We continue our GCN special series where our specialists analyse political, economic and social contexts of countries to identify potential security concerns for Christian communities. This week David Charlwood, GCN staff writer, turns his attention to Christians living in the Middle East particularly Iraq, Syria and Iran.
The remnants of the Christian community in Iraq remain in a perilous position at the start of 2018, despite the declaration last month by the Iraqi Prime Minister that the war against Islamic State (IS) is over.
Many thousands of displaced Christians still live in camps and are wary of returning home, while the majority of those who have been eking out an existence in derelict homes without electricity or running water. Repopulated towns in the historically Christian region of Nineveh are on the front line of the conflict between the Iraqi and Kurdish governments. Christians who had returned to the village of Teleskof, 19 miles north of Mosul, were ordered to leave again in October by an emissary of the Iraqi government, ahead of an operation by Iraqi forces to wrestle control of the village from Kurdish Pashmerga.
Iranian-backed militia, fighting on behalf of the Shia dominated Iraqi government, are undertaking what has been described as a systematic attempt to “change the Christian demography” of the region. The militia have established sectarian schools, in some cases in church buildings, and streets and public buildings are reported to be covered in sectarian graffiti.
Parliamentary elections in Iraq and scheduled for March 2018, but it is currently not clear whether Kurdish parties will take part, following the referendum in Kurdistan in September 2017, in which voters overwhelmingly backed independence. The Iraqi government, strongly supported by both Turkey and Iran, is avowedly against the establishment of a fully independent Kurdistan and since the referendum has reversed territorial gains by Kurdish troops during the fight against IS.
Iraq’s Christians are caught in the crossfire and even though IS has been militarily defeated, there remains a very real prospect that 2018 could witness the end of the centuries-old Christian presence in the country.
The threat to Christians in Syria in 2018 is most likely to come from Islamist groups that havepreviouslyoperated in the shadow of Islamic State. The indications from attacks in the last year are that jihadists will continue to attempt attacks in Damascus, where many Christians have fled for refuge. Fatah al Sham (formerly the Al Qaida affiliated Nusra Front) and Ahrar al Sham are among the prominent jihadi groups known to have targeted Syrian Christians, who also face possible attacks from a resurgent Al Qaida in Syria and Iraqi border regions. In December there were unconfirmed reports of Islamist rebels shelling prominent churches in Damascus; more than 120 churches have been destroyed by Islamists so far during the conflict.
The number of Christians in Syria is now thought to be as low as 500,000, compared to perhaps as many as 2.2 million before the outbreak of the war. In major civilian centres which have been badly damaged in the war, such as Aleppo, economic prospects are bleak for those of working age, while much of the Christian population which saw out the violence comprised of elderly believers who were unable to flee. The Syrian Christian community of 2018 is unrecognisable from the thriving body of believers it was less than a decade ago.
The Iranian government continues to export regional instability through its involvement in the conflicts in Iraq and Yemen. Iranian Shia militia represent an active threat to Christians in Iraq, while in Yemen, the proxy-war between Iranian backed Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government supported by Saudi Arabia has entrapped Yemen’s tiny Christian minority, most of whom are Christian refugees from Ethiopia.
In Iran itself, authorities are demonstrating continued determination to crack down on Farsi speaking congregations, through arrests and raids on house churches. There are no signs that re-election of so-called moderate Hassan Rouhani in May 2017 will lead to any change in the stance of the leadership of the Islamic Republic towards Christians; independent research published last year found that there were more individuals from religious minorities in prison in Iran currently than before Rouhani came to power in 2013.
The Trump administration’s apparent willingness to backtrack on the Iran nuclear deal agreed in 2015 between Iran, the US, Russia and several European nations potentially puts Christians who are foreign nationals or those with dual passports at greater risk. Iranian authorities have historically used detained visiting foreign nationals as bargaining chips in negotiations. American-Iranian pastor Saeed Abedini spent four years in jail, before being released in 2016 in what Iranian authorities claimed was a prisoner swap.