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Churches and mosques on the Damascus skyline, 2010. Photo by Dennis Gruending

Christian exodus

How do we protect the 'human' rights of religious minorities in the Middle East?

By Dennis Gruending

Recently, a friend who is a Christian of Lebanese origin, asked when I'm going to write about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. We sat down for most of an afternoon to talk, revisiting what has happened there and what might be done about it. 

Some of what's occurring must surely be a crime against humanity. One egregious example is the brutality inflicted by Islamic State extremists who attempt to impose a fundamentalist caliphate in an area that straddles the failed states of Iraq and Syria. 

Last summer, Islamic State fighters captured large swaths of territory, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Christians and members of other minority groups were given a stark choice between converting to Islam or dying. Most chose to flee.

The Christian population of Mosul during the 2003 U.S. invasion was estimated to have been 35,000, but in the ensuing chaos and violence, all but a few Christian families have taken flight. In all of Iraq, the Christian population has declined from roughly 1.2 million in 2003 to fewer than 500,000 today — and more are leaving all of the time. 

In fact, a Christian exodus from the Middle East has been occurring for decades, which is a great irony considering that countries, such as present-day Iraq and Syria, were among the early cradles of Christianity.  

It's important to note, however, that members of other minorities are also being targeted by Islamic State militants. In Iraq, this included members of the Yasidi, Turkmen and Shabak minorities. It's also true that Shia Muslims are the most frequent victims of their Sunni co-religionists. 

What's more, Muslims, Christians and other minorities have lived in these communities in relative harmony for centuries. It's the arrival of violent and well-armed jihadists; not local community tensions, that has led to this persecution.  

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the opposition parties have condemned the persecution of Iraqi and other Christians, as they must. Canada has also sent war planes to participate in bombing against Islamic State militants. But inevitably, that means civilians will die in those attacks, too. Pope Francis has even called for dialogue, peace and prayers, cautioning that “violence isn’t overcome by violence.” 

Canada, after dragging its feet, has now announced that it will resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years. The government has also said that it'll focus on resettling those Syrians who are Christians. But that is a mistake and an attempt by the Conservatives to play to their base. Governments should never draw distinctions in the religious persuasion of refugees.

Although there has been much talk about protecting the religious rights, we should instead insist upon the protection of human rights, which are even more fundamental. Protecting these kind of rights in the Middle East would — by very definition — apply to religious rights, just as they apply to the protection against persecution on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation. 

Author's photo
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author, blogger and a former Member of Parliament. His work will appear on the second and fourth Thursday of the month. His Pulpit and Politics blog can be found at www.dennisgruending.ca.
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