Act now to save the Middle East's Christians

Why won't the West stand up for the most persecuted minority?

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

It is hard to believe that at one time nearly the whole of the Middle East and much of north Africa were predominantly Christian. Think of the great Christian cities such as Alexandria, Damascus, Edessa, Constantinople and Carthage. Monasticism, the great civilising force, in both east and west, took its rise to the dusty end of the Mediterranean and some of the church’s greatest theologians came from there.

What changed the picture? In a word, Islam. The arrival of the newly Muslim Arabs disrupted the flow of history in the Middle East and beyond. The Christian cities capitulated one by one. Some communities were destroyed in the conflict, others were dispersed. For those that remained, a system of discrimination was set in place: they had to pay special taxes, wear distinctive dress, they could not build new churches. In due course, they were excluded from holding office.

From time to time there were riots and massacres. These, as well as the process of attrition brought about by living under the dhimma (the system by which certain non-Muslims were allowed to live in the Islamic domains), progressively reduced the strength of the Christian communities.

An Egyptian holds a cross and the Koran,An Egyptian holds a cross and the Koran following religious clashes that left at least thirteen people dead in Cairo, March 2011 Photo: AFP/Getty

In spite of the strictures, Christians were able to maintain their relative strength, in some cases for centuries. In Egypt, the Coptic population did not fall below 50 per cent until after the pogroms of the 14th century. Christians were able to make notable contributions to science, philosophy, government, architecture and the arts. But all the while their mentality and that of their rulers were formed by the unequal relationship.

When, under intense western pressure, the dhimma was relaxed in the 19th century, there were still significant Jewish and Christian communities throughout the Ottoman empire. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948, as well as the wars of 1967 and 1973, meant that the Jewish communities of the Middle East and north Africa migrated to Israel, leaving the Christians as the only substantial minority in many of these countries.

Their new status as fellow citizens with their Muslim compatriots allowed these Christians to make a contribution, out of all proportion to their numbers, to the emergence of nationalist states which were defined not so much by religion as by a shared language, culture and history. Even then, those communities that did not fit in with nationalist aspirations, such as the Armenians and the Greeks in Turkey, faced persecution, execution or exile.

All of this informs the current situation. It has been, however, the rise of radical Islamism from the 1950s onwards which has defined the place and treatment of minorities in the region. The Islamists have been keen to continue the disadvantages suffered by these communities in, for instance, repairing church buildings, and they have pressed for the introduction of fresh restrictions.

The desecration of cemeteries in Libya, the murder of clergy in Iraq and Syria, the attacks on churches in Egypt and their forcible conversion into mosques there and elsewhere are all contemporary outrages which remind us sadly what mobs and despots have done to these communities in the past.

The changes are not, however, just the doings of an angry mob. In Iran and Pakistan, separate electorates were introduced for non-Muslims so they could vote only for the small number of parliamentary seats allocated to them (Pakistan has since then, to its credit, reintroduced joint electorates). This is a barely disguised attempt to revive the dhimma, albeit dressed in ‘democratic’ clothes. It is well known that the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, Kuwait and elsewhere have had a chilling effect on freedom of speech, and non-Muslims or ‘heterodox’ Muslims have suffered disproportionately because of these laws. Even when ‘apostasy’ is not a crime on the statute books, jurists will regularly try people for it under sharia. Such a practice completely negates the basic freedoms of belief and expression guaranteed under the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This litany of persecution is long but what, people will ask, can be done about it? There is an urgent need for governments and the UN to promote Article 18 of the Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of belief and expression. This element of international law must be to the fore, and all states should be expected to adhere to it.

SYRIA-CONFLICTSyrian army armoured personnel carrier  roles along a street leading into Maalula, one of the most renowned Christians towns in Syria, where many of its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Photo:AFP/Getty

Many are hopeful that the second revolution in Egypt will produce an atmosphere of tolerance. During my recent visit there I observed a kind of near euphoria among Christians, women and other groups. But without vigilance, the current optimism could evaporate and we could be back to the status quo ante. Christians have many friends in Egypt, but also significant enemies.

