Action Needed to Keep Christians from Leaving the Middle East

By Keely Jahns

Published On January 26, 2022

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Human rights advocates say that action is needed to keep Christians from “hemorrhaging from“ their homelands across the Middle East. As cultural tensions, Islamic extremism, economic crises, political conflicts, and poor governance arise; there is a growing threat to the safety of Christians, as well as other religious minorities. 

In Lebanon, the Islamic extremist group Hezbollah has established a choke hold on the political and social climate that many believe supersedes the power of the national government. In Iraq and Syria, where ISIS forced many to leave their homes in a wave of violence in 2014, Christians still lack the stability and safety to rebuild. According to Nadine Maenza, chair of the U.S.

Commission on International Religious Freedom, “the security situation is so terrible [in Iraq and Syria] many Christians [still] can’t live there.”

Maenza was also quoted as saying: “Christians in the Middle East are struggling. They don’t have the kind of support that they need. The U.S. really needs to re-look at how we are supporting these communities.”

Despite being a minority across the Middle East, Christianity is indigenous to the region. It is the birthplace of Christianity and is home to some of the oldest sects in the world. Christians today make up only 5% of the population in the Middle East, down from around 20% during most of the 20th century. 

The few enclaves of historic Christian worship that are left are constantly being challenged by Islamic extremism and majority prejudices. The adherents who still reside here have been subjected to multiple genocides, and, as we investigated last week, struggle to be seen and heard in their home countries’ political processes. 

Lebanon is considered to be one of the only places in the Middle East with a historical atmosphere of religious tolerance between Muslims and Christians. The Republic of Lebanon began as a dream of the 76 year old Maronite Patriarch Elias Peter Hoayek, who in 1919 proposed the idea that there should be a safe haven in the Middle East for both Christians and Muslims. 

Even prior to its independence in 1943, there was a heavy Christian presence in the region. An astonishing 32% of Lebanon follows some form of Christianity. The most numerous sects include Maronic Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Melkite Catholics. There is also a growing number of Lebanese who ascribe to various forms of Protestantism. 

“Lebanon is the only one place now on earth where there is Christian-Muslim conviviality. That is why it bothers the heck out of me — this is my issue with Hezbollah and others who don’t buy into the very history and identity of Lebanon […] We believe that a Muslim-Christian conviviality can survive, and it is in the best interest of Lebanon … because it is not an enclave unto ourselves, but it’s a reaching out to the neighbor as an equal,” warned Maronite Catholic Bishop Gregory J. Mansour, who heads the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn, New York.

The growing influence of Islamic extremism stands as an existential threat to this diversity. It is already estimated that a quarter of a million Lebanese fled during Lebanon’s 16-year civil war, lasting from 1975-1990. In 2022, increasing religious tensions and an economic crisis might push even more to leave. 

The Lebanese are struggling to survive amid soaring inflation and the more than 90 percent loss in the value of their currency, coupled with fuel and medicine shortages and severe power cuts. A deadly port blast in Beirut in August 2020 has accelerated the will of many Lebanese to leave their home country. 

As of September 2021, passport applications were up 50%, with around 6,000 passports being issued each day since June 2021. Political scientists are anticipating a massive surge of Lebanese leaving the country in the upcoming months. Habib Malik, a professor at Lebanese American University, said Lebanon is “losing its youth to galloping emigration.” 

“It’s Christian youth primarily, along with entire Christian families (that) are packing and leaving permanently,” Malik said. “This will render Lebanon indistinguishable from its Arab surroundings in terms of the absence of basic freedoms and pluralist coexistence.”

This is a common thread across the Middle East. Christianity is receding, as well as other minority religions, even in areas of cultural importance. 

In March of 2021, Pope Francis made a historic visit to Iraq, where he was “moved to the deepest part of his soul,” by the plight of Christians across the Nineveh Plain and the Greater Middle East.  According to Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, it was “possibly the most significant trip of the pontificate.” 

Francis expressed “support” not only to “the Christian communities of Iraq and of the region who have been persecuted and suffered” but also to “the other persecuted communities such as the Yazidis for whom he has enormous sympathy.”

Christianity is under serious threat of disappearing in its birthplace. As adversity grows, programs are needed to preserve the Christian faith and the faiths of other minority religious communities in the region. American FRRME is committed to long term self-sustaining programs and opportunities to help empower refugees, Internally Displaced Persons. Donations to American FRRME go to programs that will aid in the survival of families facing violence across the Middle East.