I was saddened to read of the killing of more than 58 people in the hostage incident in a Catholic church in Baghdad. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility, and simultaneously issued a threat and warning to Coptic Churches in Egypt.
Earlier this year, I visited Kurdistan and enjoyed the peaceful Kurdish capital of Erbil, the seat of Kurdistan’s parliament. The expat village communities had essentially no security at the gate and the atmosphere was very relaxed. Yet visiting the nearby town of Ainkawa, a village home to thousands of Christians, the man guarding the gate casually carried a kalishnikov–even in Kurdistan, Iraq’s Christian ultraminority was cautious, and made this quiet show of force to ward off trouble.
The caretaker of St. Joseph’s in Ainkawa
That was Kurdistan. I can’t even imagine the steps that were taken in Baghdad to protect churches.
Christians constitute a rapidly declining community in the Middle East. In the Levant, there are several million in Egypt and Lebanon, with minority populations in Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. But these communities only survive through reproduction — conversion from Islam to Christianity is prohibited by law in many countries, often through the survival of Ottoman-era family and marriage registries.
There are also churches in the countries of the Persian Gulf, primarily for Asian and Western expats, but Saudi Arabia strictly bans any form of worship other than Islam, and foreigners are occasionally arrested for proselytism–such as what happened to a dozen Filipinos last month who held a private, secret mass.
Years ago, Christian and Jewish populations were, while small, more commonly found across the region. But the violence and persecution, compounded by opportunities outside the region, over the past century (starting with the Jewish migration to Palestine after World War I) means the historical minorities are shrinking fast. And that makes the remaining communities in places such as Iraq smaller, and arguably more vulnerable. Or as one journalist put it, “The only Christians who remain in Iraq are those too old or too poor to attempt to escape.”