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
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".
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
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
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
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
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
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
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