Should we really be worrying about Middle East Christianity?

Christians in Iraq often face extreme persecution, and hundreds of thousands have fled the country in recent years.

Christmas comes gift-wrapped with a whole bunch of traditions. In the UK these include mulled wine, mincepies,formulaic carol services and (more recently) the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special.

Another recent tradition is the Yuletide ritual of agonising over whether the historic Christian communities in the Middle East are on the verge of extinction. The annual cry goes up that the rise of Islamic extremism is threatening the very existence of Christians in the region where Jesus was born, and where the earliest believers came to faith.

It is a powerful and heart-wrenching narrative. And this year is no exception. Last week The Prince of Wales spoke at an Advent reception for Middle East Christians of "a very real crisis which threatens the very existence of Christianity in the land of its birth." In a Sunday Express column the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey predicted gloomily of the Middle East "that this is the decade in which Christianity will be finally wiped out by emigration driven by persecution." Lord Carey went on to complain that Western churches were "depressingly timid" in their support for Christians in the Middle East. That he chose an Express paper to air his views is slightly ironic; the same paper has been vehement in opposing UK help for Syrian refugees of any faith.

The Prince of Wales and Lord Carey have a point, of course. There is no doubt that Christians are facing persecution in the Middle East. And their interventions have been prompted in part by a fear that the UK government's stated intention to allow 20,000 Syrian refugees into the country over the next five years will not help Syrian Christians, as the UK's focus is on vulnerable refugees in camps in Lebanon and Jordan, where only a few Christians are based.

But we also need some perspective on this supposedly existential crisis facing the Christians of the Middle East. Here are five facts which often get overlooked in all the doom and gloom:

1. It is an exaggeration to say that Middle East Christians face extinction. While there is no doubt that the Christian populations in some Middle Eastern countries have declined rapidly – in Iraq the population has fallen from 1.5 million to just a few hundred thousand in barely a dozen years – it is simply impossible to imagine that the Christians of the region will be wiped out by the end of this decade. This ignores the situation in countries where the Christian population is stable or growing: Israel, Jordan and particularly Egypt, which boasts the biggest Christian community (between 10 and 15 million) anywhere in the Middle East.

Indeed, given the faithful piety of the Coptic Christians, there are almost certainly more committed believers in Egypt than there are in the UK! In Lebanon the Christian population has fallen from around half in the 1930s to less than a third today. But the position of the Christian minority is protected in the Lebanese constitution. And a 2013 study suggested that a 40-year trend of declining Christian numbers in Lebanon had actually been reversed in recent years. 

2. Many more non-Christians than Christians face persecution in the Middle East. In his speech, The Prince of Wales acknowledged that many of the victims of the so-called Islamic State are Muslims. He also touched on the terrible suffering of the Yazidi minority in Iraq. Indeed, all minorities are targeted by the extremists, a point noted by the more than 60 British MPs who have urged the UN to recognise IS atrocities as genocide. Yet there remains a view (evident in Lord Carey's piece) that Muslims are better off, as they are more likely to find 'safe havens'.

There is little evidence for such an assertion. The vast majority of Syrian refugees, including those coming to Europe, are Muslims. This is because a large proportion of the Christian population is currently safe in government-held areas and remains supportive of the Assad regime as the only bulwark against the Islamists. The simple fact is that many more non-Christians – whether Yazidi, Shia or moderate Sunni – have suffered at the hands of IS than Christians. So why are we not equally concerned about them?

The lawyer's question to Jesus in Luke 10:29 is as poignant now as it was then: "Who is my neighbour?" Jesus's reply, relating the story of man who was mugged and whose nakedness and unconsciousness meant that the Samaritan could not tell what his ethnic or religious background was, should surely be a warning to us. We must not be partial in our compassion. 

3. There is nothing inevitable about Christian flight from the Middle East. One might assume from the dire and apocalyptic predictions that the default position is one of irreconcilable tension between Christians and Muslims. But this is not so. Prior to the upsurge in Islamic extremism following the Arab Spring, Muslim-Christian relations across the region were often very good. The people of the Middle East focused on national identity first – whether Egyptian, Palestinian, Iraqi or Syrian – and religious identity second. Even today in war-torn Syria, inter-communal relations are cordial and indeed strengthening, as brought out in a recent visit report by the Dominican friar and Embrace the Middle East patron, Brother Timothy Radcliffe OP.

4. Islamic extremism is not the only threat to the Christian presence. The doomsayers often note that one of the most precipitous Christian declines has been in historic Palestine, where Christians accounted for over 20 per cent of the population in 1948 but now total less than two per cent. But this decline has had very little to do with Islamism. Three years ago a CBS News report noted that the main reason for the decline was actually the political and economic hardship caused by 45 years of Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel was so incensed that the Israeli Ambassador in Washington tried to have the show pulled from the airwaves. Even in Gaza, controlled by Hamas, Palestinian Christian emigration is driven more by the traumas of Israel's eight-year blockade and regular bombardments than by Islamist government. 

5. Middle East Christians themselves do not want favourable treatment. In April 2014 the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land, a body which brings together the heads of various Churches owing allegiance to Rome, including the Latin Patriarch and the Maronite, Melkite Greek Catholic and Syrian Catholic churches, issued a press release calling for more balance in the coverage of 'persecution' of Christians in the Middle East. The churchmen warned: "the repetition of the word "persecution"... usually referring only to what Christians suffer at the hands of criminals claiming to be Muslims, plays into the hands of extremists". Many other Middle East Christian leaders, including another of our patrons at Embrace, Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, have spoken in similar terms.

There is unquestionably a Biblical mandate to care for our brothers and sisters in Christ. The words of Jesus himself in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46 are pretty clear ("whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine..."). But we do the Christians of the Middle East a disservice – and could even make things worse for them – if we continue to be partial and focus on them as the only victims of Islamic extremism. We also risk overlooking the ongoing and vibrant witness of Middle East Christians through schools, hospitals and the myriad others social projects which charities like Embrace the Middle East support. This witness, and not persecution, is how the Christians define their own presence in the land where Jesus was born.

Jeremy Moodey is Chief Executive of the Christian development charity Embrace the Middle East, which has launched a Christmas appeal to help Syrian and other refugees throughout the region.