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Is Christianity under threat in Middle East?

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By Nithin Sridhar

The rise of ISIS in Iraq that has resulted in massive migration and persecution of Christians from Middle East may eventually lead to an end of Christianity in Middle East.

A report published in The New York Times magazine says: “ISIS is looking to eradicate Christians and other minorities altogether. The group twists the early history of Christians in the region — their subjugation by the sword — to legitimize its millenarian enterprise.

Recently, ISIS posted videos delineating the second-class status of Christians in the caliphate. Those unwilling to pay the jizya tax or to convert would be destroyed, the narrator warned, as the videos culminated in the now infamous scenes of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians in Libya being marched onto the beach and beheaded, their blood running into the surf.”

The report gives a brief history of Christianity in Middle East and how Christians have faced persecution over many centuries. The Christians in Iraq trace their roots to Mesopotamian empires that ruled the lands between Tigris River and Euphrates River around 1000 years before Jesus Christ and therefore they started calling themselves by various names such as Assyrians, Syriac etc. According to traditional beliefs, Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, sent Thaddeus to Mesopotamia to spread Christianity there.

From then on till present, Christianity has co-existed with other faiths like Judaism, Zoroastrianism and other faiths of communities like Druze, Yazidis and Mandeans. But, the Christian community is divided among themselves into Catholics, Eastern, Orthodox and Assyrian Church of the East.

When Islam arrived into Iraq around 7th century, there was a gradual shift from Christianity into Islam. But, the Eastern Christians had to live as dimmis– those who were allowed to practice their faith but had to pay jizya tax. With the fall of Ottoman Empire and the beginning of World War I, violence and persecution of Christians erupted in Middle East. The Young Turks killed around 2 million Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks, most of whom were Christians.

In countries like Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Jordan, the Christian population has seen a continuous decline over last 100 years. The Christians once comprised 14 per cent of the population. But, today they are only 4 per cent. In Lebanon, where Christians have considerable political influence, their population share has reduced from 78 per cent to just 34 per cent. Hostile political environment, low birthrate and rise of extremist groups have all contributed to the decline of Christianity.

After the US intervention in Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Christians had to flee due to extremists attack on them. The report quotes Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil as saying: “Since 2003, we’ve lost priests, bishops and more than 60 churches were bombed.” The Christian population in Iraq was 1.5 million in 2003. But, today it is less than 500 thousand.

Now with Arab Spring toppling dictators like Mubarak in Egypt and Qaddafi in Libya who had protected minorities, the persecution and decline of Christians and other minorities has increased. Now with the rise of ISIS, the future of Christianity in Middle East is very bleak and uncertain. The report quotes Nuri Kino, a journalist and founder of the advocacy group Demand for Action: “How much longer can we flee before we and other minorities become a story in a history book.”

One of the main routes taken by those who are fleeing Iraq goes through Lebanon. Recently, when ISIS assaulted and kidnapped 230 people for ransom, thousands of Christians from villages in north-eastern Syria along the Khabur River fled and took shelter in Lebanon. The ISIS is demanding a ransom of $ 100,000 for each of the 230 captives i.e. a total of $ 23 million.

The situation is not good in Syria either. Since, 2011, when civil war broke out, around one third of the Syrian Christians had no choice but to flee the country as they were forced out by extremist groups like Nusra Front and now by ISIS. The report quotes BassamIshaya and his family who have fled Syria due to ISIS threat, as saying: “Christians will all leave. What can I do? I have four kids, I can’t leave them here to die.”

David Saperstein, the United States ambassador at large for religious freedom has said: “To see these communities, primarily Christians, but also the Yazidis and others, persecuted in such large numbers is deeply alarming”.

But US has been criticized for not doing enough to help Christians and other refugees. The US has given an aid of $ 416 million since October 2013. The amount is not enough when compared to what is needed.

It has already admitted around 122,000 refugees from Iraq, 40 per cent of whom belong to oppressed minorities. But David Saperstein says: “There are limits to what the international community can do.”

The report quotes Eshoo, the Democratic congresswoman as saying: “The average time for admittance to the United States is more than 16 months, and that’s too long. Many will die.” She is striving to establish priority refugee status for minorities who want to leave Iraq.

The role of Christians in Middle East is not limited to being a minority religious group. In Lebanon for example, they have played a powerful and influential role in the government and have acted as buffer between Shia and Sunni Muslim populations. But, today with Christianity weakening, the Shia and Sunni divide is widening and is threatening to result in huge bloodshed.

In Northern Iraq, the Assyrian Christians have formed five militia groups to fight against ISIS. Nineveh Plain Forces (a unit of 500 members), DwekhNawsha (100 members) and Nineveh Plains Protection Units (300 members) aim to protect their people and liberate Christian lands from ISIS.

