More than a decade ago, the previous head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Pope Shenouda, estimated his flock at around 15 percent of the Egyptian population, which would mean at least 12 million members. Official Egyptian statistics make it half that number: 5.13 million believers or 5.7 percent of the country’s population with. Despite the disagreement, one thing is clear: Coptic Egyptians far outnumber any other Middle Eastern Christian groups.
Copts have always been part of the Egyptian national mosaic and they believe they are the descendants of the original Pharaonic Egyptians. Their Coptic language is also a living preserve of the ancient Egyptians, though Arabic is now their official liturgical language. Copts have withstood 1400 years of Islamic rule since the seventh century Arab conquest of Egypt, and despite all odds, have thrived culturally and economically. Since British colonial rule in the 19th century, many have become economically privileged and are proud to produce some of Egypt’s best sons, including former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros Ghali. For many centuries, Copts maintained a majority in several regions of Upper Egypt and they continue to form a sizeable minority in these regions today.
However, since the ascendancy of Islamism in Egypt and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, coupled with Salafism in the second half of the twentieth century, Copts have been subject to many terrorist attacks and sectarian conflicts throughout Egypt. They have also been denied the right to build or receive permits for their churches for decades, causing their services to overflow and worshippers become subject to harassment. Violence against Copts is frequent in their Upper Egypt homelands, with Muslim villagers often incited to attack Copts and kidnap young Coptic women for conversion. It is estimated that every year between 10,000 and 20,000 Coptic women convert to Islam, mostly due to marriages but also forced conversion.
The sufferings of these Christians captured world attention when Isis militants kidnapped and beheaded 21 Coptic villagers who were working in Libya in 2015. The beheading videos went viral, causing great trauma to their fellow Copts and outrage in Egypt. But this was merely the continuation of a trend: in 2011, Coptic churches in Alexandria were attacked on New Years’ Day, whilst two years after the Libya beheadings the very seat of the Coptic papacy, St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo was bombed. Copts also suffered from violence nationwide after the Islamist government of Mohammed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood was toppled in a revolution-coup. The Egyptian Army cracked down on Muslim Brotherhood supporters, who took out their anger on Copts.
Things have improved significantly under the government of General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. El-Sisi has attended Christmas services at St Mark’s Cathedral for several years now, making him the first Egyptian president to do so in decades. After the beheadings of Copts in Libya, he ordered the Egyptian Air Force to bomb the militants’ hideouts in the Libyan desert. St Mark’s Cathedral was repaired under his orders following the 2017 bombings. The martyrs of Libya also got some closure too: a martyrs’ church was built in their honour under El-Sisi’s orders, and today four-meter high statues of every one of them grace the church, which is in their home village in Minya, Upper Egypt.
El-Sisi’s rule has also seen the relaxation of the hated restrictions on church building and more church permits issued to them. Some 1638 churches out of 5500 applications have been legalized and issued permits, which is far greater than the numbers issued during previous regimes. This month, 70 churches were legalized despite Egypt battling the pandemic at the same time. Rigorous barriers to church legalization and buildings dating back to the Ottoman era are finally abolished.
Perhaps the biggest sign of El-Sisi’s commitment to the Coptic minority has been the construction of the Cathedral of the Nativity in the new administrative capital east of Cairo. The largest church anywhere in the Middle East and the first major church to be built in Egypt in decades, the cathedral was completed in January 2019 and its first service was attended by El-Sisi himself. It has since been visited by the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.
Of course, huge challenges still remain in Egypt. Thousands of Coptic churches remain “unlicensed” and Copts are still vastly underrepresented in the country’s armed and security forces as well as government personnel. Discrimination in the workplace remains widespread. Egypt is also combatting a major Islamist insurgency in Northern Sinai, where Islamists have vowed to eradicate Christians.
Copts, however, have healthy birth rates. Middle Eastern Christians have long had lower fertility rates than their Muslim counterparts, and some estimate that Coptic fertility is 20-30 percent lower than that Egyptian Muslims, especially in urban areas. But Egypt has one of the highest fertility rates in North Africa, with a TFR of 3, and about half of all Copts are from traditional homelands in Upper Egypt which have some of the highest rates in the country. In these areas Copts make up 20-45 percent of the local population, boosted by TFRs above 4 in a couple of centres. This means that the absolute numbers of Copts will continue to increase for the foreseeable future. Coptic numbers in Cairo are also replenished by migrants from Upper Egypt, guaranteeing their increased presence in the city.