In spite of the greater openness to the West since President Rouhani came to office in Iran, there has been no corresponding easing of the situation with regard to minorities. In fact, reports from Tehran suggest a tightening up of controls. This is where the international agenda and the domestic need to be addressed together. A totalitarian Iran will not be a reliable partner globally. Every opportunity must be taken by our leaders to raise the issue of fundamental freedoms with their Iranian counterparts.

The sovereignty of states has, of course, to be respected. But from time to time there have been interventions when there has been danger of genocide, the collapse of state apparatus or unwanted foreign incursion. There have been sanctions, no-fly zones and even ‘boots on the ground’ to protect ethnic or religious groups from their oppressors.

So why not now? If Muslims need protection in the Balkans, the Kurds in Iraq or indigenous communities in the Americas or Australia, why not Christians in the Middle East and beyond? Such protection need not always be military or undertaken through the threat of economic sanction. It can often be achieved simply through raising awareness of the situation in which these communities find themselves. It can also be provided through advocacy and campaigning as well as diplomacy and negotiation. But sanctions and military means will sometimes be needed to deter the oppressor and to give confidence to the oppressed. After all, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Michael Nazir-Ali was Bishop of Rochester from 1994 until 2009.

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Show comments
  • Treebrain

    Why not ask David Cameron, after all he was set on military action to support Syrian rebus despite their persecution of Christians and other non-Sunni religious groups.

    How ironic that it was Assad and Hezbollah who have done the most to protect Christians in Syria?

    • Roy

      David Cameron will only commit action if it resounds with cheers from the minorities in the UK. His mind works in weird and wonderful ways, and not to the credit of the English base.

    • Mohammed

      HEZBOLLAH, they call it the Army of God!! Better believe it!!

      • David Kay

        theyre a nazi terrorist organistaion

        • Bonkim

          But they are Assad’s friends and Assad is friend of Syrian Christians persecuted by Al Khaida – so Hezbolla is the friend of the Christians and you just cannot call Hezbollah a Nazi terrorist organisation.

          • David Kay

            yes i can. i dont believe in the nonsense that my enemys enemy is my friend. what i believe in is the RAF launching air strikes agianst those who are murdering Christians, and while they’re at it, they can take out the scum that murder jews as well

          • Bonkim

            British Parliament will not allow that.

  • General George A. Custard

    Act now to save the Middle East’s Christians – Support Israel !

    • Randy McDonald

      Why would that be the case?
      Israel is in the Middle East for its own reasons, understandably, and allying with Christians hasn’t been a thing since the attempt to intervene in Lebanon in the early 1980s. Frequently the Christians are opposed to Israeli aims–see the failure to cultivate Palestinian Christians separately from Palestinian Muslims, or the pro-Syrian sentiments of many Lebanese Christians.

      • Rocksy

        Why should anyone sacrifice their interests for Christians? You look much better when you stand up for Muslims. Besides Christians don’t generally blow people up. So nothing to lose from ignoring them.

        • disqus_9I6C4azbIA

          Surely Christians blew up lots of people during their three invasions of Iraq.

          • Rocksy

            You aren’t a stupid man, you understand perfectly what I mean.
            Name one society where Islam holds any influence which isn’t a violent, primitive, oppressive sink hole. Turkey included.
            I thought the invasion of Iraq would be a good thing for the people. I know better now. They are primitive, violent and corrupt. Any hope for them, they will have to find within themselves.

          • disqus_9I6C4azbIA

            You are in denial. Show me a Christian country that is not violent or oppressive. In my lifetime I have seen Christians murder countless people of all and no faith during the Holocaust. NO Islamic nation or culture has perpetrated such enormous horrors. Please do not try to tell me that the Nazi nations were not Christian..

          • Rocksy

            Still waiting for you to name one Islamic nation which isn’t a sink hole.

          • disqus_9I6C4azbIA

            I would cite the nations that the English provide with state of the art weapons systems. Beginning with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Dubia and Egypt to name but a few. Apparently Eyerack an d the Afgans are now no longer sink holes as the English taught them to be better people.

