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Has the West failed to appropriately condemn Christian persecution in the MENA countries?


The Christian persecution in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) dates back to the very origins of this Abrahamic religion. From the stoning of Stephen by the decision of the Sanhedrin in the 36AD to the genocide of millions of Christians by the Ottoman Turkish authorities in the early 20th century, Christian communities across the Middle East have always had to endure persecution and face existential threats due to their beliefs[1]. The establishment of modern statehood by many of the nations in the region has not alleviated the fears of persecution among their Christian populations due to the growing political instability. Whilst the political establishments in the West condemn the violation of the basic human rights of the Christians in the region by state and non-state actors, these condemnations are usually limited to statements by relevant government departments and reports denouncing the Christian persecution in the region. It is time to act for the sake of those persecuted, for the sake of human rights and for the sake of the very democratic values governing our lives in the West.


The exponentially decreasing Christian populations in the MENA countries indicate the severity of the challenges faced by this group. The Christian population of Syria has declined from 1.7 million in 2011 to less than 450,000 by 2018; whilst the number of Christians went down from 1.5 million prior-2003 to 120,000 in 2018 mainly due to the ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the Ninevah Plains[2]. The situation in the very birthplace of Christianity, the West Bank, is distressing, with Christian numbers declining from 18% of the population to less than 1%[3]. This exodus of people from their homeland due to their religious identity is occurring at present. Open Doors has announced that the number of Christians killed between the autumn of 2021 and the autumn of 2022 in Middle Eastern countries reached 5,621, with more than 2,100 churches targeted[4].


The widespread persecution of Christian minority groups across the region is widely known by the international community[5]. The independent report on Christian persecution across the world presented to the British Foreign Office by Bishop Truro calls for greater protection of Christian minorities, particularly in the Middle Eastern countries[6]. The US State Department’s International Religious Freedom (IRF) reports present the dynamics of the persecution of various religious groups, including Christians in the MENA countries, and in these reports, Washington often calls these governments to undertake the necessary measures to protect marginalized religious communities[7]. The political establishments in many cases directly contribute to the creation of mechanisms that undermine the rights and freedoms of their Christian populations[8]. For example, the 2020 Algerian constitutional reforms stripped away the guaranteed protection of the freedom of conscience for non-Muslim faiths[9]. Whilst the citizens are free to practice any religion, the removal of constitutional mechanisms to safeguard the rights of religious minorities imperils the very existence of these communities.


The horrors of the Second World War have enshrined the protection of human rights and democratic values into the Western consciousness[10]. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been acting as a framework for the creation of institutional mechanisms across the world in providing protection for minority groups to practice any religion[11]. The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights has further underlined the need to strengthen the rights of religious minorities[12]. These two key proclamations set the foundation in international law for creating mechanisms to protect religious minorities. However, these legislations are not enforced sufficiently to provide the necessary protection for these minority groups.


One can hardly find a democratically elected government in the West that fails to pronounce the essentialness of protecting human rights across the globe, especially in the MENA. The tendency of promising to embrace our democratic values and to protect the Christian minorities through our foreign policy conduct is intensified during the election period[13]. The latter seems to heal the amnesia of the political establishment and remind them about the daily persecution of millions of people due to their religious identities. Even these periodic recalls of the existing harassment of Christians in some of our ally countries are mostly limited to a condemnation statement by a government department and/or inclusion of the violation of human rights by some countries in the following year’s report on human rights[14]. These “measures” taken by the Western governments do not protect all of the 15 million Christians in the region, from the threat of deportation from their homes, from the persecution at school or work, and, most importantly, from the risk of losing their lives[15]. To make a difference for these marginalized communities, our actions should not be limited to a few statements but must include measures forcing the governments in these countries to protect the rights of religious minorities. What kind of combination of carrot and stick should be used to achieve the objective is for the policymakers to decide. The nature of the chosen policy should not compromise the protection of Christian minorities.


The shift in the foreign policy conduct to emphasize the protection of the Christian minorities in practice in the MENA countries is not merely out of our altruistic considerations. The very basis of the existence of democracy in the Western world is not just dependent on how free and fair our elections are, but also on how the Western civilisation reacts to the persecution of innocent civilian populations who have the courage to practice their religious beliefs. Throughout the history of the region, western countries have often silently witnessed how the ancestors of these millions of innocent Christians have been persecuted. We owe to the memory of these perished Christians to protect their descendants.


