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The persecution of Christians in the Middle East

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Thursday, 22 December 2016


Although Christians have lived in the Middle East – the birthplace of Christianity – for nearly two thousand years, as a result of years of persecution and discrimination, especially in the past 15 years, they now constitute no more than 3-4% of the region's population, down from 20% a century ago. Christians are not the only minority being discriminated against in this region, but their plight is more visible in many places, beyond what has been experienced by Yazidis, Kurds, Druze, and others. Unfortunately, given the turmoil in the Middle East and the rise of Islamic extremism, with few exceptions Christians and other minorities may no longer be able to live in harmony with their largely Muslim neighbors.

There are several factors contributing to the persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East. Although sectarian conflicts in the region are not new, the 2003 Iraq War and the Arab Spring unleashed a new torrent of violence between Sunnis and Shias and against other religious minorities.

The rise of Islamic extremism has been a singular driving force in the plight of religious minorities, fueling a growing desire to resort to religion as a palliative. The resurfacing of religious division vis-à-vis the Sunni-Shia conflict, and between different Sunni sects, is creating a societal mindset that posits other religious groups as 'the enemy.' Groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS exploit this intolerance of religious and inter-religious out-groups, with the latter taking such fanaticism to new and barbaric heights.

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In addition, the wanton persecution of religious minorities is compounded by the threat of radicalization, which threatens social cohesion and combines religious doctrine with fanatical violence. As Blaise Pascal aptly put it, "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."

The prevailing frustration, pain, and agony in the region as a result of socio-economic despondency adds further impetus to the spike in discrimination-when governments fail to step in and mitigate the situation, there is a tendency to find a 'sacrificial lamb' to blame one's ills on.

The fact that there is rampant unemployment, limited opportunities for higher education, and that tens of millions of Muslims live in poverty all fosters a sense of resentment against other minorities.

Arab nationalism is another major factor that was reinvigorated in the wake of Arab Spring, and as a result, discrimination against Christians was sharpened in certain countries, including Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The growing influence of Islam into the state framework created cleavages between religious minority groups and the majority.

The prevalence of blasphemy laws throughout the region add another complex layer to religious discrimination. These laws, which are frequently abused to settle personal scores, often carry with them a mandatory death sentence. Allegations of blasphemy are often presented with no evidence, because to reproduce the evidence would be to reproduce the blasphemy.

Finally, a widely-held perception in the Middle East today is that many of the region's socioeconomic problems are attributable to the legacy of the post-World War I and II colonial eras and the exploitive regimes of those times. Though many of the newly independent states immediately turned to autocratic rule, the pre-existing state structures were largely kept in place to the relief of religious minorities.

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The Arab Spring, though, put this political order to the test-the demand for democratization made many religious minorities uneasy, worried that the legal protections carried over from the Ottoman era would fall to the wayside.

There are several remedies and countermeasures that must be taken to mitigate religious discrimination. To begin with, a renewed and concerted push is necessary at the political level, led by the world's major powers to end many of the raging regional conflicts. Needless to say, this is easier said than done, but then regardless of how extremely intractable many of these conflicts are, no one should expect that persecution of minorities would be eliminated or be appreciably minimized unless these conflicts come to an end.

Ending regional conflicts, including a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would substantially reduce tensions in much of the region and bring Israel closer to the Sunni Arab world, while depriving extremist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah of their raison d'etre.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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