          • Rocksy


          • Mohammed

            Malaysia, Indonesia. Anyway there isn’t a true Islamic Nation today. A true Islamic nation will exist only when there is a Caliph.

          • Rocksy

            Let me clarify, when I talk about civilized societies I of course mean by Western standards.

          • Bonkim

            Thought you were evenly balanced Rocksy – I liked your previous posts; you introduce bias in saying Western standards of civilisation – that is arrogant and ups the ante.

            Many Eastern societies were/are highly civilized and some of the markers brought into Western cultures – equality, gay-rights, democracy, freedom of speech, etc, are of recent origin particularly post WW2 – when World decided going back to their beastly past only brings more misery for all.

            Slavery is considered evil today but until the latter half of the 19th century a respected business in the civilized West with many Parliamentarians having shares in the multinational shipping Cos. Women got the vote or property rights in Britain and the US only in early 20th century, etc. It was natural for British and American industrialists to operate sweat shops up until WW2 much like what goes on in Bangladesh or Indonesia.

            Civilization is only skin deep and could easily break down if insecurity and competitive forces come into play. Then again you won’t call the barbarous Romans that worshipped pagan Gods and massacred and enslaved whole populations civilized would you? But historians do.

          • Rocksy

            I’m still waiting

          • Bonkim

            waiting for what?

          • Bonkim

            There are sink holes and sink holes – the question is how deep you want to go? To be fair not everything done in the name of Christianity brings glory to God.

          • Rocksy

            Still waiting.

          • Bonkim

            Yes they were, Every Church in Germany flew the Nazi flag and Pope Pius tacitly blessed the beginning of the 1000 year Reich.

          • jame mc cormic

            nazi ‘s ware not about chriastinaty ,it was all about superior aryan civilisation they wanted to create .hitler was blessed by the imam of jerusalem back then,not only that turkey cited with nazi germans and wanted to destroy smaller balkan nations

          • Bonkim

            The Catholic Church/Rome also supported the Nazis and the Catholics hated Jews too so don’t bring Muslims into the discussion – the Jews were better looked after in islamic countries than in Christian Europe.

  • WalterBannon

    The only way to save the middle east’s Christians is to mount a new crusade and wipe out every last odious muslim this time.

    • Mohammed

      Yep just like you tried to wipe out the Jews of Europe in the 1930s/40s but failed. You failed in the first crusades and you’ll fail again.

      The reason??? Jesus hates your stupid religion of Christianity. He’ll come back and destroy it once and for all.

      • jame mc cormic

        keep on dreaming , you like wise can never take europe and the west from us either , and yes if we want we can put all our army (including that of russia) and oblitarate moslems from middle east

    • Bonkim

      The Islamic extremists would love that. Their objective is Jihad – holy war with heaven as the reward for all killed by the infidel.

  • Randy McDonald

    What does Nazir-Ali suggest the West do?

    Is he suggesting, perhaps, military intervention in Egypt and Syria, or at least sanctions? Simply saying that a whole suite of reactions are possible says nothing about what are good ideas.

    • Bonkim

      Quite right Randy. The West has intervened in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Indonesia – regrettably violence breeds violence.

  • Uncle Brian

    The former bishop of Rochester is deserving of the greatest respect for hs long and
    valiant stand in favour of the Church of England against its enemies, not least
    against the enemies within. It is with considerable reluctance, therefore, that
    I take issue with him on a couple of things he says in this piece.

    It [protection of Christian communities in the Middle East] can also be provided
    through advocacy and campaigning as well as diplomacy and negotiation. But
    sanctions and military means will sometimes be needed to deter the oppressor
    and to give confidence to the oppressed.

    This reads like a memo from the Circumlocution Office. What do you mean, Your Lordship, “will sometimes be needed”? Are they needed now? If so, where? Please find a way to convey your meaning in less fuzzy wording.

    The creation of the state of Israel in 1948, as well as the wars of 1967 and 1973,
    meant that the Jewish communities of the Middle East and north Africa migrated
    to Israel,

    Are you seriously telling your readers, with a straight face, that Jews in the Middle
    East who opted to move to Israel moved there and that the ones who opted to
    stay put stayed put? I refuse to believe that Your Lordship is so poorly informed about what happened in Egypt and elsewhere in 1954.