The other two militia groups are Syriac Military Council and Babylonian Brigades. But these militias’ operations are under the command of Kurdish peshmerga. The Christian militia must ask their permission even to travel 1000 yards between their base and forward posts.

The future of Christians and other minorities is not looking good even if ISIS were to be defeated and wiped out. The report quotes Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute, a conservative policy center, as saying that the situation in Iraq is so horrible that Iraqi Christians must be allowed to have full residency in Kurdistan or must be helped to leave.

Rev. Emanuel Youkhana, the head of Christian Aid Program, Northern Iraq is quoted as saying: “For the first time in 2,000 years, there are no church services in Mosul. The West comes up with one solution by granting visas to a few hundred people. What about a few hundred thousand?” He added: “Iraq is a forced marriage between Sunni, Shia, Kurds and Christians, and it failed. Even I, as a priest, favor divorce.”

Amidst such demands for safe haven within Iraq for minorities, the future of Christianity and Christians looks very bleak.

Next Story

English-speaking ISIS Supporters Exploit Messaging App

English-speaking Islamic State supporters are refusing to give up

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The Telegram logo is seen on a screen of a smartphone in this illustration, April 13, 2018. VOA

English-speaking Islamic State supporters are refusing to give up on the terror group’s ability to remain a force in Syria and Iraq, according to a new study that examined their behavior on the Telegram instant messaging service.

The report, “Encrypted Extremism: Inside the English-Speaking Islamic State Ecosystem on Telegram,” released Thursday by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, looked at 636 pro-Islamic State channels and groups in the 16 months from June 2017 through October 2018.

It found that even as the terror group was losing ground in Syria and Iraq to U.S.-backed forces, and even as IS leadership was encouraging followers to start looking to progress in IS provinces elsewhere, English-speaking supporters turned to Telegram to reinforce their faith in the caliphate.

“These are supporters that like to fight uphill battles,” report co-author Bennet Clifford told VOA. “What supporters are trying to do when they’re engaging with this conversation is attempt to shift the narrative away from loss and provide justifications for it.”

English, ISIS, Supporters, Messaging
FILE – An Islamic State flag is seen in this photo illustration. VOA

At the same time, these English-speaking supporters sought to amplify their beliefs, supplementing official IS propaganda with user-generated content while also increasing the distribution of instructional material on how to carry out attacks.

“I think it’s part of an attempt in some cases to spin the narrative their way,” Clifford added.

Attraction of Telegram

IS supporters first started flocking to Telegram, an instant messaging service that promises speed and encryption for private communications, in 2015 as social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook began a crackdown aimed at Islamic State’s often violent and gory propaganda.

Since then, IS has been hooked by Telegram’s promise that it will not disclose user data to government officials and by the service’s ability to let supporters organize and share large files, including video.

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“No other platforms appear to have developed the same balance of features, user-friendliness, and basic security that could warrant a new switch,” the report said.

That ease of use has long worried counterterrorism officials, who have watched as IS has used the online ecosystem to help plan and carry out the November 2015 attacks in Paris, attacks on a Christmas market in Berlin in December 2016 and the attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul just weeks later.

English-speaking facilitators

In those cases, the attackers appear to have been given instructions from IS officials in Syria and Iraq. But Telegram has given rise to several key English-speaking facilitators who have been operating on the periphery.

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FILE – Karen Aizha Hamidon, who allegedly worked to encourage several Indian militants last year to join the Islamic State group in the Middle East, is surrounded by reporters after attending a hearing at the Department of Justice in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 3, 2017. VOA

One of them, according to Clifford and co-author Helen Powell, was 36-year-old Karen Aizha Hamidon, who helped mobilize sympathizers from the United States to Singapore to join the terror group or its affiliates.

Hamidon, who was arrested by Philippine authorities in October 2017, has also been linked to efforts to establish an IS province in India.

Another key player, 34-year-old Ashraf al-Safoo, took a different approach before being arrested last October by the FBI in Chicago.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, al-Safoo was a key member of the Khattab Media Foundation, which used hacked social media accounts on platforms like Twitter to disseminate IS propaganda.

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“Much of the propaganda created and distributed by Khattab promotes violent jihad on behalf of ISIS and ISIS’s media office,” the Justice Department said in a statement using a different acronym for the militant group.

While both Hamidon and al-Safoo are now in custody, showing the ability of law enforcement to penetrate their Telegram operations, others are likely to replace them because of the ongoing need of Islamic State’s English-speaking supporters to communicate and find larger audiences.

“While there are a number of disadvantages for Islamic State supporters in the use of Telegram from a security perspective they’ll continue to do it because their balance of outreach and operational security,” Clifford said. “There’s not another alternative at this point in time.” (VOA)