Christian communities in the Middle East are at high risk of continued persecution, warned Robert Nicholson, executive director of the Philos Project. The Philos Project is a new Christian advocacy group dedicated to advancing pluralism and religious freedom in the Middle East. In a recent podcast interview with Jewish Insider, Nicholsons said:
“A lot of advocacy for these communities over the last few years, especially since ISIS, has been unfortunately very little in terms of impact. Part of our work at the Philos Project is trying to build a community of Christian leaders from different backgrounds [and] denominations to understand better and engage better on Near East or Middle East issues,” Nicholson said of his advocacy work in the region. “[A] big part of that is [the] Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the other big part, as you can probably guess, is the plight of these Christian communities, all of which go back, you know, 2,000 years.”
Nicholson specifically cited Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Jordan as the countries of particular focus. Even in Lebanon, where Christians make up 35% of the population and have in recent years been represented in government, Nicholson, who has been banned from entering the country for life, said the community has been “squeezed” by restrictions.
In many countries across the Middle East, there is a technical “right to worship,” for those who have been born into Christian communities. However, in actuality, this is not upheld by society at large, and the “rights” which have been afforded to these communities are often outweighed by the restrictions placed on worship. According to Pew, 90% of countries in the Middle East and North Africa have active blasphemy laws, many of which have been used to justify violence against Christians and other minority communities, and mandate strict punishments for conversion from Islam to any other religion.
“What you find is that Christians have the technical right to worship — right, you can go to Mass on Sunday morning, [in] most of these places, but the cultural environment, and certainly the political environment, is set up in such a way to either exclude you or even to target you,” he explained.
This is demonstrated in places like Egypt, home to the largest population of Coptic Christians in the world, where nine Christians were jailed earlier this year for attempting to rebuild their community church after it had been allegedly destroyed by Islamic extremists.
In countries across the Middle East, Africa, and even in South Asia; there are often restrictions on how publicly Christians may express their faith, and when, how, and if churches can be built or repaired. In many nations across the Middle East, your religion is listed on your government issued identification; and although it is legal to convert from any religion to Islam, it is not legal for a Muslim to convert to Christianity.
Many converts to Christianity from Islam in the Middle East will never be officially recognized on paper as anything other than Muslim, and most must practice in secret or otherwise risk, at the very least, familial and social alienation, and at worst, the loss of their lives. There are many, many “closet Christians,” living in the Middle East, practicing their faith at the risk of severe persecution. A 2015 Global Census study published by Baylor University institute for studies of religion estimates that 10.2 million Muslims have converted to Christianity since the 1960’s based on global missionary data.
Most impactful, there are tight restrictions on spreading the Gospel in these nations, and conversion from Islam, or proselytizing to Muslims, can be punishable by death. Even the mere accusation of proselytizing can have disastrous consequences. This is true in places like Pakistan, where a Christian woman was recently stabbed to death in brutal mob violence because a child had a “dream” declaring her an infidel.
Nicholson explained the sad reality that the plight of Christians in the Middle East is something that most Americans will never hear about, and is rarely talked about in political discourse or public policy. Many Americans do not know that Christianity was once the dominant religion in the Middle East, and that it is still a cornerstone of many rich but vanishing cultures across the region.
“Even if the American people care about this issue, it is never going to be a top foreign policy priority for any administration, Republican or Democrat,” Nicholson said earlier in the interview.
This is a burden we feel strongly at American FRRME. Our organization is one of a handful that are specifically helping Christian refugees and IDPs (as well as other minority religions in Iraq, such as Yazidi and Shabak) in places like Iraq, and helping the Assyrian and Kurdish diaspora living as refugees in other countries, like Jordan. We want the world to know about the plight of Iraqi Christians, Yazidis, and Shabak, and to mobilize Americans and partners around the world to make an impact in the lives of those touched by over a century of sectarian violence.
As the Middle East becomes increasingly more hostile to Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities, American FRRME stands committed to programs that provide hope, help and healing to those escaping sectarian violence. Our programs in Iraq are intended to help those who have lost everything to extremism with the hope to return to their homes and rebuild their lives. Our programs at the Olive Tree Center in Jordan offer vital assistance, as well as therapy programs and education to refugees and their children. American FRRME is committed to long term self-sustaining programs and opportunities to help empower refugees and Internally Displaced Persons. Donations to American FRRME go to programs that will aid in the survival of Christian families facing persecution across the Middle East.