    On the plus side, however, it was encouraging to learn that nobody has pulled the wool over Your Lordship’s eyes in connection with the recent cosmetic adjustments in Tehran:

    In spite of the greater openness to the West since President Rouhani came to
    office in Iran, there has been no corresponding easing of the situation with regard to minorities. In fact, reports from Tehran suggest a tightening up of controls.

    Thank you for that, Your Lordship.

    • Bonkim

      Perhaps raising a holy Crusade for the 21st century. The situation in Syria could have been nipped in the bud if Damascus was bombed and Assad taken out at the beginning.

      • johnslattery

        Yeah. It’s the only language they understand, innit, Bonkim

        • Bonkim

          absolutely – you have to accept some collateral damage. I don’t give a damn whether a handful of Christians that love a murderous tyrant get knocked off. They should have joined the opposition if they wanted to fight for democracy and be on the side of the righteous. Such people are called traitors.

          Nazir Ali – probably a Christian convert from Islam and now showing off his credentials – but reading through – very unchristian words. If he was concerned about true Christianity he should have been more active from the beginning of this genocide and condemned Assad, not turned political opportunist – in fact he comes out as a politician batting for political Christianity instead of sticking to the Bible for his piece.

          • Randy McDonald

            Nazir-Ali is not a convert from Islam, as a brief reading of his Wikipedia article makes clear. His father was a convert, but Nazir-Ali also has Christian ancestors.

          • Bonkim

            Thanks for putting me right. Coming from a predominantly Islamic country beleaguered communities particularly recent converts (and second generation) are more zealous than those born in a culture that has been of one or the other religion for centuries and take things for granted. To many their religion is a flag and social belonging rather than considered choice. Note the two killers of Lee Rigby were born Christians and converted and wanting to prove their Islamic credentials by resorting to extremist violence.

            In many countries in Asia, religion is competitive building larger churches or Mosques or temples to shout out loud, loud speakers blaring religious songs, etc. He comes out more as a political anti-Islamic rather than a true Christian to me. True Christians keep away from politicisation of their faith and don’t ask governments of this world to help save the Churches or people. He is also calling for armed intervention ( “But sanctions and military means will sometimes be needed to deter the oppressor and to give confidence to the oppressed.”).

            I bet much of anti-Muslim sentiments arise not because of any strong belief in Christianity – but simply as a counter to Islamists asserting themselves in a sea of luke-warm Christianity or secularism.

            The real question is how to stop wanton violence in the Islamic countries and their penchant for persecution and violence against Christians and other minorities, also against other branches of Islam.

            If you look around, Christians are facing persecution not only in predominantly Islamic countries but also in countries with religions such as Buddhism or Hinduism, – look up the persecution of Christians for example in Sri Lanka, Burma and others in South and SE Asia including China. Even Russia a nominally Christian country – sects other than the Orthodox face unequal treatment, and persecution, also Islam, Buddhism, etc.

            Regrettably religion is a divisive feature in human societies regardless of the peace and love professed by all.

    • Bonkim

      He is a Christian calling the earthly powers to wage war against non-Christians to save Christians. Where did this guy get his Christianity?

  • andy_gill

    I’m afraid the UN is too busy passing pathetic resolutions against Israel to worry about Middle Eastern Christians. And much of the church in Britain is equally focussed on demonizing Israel.

    Because everybody knows the Palestinian problem is the Biggest Problem in the Universe. What are a few million Christian lives compared to the tragedy of 700,000 Palestinians moving a few miles down the road?

  • MProblem

    Because the Christian-hating professional panty-piddlers of the left won’t let us help them, that’s why.

  • Bonkim

    Nazir Ali appears to forget that a similar process established versions of Christianity at all the locations he refers to. Christianity also spread across Asia, and the Americas through military conquests, and forced conversion destroying much of the indigenous cultures, places of worship and social organisation of the conquered lands. Similar process in much of Europe via the Holy Roman Empire.