It is also worth mentioning that the Coptic diaspora (including in Australia, where Prime Minister Morrison attended a Sydney Coptic service in 2019) while increasing due to the insecurity back home, remains far smaller than the population in the homeland, a situation which is unheard of elsewhere in the Middle East. Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan now all have Christian diasporas far outnumbering those who stayed behind. Emigration peaked after the 2013 unrest, which means many Copts are there to stay in Egypt, and that is inspirational and a source of great hope for pluralism in Egypt.
Unlike the millions of Copts, Iraqi Christians are on the verge of extinction in their homeland after holding on for thousands of years in the plains of Nineveh. Isis ravaged their homeland and sent the Christians fleeing everywhere, with Iraqi Kurdistan becoming one of the last safe havens for them. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have also emigrated since the 2003 Iraqi war, causing their population to drop from two million to just 200,000 today.
However, despite the genocide and extinction threats there is cause for hope. Many Nineveh Plain Christians, who fled to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, found refuge in the Chaldean Catholic churches of the Archdiocese of Erbil, which has now become the centre of Christianity in the Middle East and Iraq. Its leader, Archbishop Bashar Warda, a greatly underappreciated and heroic man, has since travelled extensively in the West, meeting leaders from Prince Charles to Donald Trump in an appeal for the rescue of his people.
Archbishop Warda certainly does not mince words. He severely criticized the inaction of Western leaders, including Christian leaders who are afraid of protesting the persecution of Christians out of “political correctness”, not wanting to be labelled Islamophobic. It is partly because of his lobbying that the US administration managed to overcome a haze of bureaucracy and direct much needed USAID funds straight to the churches in Iraq. This greatly helped the many thousands of internally displaced Nineveh Christians under Warda’s pastoral care.
Archbishop Warda also found a great partner in the small nation of Hungary, which has since become the foremost advocate for persecuted Christians in the Middle East, hosting an international conference on the issue in Budapest in 2019. Hungary Helps, the aid arm of the Hungarian government, also contributed millions of euros directly to the Christians, circumventing EU bureaucracy which has hampered aid delivery.
With the help of the Hungarians, 1100 families have managed to return to the Christian town of Teleskof, completely rebuilt with a 2 million Euro contribution from Budapest. US money from the Knights of Columbus and the evangelical charity Samaritan’s Purse has also rebuilt thousands of homes for Christians in northern Iraq. Towns previously destroyed by Isis, like Alqosh, Karemlash and Qaraqosh/Bakhdidah are back on their feet again. Around 9000 families have returned to the Nineveh Plains after the liberation.
Archbishop Warda is fighting a tough battle to persuade Christians to stay in their homeland, as the vast majority opt to leave for the West. He has managed with the help of church aid organizations to build a Catholic hospital, the Maryamama (which is contributing greatly to Kurdistan’s battle against the pandemic) and the Catholic University of Erbil, which received a direct grant from USAID in 2019 (a move criticized by liberal outlets such as ProPublica , who accused US vice-president Mike Pence of influencing the direction and use of American aid money). Ankawa, the neighbourhood where the seat of the Archdiocese of Erbil is located, has become one of the only Christian strongholds in the Middle East, with new churches and Christian housing being built.
Middle Eastern Christians have every right to receive preferential treatment from Western aid since Western apathy and interventions in the region which have contributed to the plight of Christians in the region. Aid for Iraqi Christians is arguably one of the biggest success stories of the Trump administration and one of its few praiseworthy initiatives in the Middle East.
Of course, all of this is far from enough: Isis is lurking in the shadows of Iraq, and Christians are emigrating en masse from the cradle of Christianity. Western apathy, even amongst Christians, is shocking: only half of US Catholics in a 2019 survey believed that the persecution of Christians in the Middle East is a pressing issue, many listing the refugee crisis in Europe and climate change as higher priorities. Elsewhere, politicians pay lip service to their plight, a phenomenon thoroughly criticized by local church leaders like Archbishop Warda. It is a telling sign when Hungary, a nation of 9 million people, contributes far more effectively to the aid of Iraqi Christians than the rest of the EU combined.
May Christians stay in the Middle East and continue to stand firm despite adversity. They are the original inhabitants of their land and the Middle East belongs to the Christians as much as it does to the Muslims and Jews. Hopefully, the small glitter of hope that has come out recently in parts of the Middle East may continue to benefit the brave Christians who live there.