The Guardian view on Christianity in the Middle East: the burden of the cross

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In a region increasingly defined by religious division and war, some of the oldest Christian communities in the world are brutally exposed
Christians who fled violence in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul attend a mass in Irbil, capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. ‘More than a decade of war has seen the Christian people of Iraq driven from their homes.’ Photograph: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty

Tomorrow, Good Friday, the long agony of the Christians of Iraq and Syria will continue. These countries have a far older Christian tradition than western Europe – it was to Damascus that Saint Paul was travelling when he was struck down and converted – but it really does seem as if it is now coming to an end. More than a decade of war has seen the Christian people of Iraq driven from their homes, sometimes three times, as the frontlines have passed over them, until a remnant has found shelter in Kurdistan. In Syria the Christian minorities were somewhat sheltered by the Assad regime, which means these communities have a degree of sympathy for it that is not shared by the western nations they look to as their other protectors. They, too, have been displaced in immense numbers.

In the territories controlled by Islamic State, the treatment of Christians, as of Yazidis, has been recognised as genocide by the US. It is Isis that destroyed the ancient communities around Nineveh, now Mosul, and Isis that has institutionalised the rape of captive women and children. In the rest of Syria and Iraq, the outbreaks of murderous hostility to Christians are much less organised, although both Sunni and Shia forces, when they are not slaughtering each other for their heresies, have proved capable of slaughtering Christians for their religions too. Nor should we forget the supposedly more moderate Sunni jihadis supported by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Any part of the world where crucifixion is deployed as a quasi-judicial punishment, even when mostly inflicted on corpses, is one from which Christians have very good reasons to flee.

Where should they go, and what should we do to help them? Neither question has an easy answer. The fantasy that western military intervention could ever produce a more secure and stable Middle East has been discredited since the invasion of Iraq. In the end, the conclusion of that crime and folly, as well as those of local actors, including the Assad regime, has been that Europe itself is less secure and stable, and the countries we supposedly liberated are a ghastly wasteland. But neither can we offer all of the refugees asylum here. That would likely be impractical politically, even if it were feasible in terms of resources. It doesn’t follow that the refugees have any moral duty to stay where they are. Still less should anyone in this country or in Europe lecture them to that effect. There is something rather unpleasant about the spectacle of Christian leaders, some of them from the churches and communities most affected, preaching from the safety of Europe about the duty of these communities to remain where they are so that the tradition of Christianity in those countries is not broken. People in danger will make their own decisions about where to go, and their choices must be respected.

Nonetheless, the hope must be that these people can return to their ancestral homes once peace comes. There is nowhere in the region that would be suitable for large-scale resettlement anyway. Even in those countries where there is no active and ongoing persecution, Christians are second-class citizens at best. Even in Iran, where there are guaranteed places for Christians in parliament, and a Christian is the captain of the national football team, there is no real concept of religious freedom and the legal penalty for converting to Christianity can be death. In Egypt things are slightly better since the fall of the regime, which had encouraged a great deal of violence against the ancient Christian communities there, but it can’t be easy for Christians to feel safe.

We have to hope that this will not be a permanent condition, and that the Christian minorities there will once more find an honoured place among their neighbours, as they have done for most of the past 2,000 years. In the meantime there is still a great deal that the west can accomplish, even if our powers are not miraculous. Although it would be counterproductive as well as wrong to discriminate in their favour when deciding which refugees to help, it is just as important to ensure that we do not go along passively with the discrimination that Christians do suffer even in refugee camps. The aid that we give must be sustained: the generous aid this government has given to refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan has done far more good than the scattering of bombs so noisily dropped on Isis. In the end, though, what the Christians of the Middle East need is the same as their Muslim neighbours, or anyone else – peace, justice and security. There may be very little that this government can do on the ground, but those should be the aims of our policy.