A new study by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), a papal agency for humanitarian and pastoral support, paints a bleak picture of the state of Middle Eastern Christianity:
The shifting population of Christians throughout the Middle East in the last several years — owing to the war in Syria, the rise of ISIS and ongoing political upheaval — has had a profound impact on the region. The cultures and countries that form the very cradle of Christianity lie shattered and splintered, with the followers of Jesus's faith dispersed and displaced. Some have migrated to neighboring countries; others have fled the region entirely.
Christian communities in Iraq and Syria have been worst-hit by 21st-century turmoil.
Iraq has nurtured a Christian (mostly Chaldean Catholic) population since the 2nd century. But over the last decade-and-a-half, its Christian population has been decimated. The 2003 U.S.-led war sparked an ongoing period of upheaval and suffering, culminating in the rise of ISIS that has drained the country of more than three-fourths of its Christian population. During the 1990s, Iraqi Christians numbered more than a million. In 2017, only 250,000 remain.
Christianity's chances of survival in Iraq rest on whether Chaldean Catholics and other Christians are willing and able to return to their homelands.
In 2016, Maronite Catholic bishops around the world called for Christians, in spite of the war in Syria, to hold their ground in the Middle East.
Syria has long been a haven for Christians, who in 2010 comprised 10 percent of the population. But since civil war broke out in 2011, their number has fallen almost by half from 2.2 million to 1.1 million. As in Iraq, ISIS has hunted down Christians, waging a campaign of torture, sexual slavery and murder against them. CNEWA notes:
The loss of Christians in Syria carries a particular poignancy because Syria is a true cradle of the Faith. Saint Paul famously traveled to Damascus intent on persecuting Christians, and it was on that journey that he underwent his conversion. After the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70, the Syrian city of Antioch, where the followers of Jesus were first known as "Christians," became the center of Christian thought in the eastern half of the Roman Empire.
The trend of population collapse goes back a century to the Armenian genocide of 1915–1917 when some 1.5 million Armenian Christians were butchered by Ottoman (Turkish and Muslim) forces. Over the next century, periodic outbursts of discrimination, persecution, deportation and massacre decimated the Middle Eastern Christian population.
The break-up of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I "gave rise to furious nationalists and paranoid nation-states that perceived minorities as suspects, if not enemies within," writes Mustafa Akyol, a visiting fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College. "Christians, some of whom were leading thinkers in developing secular Arab nationalism, often found themselves branded as the fifth column of Western colonial powers."
But the recent decline is startling, part of a larger wave of recent Christian persecution. In January, watchdog Open Doors USA reported that 2016 was the worst year for Christian persecution the group had seen since it began analyzing abuse a quarter-century ago. According to its investigation, Christian persecution worldwide has increased for three straight years, instigated by atheists/secularists and militants of other faiths — chief among them, Islamists.
In 2014, Amel Shimoun Nona, Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul, Iraq, spoke to this issue. After escaping his archdiocese with a handful of parishioners, he issued a warning to the West, "Our sufferings today are the prelude of those you Europeans and Western Christians will also suffer in the near future."