    • Mohammed


      Interesting read!! Greatest genocide of human history was the mass murder of the Native Americans by the CHRISTIANS! That is a fact.

      Pacifists religion my a****

      All sins have been taken away by the blood of Christ, therefore Christians believe they can commit mass murder and total child rape in modern day Christianity. Pathetic religion.

      • Bonkim

        Utter rubbish. All through history mass-murders have been committed by settlers, and invading forces – nothing to do with religion. Islamic invaders have carried out mass murders of Christians and others – all through Asia and periphery of Europe. Look up the history of Islamic invasions in present day South Asia – India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, Indonesia where Mongol, Arab and Persian (Muslim) hordes have been plundering and pillaging for over a thousand years, forcibly enslaving men, women and children, and converting them to Islam. Tipu Sultan in South India murdered tens of thousands of Christians in the late 18th century..

        No saints in such natters, barbarity prevailed all through the centuries and Islam was a special case of extreme cruelty and misguided belief in their religion.

        Not saying that sectarian persecution and mass-murders did not take place in Christian lands or in territory colonised by people from Europe but it appears to be carrying on in Islam dominated countries. The rest of the world has somehow calmed down on sectarian and ethnic genocide and hopefully we will not see the like of ex-Yugoslavia or Rwanda in the future.

  • disqus_9I6C4azbIA

    What do you want the West to do ? Should the English invade another Islamic country in order to impose Christian values ?

    • Mohammed

      Bet the right wingers wont sent their sons and daughters to war. They just talk the talk.

      If the west likes to invade another Muslim country, then I will say – BRING IT ON

      • Bonkim

        You will find your mind-set will put Muslims in peril and they will not thank you for that. You are a misguided bigot and idiot, biting the hand that feeds you, and as a poisonous snake not fit to live here.

        • Mohammed

          “You are a misguided bigot and idiot, biting the hand that feeds you, and as a poisonous snake not fit to live here.”

          Really?? I wasn’t the one calling for the genocide of the muslims in the middle east. It was your kind that saying such things on this post, I was just responding to it.

          I have more right to live here then you!! My grandfather was part of the British Navy in the second world war so don’t you give me that crap.

          Like I said, you people just talk the talk.

          • Bonkim

            ‘Your kind’ not sure who is calling for genocide of Muslims in the Middle-East – Muslims are doing that very well without outside help.

            Regards your Grand-dad bet he was more enlightened than some of those pretending to be Muslims today – regardless of whether Assad is a Muslim or not – I would be the first to bomb Assad’s palace and that of all his henchmen – the ones that started the genocide in Syria. I am even handed and would call for eliminating any war-criminal or tyrant – regardless of his religion. Humanity must eliminate vermin from within.

      • jame mc cormic

        the whole entire middle east would have been destroyed by only mere two u.s army squadron .so, just because muslims are killings minority in their land, doing what ever they please.

        that doesn’t make them any stronger , u.s has the best and the greatest army world has ever seen it won’t take long to kill somebody but as usual they are binded by the liberal dogma

  • Mohammed

    “The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.”

    Read more athttp://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/07/10/nice-day-genocide-shocking-quotes-indians-us-leaders-part-1-150362

  • bigsnow

    Nazar-Ali’s pompous self-interested boasts about Christian power earn him zero sympathy from a Hindu like me.

    We Hindus know all about how Christians spare no money or unscrupulous hate-Hindu propaganda to take over India and deprive Hindus of the only country that they have: when Christians control scores of nations.

    Christians historically have destroyed rival religions as in Classical Greece and Rome and in the Americas, are now ruthlessly warring against the native traditions of Black Africa, and persecuted the Jews to the extent of almost wiping them out.
    They deserve zero sympathy.

    • Bonkim

      Is that why Christians are persecuted in India? Are you the spokesman for all Hindus?

  • bigsnow


  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    But it’s not hard to believe the whole of the Middle East and much of north Africa were predominantly Christian , if the practice of Christianity was about scaring people to death.

    Christianity is not like that now. But like other religions, the difference between what is written down and what happens in practice is still causing great conflict, fear of conflict and loads of trouble.