US report: future ‘dire’ for Middle East Christians

08 May 2015

AP

Desolate landscape: a Kurdish boy walks between buildings that were destroyed during the battle between the US-backed Kurdish forces and the Islamic State fighters in Kobani, north Syria, on 18 April

Desolate landscape: a Kurdish boy walks between buildings that were destroyed during the battle between the US-backed Kurdish forces and the Islamic...

THE oppression and displacement experienced by Christians in the Middle East in the face of wars and religious bigotry are highlighted in the latest report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (CIRF). Among the 17 states categorised as Countries of Particular Concern, six are in the Middle East: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan in Tier 1; and Egypt, Iraq, and Syria in Tier 2.

The report says that in Iran, over the past year, "religious-freedom conditions continued to deteriorate, particularly for religious minorities, especially Baha'is, Christian converts, and Sunni Muslims." It says that the government "continues to use its religious laws to silence reformers . . . for exercising their internationally protected rights to freedom of expression and religion or belief".

President Hassan Rouhani, who came to power in June 2013, "has not delivered on his campaign promises to strengthen civil liberties for religious minorities. Physical attacks, harassment, detention, arrests and imprisonment continued," the report says.

About Saudi Arabia, the CIRF says that, despite the kingdom's remaining "unique in the extent to which it restricts the public expression of any religion other than Islam, there were some improvements in religious freedom, including further progress on revisions to public-school religious textbooks."

The government of Sudan, by contrast, still engages in "systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion and belief". The authorities prosecute anyone accused of apostasy, impose a restrictive interpretation of Islamic law, and apply punishments "on Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and harass the country's Christian community".

Although Coptic Christians in Egypt continue to feel uncertain about their security, the CIRF gives some credit to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for having "made several important public statements and gestures encouraging religious tolerance". He has also urged changes to be made to religious curricula.

These developments, the report says, represent "a significant shift in tone and rhetoric from his predecessors".

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The CIRF points out that President Sisi was the first Egyptian head of state to attend a Coptic Christmas mass, and he also offered condolences in person to Pope Tawadros II after the killing of 21 Copts in Libya by Islamic State (IS) (News, 24 April).

A government report on the violence in 2013 revealed that 29 people died in sectarian-related killings, and 52 churches were destroyed and another 12 damaged. About ten per cent of the churches and other property are in the process of being rebuilt.

Iraq, in the light of the IS atrocities against Christians and other minorities, is strongly criticised. The report says that the "overall human-rights landscape, including for religious freedom, deteriorated significantly in 2014".

In the decade up to 2013, the Christian community in Iraq halved to an estimated 500,000. All minority communities, CIRF states, are continuing to decline, "with Iraqi Christian leaders now stating that their community only numbers around 250,000-300,000".

The Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq is deemed the safest part of the country.

The CIRF's assessment of Syria, after four years of conflict, is that the various communities there "are largely deprived of religious freedom, and its history of religious diversity may be lost". The report says that diversity and freedom are victims of the actions of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, and also the IS.

Although the jihadists are guilty of countless atrocities committed against Syrians and foreigners of all faiths, the report accuses the "regime and its supporters, including terrorist groups", of using tactics "such as extra-judicial killings, rape, torture, chemical weapons, [and] indiscriminate shelling of civilian sites, including mosques and churches".

The section on Syria ends on a particularly pessimistic note: "All Syrians, including Sunni, Shi'a, and Alawite Muslims, Christians, and the smallest communities, such as Yazidis and Druze, are living in bleak conditions, and face a dire future."

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Monday that China had made representations to the US about concerns raised by the CIRF over religious policies in Beijing. A ministry spokesman, Hua Chunying, told reporters that China "respects and protects" freedom of religious belief. "The so-called report", he went on, "is full of political prejudice."

Christians sentenced in Iranian court. It was reported that the Iranian Revolutionary Court has sentenced two Christians to a total of ten years in prison. One of the men, Ebrahim Firouzi, is from an Islamic background, and is currently serving another sentence in prison; the other, Sevada Aghasar, an Iranian-Armenian Christian, was previously sentenced to five years in prison by the same court. He is currently free on bail.

 

THE end of Christianity in the Middle East would be a "loss for the whole world", a conference on the future for Christians in that region has heard.

Speaking in Bari, Italy, at the conference "Christians in the Middle East: What Future?" at the end of last month, the General Bishop of the Coptic Church in the UK, Bishop Angaelos, said that Christians "are an intrinsic part of, and a stabilising force in, the region, and losing them would be a loss to the whole world".

He also paid tribute to the "martyrs" from Ethiopia and Egypt who were killed recently by Islamic State terrorists; two Syrian archbishops who remain missing; and many other Christians in Iraq and Syria who had lost their lives.

The conference was hosted by the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Bari and the Community of Sant'Egidio, in response to a call from Pope Francis for a response from the international community to the threats facing Christians across the Middle East.

The Vatican's Prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, said that peaceful co-existence between Christians, Jews, and Muslims had been "dismantled".

He told the conference: "Christians of the region deserve our solidarity, our gratitude, and every possible support. If things do not move in this direction, we do not doubt that the pockets of 'power gone mad', which is ISIS, will multiply . . . because they are supported with arms and other resources from various interested factions," Vatican Radio reported.

Pastors in the Middle East should pour "consolation, forgiveness, and mercy" even on the most recent wounds suffered by Christians in the region, Cardinal Sandri said. Although the issues were hugely complex, he went on, a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict was a necessary part of stability.

Yazidis killed in Iraq. Hundreds of Iraqis from the religious-minority Yazidi sect have been killed by Islamic State (IS). Yazidi and Iraqi officials said that the killings took place last Friday, in northern Iraq. The 300 Yazidis who were killed were captured by IS last year, but it is not clear why they were killed.

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