The ongoing plummet of Christians living in the Middle East backed by European leader’s preferential treatment of non-Muslim refugees seeking asylum, reinforces the narrative that Europe is unequivocally Christian and the Middle East, a home reserved for Muslims only. Consequently, breeding the already existing estrangement between these two regions of the world, known for some time as the ‘East-West divide’.
The 20% of Christians that comprised the Middle East a century ago has dwindled to 5% in recent years, leaving many towns of significant Christian value in the region deprived of contact. This comes after the imposition of years of restrictions on the religious expression of Arab Christian communities which has heightened in the face of wars and conflicts, triggering hostility towards Middle Eastern minorities of the like. A report commissioned by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last year indicates that 80% of persecuted religious believers in the Middle East are Christians who experience systemic discrimination in education, employment, and social life, sometimes also falling victim to direct violence. This has led to a vast departure of Christians from the region, altering the demographics of countries like Iraq, Syria, and, Iran, that have previously been the home to sizable Christian populations.
In Iraq for example, the number of Christian inhabitants has fallen by approximately 83% in the past 16 years; home to one of the oldest Churches in the world which the Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda has claimed to be dangerously close to extinction. Prior to 2011, 44% of 250,000 registered Iraqi refugees in Syria were of Christian belief which since the war, have been hit heavily alongside Syrian Christians themselves of which half of its population is estimated to have left the country with evidence suggesting no expectation or intention to return. In some of Syria’s larger cities however, the proportion of Christians and Muslims escaping the civil war is of equal number, highlighting the inevitable struggle that touches all in the face of political turmoil.
Yet, not all are able to recognise this however, as many European countries, in the battle to preserve the so called ‘Christian culture of Europe’, have been welcoming Christian refugees over Muslim, with justifications given that are potentially similar in scope to those provided for the treatment of Christians in the Middle East. The reason for Hungary’s preferential treatment was iterated by prime minister Viktor Orban as the desire for Europe to continue ‘belonging to Europeans’. Poland, Slovakia, Estonia, Czech Republic, and recently Sweden have held similar positions on the matter, by voicing a responsibility in helping Christians or using the Islamic terrorist wildcard as an excuse for their discriminatory practices, which violates EU law.
A spokesman from Operation Safe Havens, Andrew Carey has defended the practices of such countries, drawing upon the vulnerability faced by Christian minorities outside of Europe, who he believes should be given priority as a result. European countries with dwindling Christian significance are more likely to accept Muslim refugees, yet grievances can still be expressed in the form of demonstration about a perceived ‘Islamisation of Europe’ in these states. An example of this was a movement called Pegida in Germany which involved protesters carrying a large illuminated cross, painted in the colours of the German flag to portray their role in enshrining the Christian spirit of Europe, following Angela Merkel’s announcement that Germany would welcome all refugees from the Middle East regardless of their religious beliefs. Such backlash has caused some Muslim refugees to convert to Christianity or falsely identify themselves as so, in a bit to gain legal residency in places like Germany, which raises concerns elsewhere about the legitimacy of those claiming to be of Christian belief from the Middle East.
The growing homogeneity of these two regions of the world comes as a shame rather than a source of pride, when remembering the integral part Islam has played in Europe historically, and the strong foundations of Christianity which are embedded nowhere else but in the Middle East. The situation at hand epitomes our failure to co-exist as two religions nested in the same Abrahamic tradition, in contrast to our ancestors of pre-modern times in Medieval Andalusia, Arabia, and Ottoman Palestine and Syria. Let us hope that the Pope’s visit to Iraq next March will help secure Christianity’s rightful place in the region whilst inspiring European leaders to act more benevolently towards Muslims seeking residency in Europe.