What happens in the next few weeks in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is crucial for Mideast Christians — and the stability and pluralism of these countries and the wider region.
Christianity was born in the Middle East, yet Jesus Christ’s followers there face a perilous moment. The Christian share of the population has shrunk to about 5 percent (if that), down from more than 20 percent at the turn of the last century. The decline attests to a century of their ruthless persecution — bookended by the genocide committed by Turkey a century ago and the recent one attempted by ISIS.
In Iraq, protesters are demanding an end to sectarian government and equal citizenship for all regardless of ethnicity or religion. Recent years have seen ordinary Iraqis get squeezed between the Sunni totalitarians of ISIS and Shiite Iran’s imperial hegemony. They are fed up with both.
Which is why protesters are calling for the abolition of Iraq’s dependence on Islamic law in favor of an overtly civil state. The message has drawn Christian support, including from the Chaldean Catholic patriarch and other bishops and priests, who have marched alongside Muslim citizens. The protests have remained peaceful despite hundreds killed, primarily by Iranian-backed militias.
The future of the Iraqi state hangs in the balance. Either it will become more sectarian under the influence of its more powerful neighbors — or it will become the pluralistic country sought by thousands marching in the streets, including Christians.
Meanwhile, Turkey launched an incursion into northeast Syria, home to many Christian communities, with Turkey’s militia allies in Syria including Islamist terrorists, according to Christian leaders and credible regional observers.
Ankara has protested the recent bipartisan congressional resolution to recognize the Turkish genocide against Armenians and other Christians, and it has done little to alleviate concerns that its actions in the region will restage elements of those dark days when it comes to Christians and other regional minorities.
Most Christians in northeastern Syria are either the descendants of people who fled from the Turks during and after World War I, or they are people who fled there in the past few years from ISIS. When Turkey attacks a Christian neighborhood in Qamlishi (as it did at the start of its operation), or when its proxies attack a Christian church (as they did in October), or when newly resurgent Islamist terrorists kill Armenian Catholic priests — Mideast Christians and their allies are reminded of the worst of the last century’s barbarous acts.
Then there is Lebanon, where recent protests have targeted both widespread corruption and the Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah, which serves as Iran’s proxy in that country.
So far, the Lebanese state’s response has been largely nonviolent. But there is a real fear among the Christians that if the Lebanese economy collapses, the largely Christian-controlled Lebanese army may fall. The ensuing economic chaos in Lebanon may plunge the country into crisis and the mass exodus of the last statistically substantial group of Christians in any country in the Middle East.
Many Christians persecuted elsewhere in the region have fled to Lebanon. If Lebanon were to lose its gift for pluralism, that could spell the end of the concept in the rest of the region.
The governments of Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran bear much responsibility for what happens from here. So does the United States, historically the principal outside power in the region. To its credit, the Trump administration has worked to ensure that religious minorities, which have faced persecution in much of the Middle East, aren’t overlooked.
The United States must play a decisive role in these issues through diplomacy. It must continue to press the countries of the region to end corruption, to put the needs of their people first and, in short, do the right thing. Governments in the region still listen closely to Washington, and we must continue to press for the protection of persecuted religious minorities. The well-being and physical security of indigenous Christian communities must be treated as a permanent agenda item in all US aid and military assistance discussions with regional governments.
Because if the Christians go, so will any hope of a stable Middle East.