For Christians across the Middle East, Easter should be a week of joyous celebration and salvation. But in the region where Christianity was born, it proved a somber reminder of a precarious future for the religion’s adherents.
The Easter holy week got off to a bloody start when forty-five people were killed in ISIS attacks on two Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday. Though the incidents were the worst in recent memory, Egypt’s Coptic community of around 10 million has long faced state and societal discrimination. Since 2011, an estimated 200,000 Copts have fled the country to escape endemic prejudice.
In Iraq, Christians celebrated Easter mass in the northern town of Qaraqosh for the first time since the town was liberated from ISIS control. Once one of Iraq’s most important Christian towns, it now lies in ruins. Amidst burnt out churches and sectarian graffiti, it was a bitter sweet return for many.
In nearby Erbil, tens of thousands of Assyrian Christians displaced by the conflict with ISIS celebrated Holy Saturday in refugee camps. Since 2003, a million Christians have fled the country to escape war, and sectarian violence. Some in Iraq question whether the community will even exist in a decade’s time. “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians,” the Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako said in 2014.
Easter in the Syrian city of Homs took place against a backdrop of bullet-riddled buildings and bombed out homes. Only a small number of Homs’s 300,000 Christians returned to the city, after regime forces recaptured it. Since the brutal conflict began in 2011, half of the country’s Christians, around 450,000 people, have fled the country.
Meanwhile, in Palestine, the birthplace of Christianity, political strife and Israel’s occupation have stifled the community. Bethlehem, the city where Christ was born, has been cut off from Jerusalem by Israel’s separation wall, and the Christian community has dwindled. Over eighty percent of Palestinian Catholics are now estimated to live abroad.
Overall, in the past decade, the Middle East’s Christian community, one of the region’s most ancient, diverse, and vibrant, has slowly started to disappear.
Christians are, of course, subject to the same political instability and violence affecting majority population groups in the region. Thanks to weak and corrupt political institutions, however, a lack of equality, social intolerance, and sectarian extremism has compounded their suffering.
Minority persecution is not simply an issue for Christians in the region. As the Center for American Progress notes; “the status of Christians in the Middle East is an important leading indicator of the type of region that is emerging.”
After two thousand years, the situation facing Christians in the Middle East underscores broader regional trends of tolerance, pluralism, and political stability. At present, that future is bleak.