Endnotes

1. Jesus Film Project, “The Stoning of Stephen”, May 2022. https://www.jesusfilm.org/blog/stoning-of-stephen/; Benny Morris & Dror Ze’evi, “Not an Armenian Genocide, but a Genocide of Christians”, Haaretz, May 2021, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2021-05-04/ty-article-opinion/not-an-armenian-genocide-but-a-genocide-of-christians/0000017f-e35d-d9aa-afff-fb5dea370000

2. Rt. Rev. Phillip Mounstephen (Bishop of Truro). “Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review for the foreign secretary of FCO Support For Persecuted Christians: Final Report and Conclusions”, 2019, https://christianpersecutionreview.org.uk/report/

3. Rebecca Paveley, “Christianity under existential threat in Middle East, says new report”, Church Times, November 2022, https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2022/18-november/news/world/christianity-under-existential-threat-in-middle-east-says-new-report

4. Matjia Šerić, “Christians in The Middle East: A Persecuted And Forgotten People – Analysis”, Eurasia Review, March 2023, https://www.eurasiareview.com/16032023-christians-in-the-middle-east-a-persecuted-and-forgotten-people-analysis/

5. Backbench Business Committee. (2022) Christian persecution: Freedom of religion or belief, 14 November 2022, HC CDP-0200, https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CDP-2022-0200/CDP-2022-0200.pdf

7. The US Department of State, “2022 Report on International Religious Freedom”, May 2023, https://www.state.gov/reports/2022-report-on-international-religious-freedom/

9. Eric Goldstein, “The Right That Vanished from Algeria’s Constitution”, Human Rights Watch, February 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/15/right-vanished-algerias-constitution

10. Amnesty International, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/universal-declaration-of-human-rights/

12. Ibid.

13. Lou Roméu, “Why Is Secular France Doubling Funding for Christian Schools in the Middle East?”, France 24, February 2022, https://www.france24.com/en/france/20220203-why-is-secular-france-doubling-funding-for-christian-schools-in-the-middle-east.

15. Patrick Wintour, “Persecution of Christians ‘coming close to genocide’ in Middle East – report”, The Guardian, May 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/02/persecution-driving-christians-out-of-middle-east-report


Bibliography

“Christian Persecution: Freedom of Religion or Belief.” UK Parliament, November 14, 2022. https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CDP-2022-0200/CDP-2022-0200.pdf.


Goldstein, Eric. “The Right That Vanished from Algeria’s Constitution.” Human Rights Watch, February 15, 2021. https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/15/right-vanished-algerias-constitution.


“International Religious Freedom Reports - United States Department of State.” U.S. Department of State, May 15, 2023. https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.


Morris, B. and Ze’evi, D. (2021) Not an armenian genocide, but a genocide of Christians: Opinion: Opinion, Haaretz.com. Available at: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2021-05-04/ty-article-opinion/not-an-armenian-genocide-but-a-genocide-of-christians/0000017f-e35d-d9aa-afff-fb5dea370000 (Accessed: 05 May 2023).


Mounstephen, Rt. Rev. Philip. “Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review for the Foreign Secretary of FCO Support for Persecuted Christians: Final Report and Recommendations: .” Christian Persecution Review, 2019. https://christianpersecutionreview.org.uk/report/.


Paveley, Rebecca. “Christianity under Existential Threat in Middle East, Says New Report.” Church Times, November 18, 2022. https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2022/18-


Roméo, Lou. “Why Is Secular France Doubling Funding for Christian Schools in the Middle East?” France 24, February 3, 2022. https://www.france24.com/en/france/20220203-why-is-secular-france-doubling-funding-for-christian-schools-in-the-middle-east.


The Stoning of Stephen (2022) Jesus Film Project. Available at: https://www.jesusfilm.org/blog/stoning-of-stephen/ (Accessed: 08 May 2023).


“Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Amnesty International. https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/universal-declaration-of-human-rights/. (Accessed: 14 May 2023)


Wintour, Patrick. “Persecution of Christians ‘coming Close to Genocide’ in Middle East – Report.” The Guardian, May 2, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/02/persecution-driving-christians-out-of-middle-east-report. (Accessed: 11 May 2023)


Šerić, Matija. “Christians in the Middle East: A Persecuted and Forgotten People – Analysis.” Eurasia Review, March 16, 2023. https://www.eurasiareview.com/16032023-christians-in-the-middle-east-a-persecuted-and-forgotten-people-analysis/.


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