At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Christians made up around 15% of the population of the Middle East. A century later the figure was 4%, the bulk of the decline occurring after the 9/11 attacks. For example, at least 80% of Iraq’s Christian population, estimated to have been 1.5 million in 1990, have now fled the country.
During the 1970s, western politicians tended to view Islam as a gentle, peaceful, primarily eastern religion, a naïve view that ignored the periodic massacres of Christians that had been happening in the Middle East over the previous 150 years. This view still informs the policies of the Obama administration who even now flatly deny that there is any link between Islamic ideology and violence against non-Muslims. Consequently when it talks about being committed to seeing a “whole, unified, pluralistic, nonsectarian Syria”, it unwittingly embraces jihadist groups who routinely target Christians.
During the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, the US supplied vast amounts of arms to radical Islamist groups fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, notably the Taliban. It was the Pakistan Taliban who later carried out attacks on Christians such as the 2013 bombing of the All Saints Church in Peshawar that killed over 80 and injured more than a hundred others.
After the 9/11 attacks George W. Bush assumed that military intervention – initially in Afghanistan and then Iraq – would bring about western-style democracy that would in turn neutralise radical Islam. In fact, almost the exact opposite was true. In Iraq the removal of Saddam Hussain’s dictatorship unleashed the radical Islamists it had suppressed, including what was to become Islamic State (IS). By 2004, there was a huge upsurge in threats, kidnappings and murder of Christians. Bombings of churches began and to date at least 119 churches have either been attacked or destroyed.
When the so-called Arab Spring occurred the West repeated its mistakes, maintaining that the rebel groups want only “freedom and democracy”. The US and its allies are in fact reported to be supporting Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, both of whom aim to establish a radical Islamic state in Syria, something that US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to accidentally admit last July. In 2013 Ahrar al Sham was part of an Islamist coalition, including the al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front that attacked the historic Christian town of Maloula where, as we reported, Christians were told to either convert to Islam or face beheading. In a 2015 attack on Damascus, Jaysh al Islam made clear they would particularly target Christians.
In Africa, US policy has also had devastating consequences for Christians in northern Nigeria where, right up until November 2013, the US State Department continued to insist that the Islamist-inspired violence was due to “socio-economic” differences between Christians and Muslims, implying that Christians were equally to blame. This was despite the fact that Boko Haram terrorists were massacring Christians and burning churches on a weekly basis as the militants sought to religiously cleanse northern Nigeria of Christians. With more people killed in Nigeria than even in Iraq or Syria, the brutal insurgency has now spilled over into northern Cameroon.
In the IS-controlled parts of Syria and Iraq Christians and other non-Muslim minorities, such as the Yazidis, have been facing genocide. The Obama administration, under pressure from Congress, has been forced to concede that genocide is taking place, but it has done almost nothing for the victims, leaving Christians at the mercy of jihadists. If current trends continue the Christian community in Iraq and Syria, which has existed since the dawn of Christianity, could be wiped out within the next decade.