With no end in sight to the fighting in Iraq and Syria the remaining Christian population continues to experience very difficult conditions.
A recent report, “Salt of the Earth: Impact and Significance of the Christian Presence in Syria and Iraq during the Current Crisis,” details the significant contributions Christians have made to the region and what it stands to lose if they are forced to flee.
The report was a joint effort by the organizations Open Doors, Middle East Concern, Served, and the University of East London.
Up until a few years ago Christians in Syria accounted for about 8%-10% of the 22-million population. Syria’s Christians were made up of members from 11 officially recognized groups, most of whom self-identify as Arab or Arabic-speaking, the report explained. The largest group were Greek Orthodox, with about half a million adherents.
The report put at 40%-50% the proportion of these who have been forced to leave Syria due to the conflict. The impact of those leaving has been particularly evident in the all-Christian villages.
The report also observed that many Christians may not return to Syria even upon a cessation of the conflict as they will have resettled in diaspora communities. As well, among many interviewed for the report the feeling was that “although Syria has experienced other waves of conflict and out-migration in the past, more Christians sense a greater ongoing threat in the current crisis and feel they are living in Syria on borrowed time.”
Prior to 2003 there were approximately 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, but this number has dropped dramatically, with the current number put at anywhere between 200,000 to 500,000.
Approximately 70% of Christians are from the Chaldean Catholic tradition, while the remainder are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian and Protestant.
Impact of Christianity
“Throughout much of its history, Christianity has been a minority faith in the region, yet Christians have held significant influence,” the report observed.
For example, Christians have played an important role in healthcare and the provision of aid. In relation to Syria the report said that their faith-based organizations have been better able to utilize local distribution networks for aid than secular non-governmental organizations.
“Some of the most effective and respected aid providers in Iraq are Christian organisations,” the report added.
Christians in the two countries are also known for their higher than average educational achievements. “Creative production in Syria has largely relied on the influence of Christians,” the report stated. There were approximately 300 schools in Syria run by Christian charities prior to 2012.
“Many fear, therefore, that the loss of a Christian influence in Syria could open a greater space for extremism,” the report commented, in relation to the sectors of education and culture.
In Iraq Christians also ran many prominent educational institutions and even after the Christian religious schools were replaced by a national education system many university professors were Christians, the report explained.
“Christians have played a vital role in facilitating important developments in their fields that might not have advanced without their participation,” said the report referring to Iraq. “Christians also contribute a diversity of perspectives, which helped develop critical thinking in society.”
Christians are also active in politics, with a number of Christian political parties in Syria. In general Christians have cooperated with the regime in Syria and have held senior government posts, the report stated.
In Iraq the political situation of Christians is more complicated. According to the report the Chaldean Church was seen as privileged under Baathist rule, largely due to their acceptance of an Arab Iraqi identity. By contrast Assyrians felt overlooked and victimised. In addition many Iraqi Christians went to live in the territory held by the Kurdish Regional Government.
In relation to religious freedom the report commented that in Syria there was general freedom of worship. Under the Baathist regime, Christian communities were allowed to purchase land, build churches or other institutions.
The fighting has brought with it a drastic change in this situation. “In contested areas, Christians along with their fellow countrymen have faced devastating losses mitigating any privilege or sense of rights,” the report said. This is in spite of the fact that many Christian communities have avoided taking sides in the conflict.
In Iraq also there was freedom for Christians to practice their faith, but since 2003 there have been numerous church bombings and harsh treatment of religious minorities by Islamic extremists.
In concluding, the report stated that Christians face increasing pressure and risk from multiple sources. The educational, cultural and economic achievements attained by Christians are no longer sufficient to protect them.
“Christians are widely acclaimed for their values, relative integrity, and commitment to excellence,” the report noted, but this significant contribution to their countries is in grave danger of being lost due to their forced exile and continuing persecution.