Philip Jenkins reports that for Christians in the Middle East, 2014 has been a catastrophe.
The most wrenching stories have come from Iraq, where the nascent Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL in news reports) has savagely persecuted ancient Christian communities, including Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Syrian Orthodox. Iraqi Christians have declined rapidly in number since the first Gulf War in 1991, but survivors long believed they could maintain a foothold around Mosul.
This past summer, that hope collapsed. In a ghastly reminder of Nazi savagery against Jews, Christian homes were marked with the Arabic letter for Nazarenes—Christ followers.*
Could this get worse?
All local Christians know the answer. They look back at the experience of Jews, who flourished across the region just a century ago but have now vanished from virtually every Mideast nation outside Israel. Since 1950, Egypt’s Jewish population has shrunk from 100,000 to perhaps 50; Iraq’s, from 90,000 to a mere handful. Christian Aleppo or Damascus could easily go the way of Jewish Baghdad.
Jenkins identifies a lesson from history:
However often we talk of churches dying, they rarely do so without extraordinary external intervention. Churches don’t die because their congregations age, their pastors behave scandalously, the range of programs they offer wears thin, or their theology becomes muddled. Churches vanish when they are deliberately and efficiently killed by a determined foe.
He also identifies signs of hope:
Over the past decade, we have heard amazing claims about new Christian evangelization in Muslim countries, usually accompanied by incredible conversion statistics.
Having said that, some specific accounts are much more believable. David Garrison’s recent book, A Wind in the House of Islam, describes the Christian appeal in diverse Muslim societies. Remarkably, Syria offers some of the most convincing examples of this trend. Garrison is a responsible and critical reporter. The problem, though, is that all such activity is clandestine, for fear of arousing persecution.
Philip Jenkins, author of The Lost History of Christianity, is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University.
* (The 14th letter of the Arabic alphabet and the equivalent to the Roman letter N pronounced “noon”. See the image above.)