Christians in Iraq and its neighbors have long suffered discrim

Saturday, March 22, 2003

Saddam Hussein's Middle East region is home not only to 150 million Muslims but to a minority remnant of 10 million to 12 million Christians.

Their heritage extends to the biblical beginnings depicted in the Book of Acts. The new faith quickly spread to Syria, where "the disciples were for the first time called Christians" (Acts 11:26), across present-day Turkey and into Europe and points eastward.

But in modern times, Christians' status in the region has long been precarious. The Iraq situation makes matters worse.

A timely primer is "Who Are the Christians in the Middle East?" (Eerdmans) by Betty Jane and J. Martin Bailey, a U.S. Protestant clergy couple who spent four years in the region helping the Middle East Council of Churches. "The church was born in the East" and Westerners should never forget it, they say.

Mideast Christianity's diverse denominations fall into four families: Eastern Orthodox; Armenians and the other Oriental Orthodox (who accept only doctrines from the first three ecumenical councils); Catholics (in various ethnic "rites"); and scattered Protestants, called "Evangelicals" in these countries.

The Middle East Council's Beirut-based General Secretary Riad Jarjour (a Protestant clergyman) provided one chapter that says Christians "are being decimated, dispersed, depressed and disempowered."

Jarjour says Christianity's long-running "demographic hemorrhage" through emigration stems from the West's past "intrusion"; "political Judaism" with its "exclusivist claim" to the Holy Land; and the rising "political Islam," which "threatens all Arab Christians."

In Saddam's Iraq, the Baileys report, Christians, largely Chaldean Catholics, are 5 percent of the citizenry. They face "ambivalent and difficult circumstances" and have often emigrated. Though Islam is the recognized state religion, the secular Ba'athist regime has "tightly controlled" Christians and Muslims along with everyone else. The Christians are highly educated but with few exceptions "are virtually excluded from public life."

The Baileys' status reports on Iraq's neighbors:

Iran: Christians are less than 1 percent of the population; the biggest groups are the Armenians and Chaldean Catholics. Most Christians "practice their religion without hindrance" despite the Islamic revolution. However, local courts "very often favor the Muslims" and one Protestant pastor was executed in 1990 for converting from Islam.

Jordan: Islamic values are officially affirmed, but from its 1946 founding the nation has guaranteed freedom of worship. Christians, 4.2 percent of the population, are largely middle- and upper-class Palestinians and many are prominent in politics, public administration and the professions. More than half are Eastern Orthodox; another third are Catholic.

Kuwait and Saudi Arabia: Forsaking the Prophet Muhammad's tolerant example, contemporary Saudi Arabia's Muslim regime allows only very private or secret Christian meetings. Kuwait, however, lets several small denominations operate openly. In the Persian Gulf states overall, evangelism is forbidden, governments control other church activities, and the Christian population of 5 percent to 10 percent consists almost entirely of transient foreign workers.

Syria: One of the oldest Christian communities constitutes up to 10 percent of the population. About half the Christians are Eastern Orthodox, alongside Armenians, other Oriental Orthodox and Catholics. The secular Ba'athist regime closely supervises all organizations. However, Muslims and Christians "are equal before the law." Churches practice their faith openly and receive public aid and even occasional time on state television.

Turkey: Though Turkey has been an important land since New Testament times, Christians today are a mere 0.2 percent of its population, living mostly in Istanbul. Earlier in the century the 2 million-plus Armenians were "virtually annihilated" and today number a mere 60,000. Eastern Orthodoxy's historic prime see now has 3,000 parishioners. The state is officially secular but "Christians experience many constraints, both formal and informal."

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