Brian Monteith: Tackle persecution of non-Muslims

The Saint Elya Chaldean church in Baghdad, Iraq. Picture: AP
Across much of the Middle East, people are being murdered merely because they are Christians, writes Brian Monteith

When it comes to the discussion of the realities of life in the Middle East it is the elephant in the room that Western politicians, from President Obama to William Hague, seem unable to highlight. But the elephant is now in full view and being talked about. Thanks to the audacity of the Prince of Wales, the often violent and murderous persecution of Christians by jihadists intent on creating sectarian war was raised in a very public speech as he visited church representatives in London with Prince Ghazi of Jordan last week.

The prince enjoys a reputation for seeking to build bridges between all faiths and has probably done more than any other British Christian to promote the cause of mutual understanding by the three Abrahamic faiths practiced by Jews, Christians and Muslims across the world. He regularly visits mosques and synagogues as well as churches and has done this in the Middle East itself as well as at home.

His travels have brought to his attention the decline in Christian numbers in the birthplace of Christianity itself, not just from the individual wars of the last decade that would inevitably lead to the migration of refugees, but more from the direct targeting of Christians as jihadists seek to establish theocracies practicing Sharia law.

In Iraq the Christian population was actually growing, albeit slowly, during the time of Saddam Hussein’s secular Baathist Party rule, increasing from 1.4 million in 1987 to 1.5 million by 2003 when United States-led forces launched the invasion of Iraq. There were over 300 Christian churches at that point, but this has now fallen to just 57. It is now believed numbers are less than 800,000 and falling dramatically. Following the Iraq war native Iraqi Christians became targeted by Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents as “legitimate targets” and there were regular bombings, kidnappings, torture and summary executions.

In 2010 the Al-Qaeda sympathisers stormed Our Lady of Deliverance church in Baghdad during Sunday mass and the resulting battle with Iraqi security forces left 58 dead, including priests and many of the congregation.

The most notable killing was in 2008 of Paulaus Rahho, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, who was kidnapped and found dead two weeks later. Six months earlier a priest and three sub-deacons had been stopped in their car and executed after they refused to convert to Islam. In 2006 an Orthodox Christian priest, Boulos Iskander, was taken from a Mosul street and ransomed. Although his family met the financial demand he was later found beheaded with his arms and legs also cut off.

Despite the withdrawal of practically all western forces and the handing over of policing and security to Iraq’s own government, there has been no let-up in the persecution of Christians. So much for “mission accomplished”.

The pattern is being repeated in Syria, where the civil war has led to the country’s two million Christian population being accused of backing President Assad as Islamist extremists seek to turn the fighting into a sectarian battle. Other rebel forces say Assad is targeting Christian churches in his aerial bombings and that it is he that is persecutor, but Syrian Orthodox Bishop Luke claimed that all Christian churches across the country had been attacked by outlaws and that the Cathedral in Raqqa had been severely damaged.

Back in July of this year Father Francois Murad was shot dead in Ghassaniyeh, in the north of Syria, after it fell to the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nursa.

I first noticed the unease of Christians when I worked in Tunisia after the region’s Arab Spring that has since turned into a very bitter winter. I began to read reports of Christian persecution in Egypt, including murder of Christians by crucifixion by Muslim Brotherhood supporters, that were a clear warning to the country’s ancient Coptic Church.

When Egypt’s President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government was brought down by the army it was no surprise that the Coptic Church breathed a sigh of relief, but this only led to even more attacks and deaths as Christians were accused of being sympathetic to the new regime.

The 2013 World Watch list of the top 50 countries for persecution of Christians is full of Middle East states: Saudi Arabia is ranked second, Iraq is now fourth (moving up from ninth), Iran is eighth, Yemen, ninth, Syria 11th and Libya 17th. Of Middle East countries only Israel and the Lebanon do not merit a ranking.

Estimates of the size of the Christian population in the Lebanon vary between a majority and less than 40 per cent, but whatever share one takes it is fortunately sizeable enough to maintain its own security. Israel is the only Middle East country where the number of Christians is growing, from 34,000 on the state’s founding in 1948 to 140,000 today, with the freedom to practice their faith cited as the main reason.

Correspondingly, evidence of Palestinian Christians being attacked in Gaza gives further cause for concern over the attempt to brand “Sunday People” as fifth columnists sympathetic to “Saturday People”. This consideration did not stop Clackmannanshire Council from passing a motion in March this year that resolved “to resist, insofar as legislative considerations permit, any action that gives political or economic support to the State of Israel” – a symbolic boycott of Israel that displayed complete ignorance of human rights across the Middle East.

As we approach the Christmas festivities it makes sense to take stock of the persecution that native Christians of foreign lands – including the region of the religion’s birth – face simply for practicing their faith and asking what our political leaders are prepared to do about it. Why do they seem so afraid to speak up, why are they so afraid to challenge the records of leaders in Iraq and elsewhere? Why, when they have a democratic mandate, does it take the Prince of Wales to show the courage and candour to put the issue on the international agenda?