BY JEREMIAH JACQUES
Across the Islamic world, a mass exodus of Christians is under way. Muslims have been driving Christians from the Middle East for centuries, and the fall of the region’s dictators in recent years has ignited a new wave of persecution and displacement. The Catholic Church, shaken by the trend, will soon shift its approach to Islam—especially the radical factions.
“The flight of Christians out of the region is unprecedented, and it’s increasing year by year,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recently said.
Beginning in 2003, Iraq provided the earliest sign of what would happen to Christians after Islamic forces were unshackled from the clutch of dictators. Before the ouster of Saddam Hussein that year, some estimates placed Iraq’s Christian population as high as 1.4 million. Today, after a decade that has seen 70 churches attacked and 900 Christians killed by beheading, crucifixion and other means, fewer than 200,000 remain. “We need to bear the cross,” said Iraqi Archbishop Bashar Warda, “but it is getting heavy.”
Some parts of Syria were populated almost entirely by Christians during pre-Islamic times. In the last few years, several of these areas have been completely purged as rebel forces target Christians for kidnapping and violence. Before the Arab Spring uprisings, the city of Homs had around 80,000 Christians. In October of 2012, jihadists murdered the city’s last Christian. Just last month, Syrian rebels killed Catholic priest Francois Murad as he tried to protect a group of nuns. The ongoing violence has caused an estimated 300,000 Christian Syrians to flee the nation so far.
Egypt has undergone a shockingly rapid radicalization since longtime leader Hosni Mubarak was toppled in early 2011. Since then, jihadists have crucified some Christians on trees, set a Coptic Church in Cairo on fire, and have frequently targeted Christian women and girls for kidnapping, rape and forced conversion to Islam. The intensifying persecution has already prompted more than 100,000 Coptic Christians to flee the country since Mubarak’s ouster, and more take flight every month.
The Christian church in eastern Libya traces its roots back two millennia. Now it is struggling to survive because almost all of its worshipers have fled since the 2011 revolution. All together, Libya had around 100,000 Christians before the revolution began. Now church officials say only “a few thousand” remain. Sylvester Magro, the Catholic bishop of Benghazi, said that before Qadhafi was overthrown he had about 10,000 Catholics under his care. Now he oversees a reduced flock of a few hundred.
At the time of Lebanon’s last national census in 1932, the population was about 50 percent Christian. Now that figure is around 34 percent and falling. Iran’s population of Assyrian Christians has plummeted from 100,000 in the 1970s to 15,000 today. In March 2011, the only Christian minister in Pakistan was assassinated after he condemned a law that inflicts the death penalty on anyone who insults Islam. Over 200,000 Christians have reportedly fled Mali since the Islamic coup of 2012. And the list goes on.
A century ago, Christians still made up 30 percent of the Middle East’s population. Now that number is now around 3 percent and falling.
The Syriac and Chaldean Catholic churches of Syria and Iraq are viewed as integral bodies of the Catholic Church and are in full communion with the bishop of Rome. The growing persecution they and other Middle Eastern Christian groups are now suffering is a festering wound for the Roman Catholic Church.
“The church has defeated communism, but is just starting to understand its next challenge—Islamism, which is much worse,” said Monsignor Cesare Mazzolari, the bishop of Rumbek in Sudan in 2004.
“Islamic countries … demand religious rights for their citizens who migrate to other countries, but ignore this principle for non-Muslim immigrants present in their own lands,” said the Vatican’s Foreign Minister Giovanni Lajolo in 2006.
In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI delivered an open-air mass to 50,000 Christians in Jordan, urging Christians in the Middle East to cling to their faith despite the increasing persecution. “The strong Christian families of these lands are a great legacy handed down from earlier generations,” he said. “May the courage of Christ our shepherd inspire and sustain you in your efforts … to maintain the church’s presence in the changing social fabric of these ancient lands. Fidelity to your Christian roots, fidelity to the church’s mission in the Holy Land, demands of each of you a particular kind of courage—the courage of conviction, born of personal faith, not mere social convention or family tradition.”
Benedict reiterated the plea in Lebanon last year.
In February of this year, Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, said the Vatican should provide greater security for Christians in Iraq. “They are leaving the country because there is no stability,” the patriarch said. “Another reason is the rise of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism does not accept Christians .…”
The Heart of the Conflict
From the Vatican’s perspective, the most alarming aspect of the exodus of Christians is happening in the Holy Land. Jerusalem is the birthplace of Christianity, the intersection of the region’s three faiths, and the “center of the universe” to Catholics.
In 1946, the city’s population was made up of 97,000 Jews, 31,000 Muslims, and 30,000 Christians. Muslims and Christians each represented around 20 percent. By 2009, the number of Muslims in Jerusalem had soared to 230,000, or 33 percent, while the number of Christians had fallen to less than 14,000, or 2 percent.
The flight of Christians is due almost entirely to Muslim persecution. “You feel like somebody is choking you and there is no way out,” said Palestinian Rani Espionoli. “You need to get out of here and find something else.”
The exodus of Christians has prompted fears among Catholics that Jerusalem could soon become a “Christian Disneyland,” where believers visit often, but never stay.
Some 800 years ago, the Catholic Church ordained the Franciscans as custodians of the holy sites in Jerusalem. To help persuade Christians to stay, the Franciscans established a foundation in 1997 which pays college tuition for Israeli Christians if they promise to stay in the region. As the Islamist persecution has intensified, the Franciscans have intensified their efforts. At present, they offer 15 programs to help Christians in the region with housing, vocational training, musical scholarships and more.
But Bible prophecy shows that the Vatican will go far beyond these gentle counter efforts. Before the birth of Islam, Catholicism was the dominant force in many of these nations. To prevent the rising tide of radical Islam from drowning the Middle East’s Christian populations, it will soon take staggeringly violent action. The history of the Crusades shows that both Catholics and Muslims are savagely determined to control the Holy Land and surrounding regions, and a Vatican-guided Europe will soon resurrect the specter of those gruesome Crusades once again. In this final crusade, the Roman Catholic Church will take the most drastic action yet against radical Islam.
That clash will lead to the bloodiest pages in mankind’s strife-ridden history. The unprecedented violence and suffering will appear to be humanity’s final chapter. But the Bible makes plain that it is actually only the last page of the prologue of mankind’s potential existence. Numerous prophecies show that this third world war will be interrupted by the return of Jesus Christ. He will squelch the violence, and force upon Islamists, Catholics and all men the peace that has always eluded us. At that time, chapter one of real life will finally begin.