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Editorial: Islamic State is not a new phenomenon: Christians in the Middle East have experienced nearly 1200 years of jihad, jizya and periodic genocide

29 September 2016

In August, Islamic State devoted their English language magazine Dabiq to their view of Christians. What is striking is its close similarity to the shari’a of Classical Islam which has been the basis of persecution of Christians in the Middle East since the Islamic conquests in the seventh century. Dhimmitude, destruction of churches, enslavement and execution – they are all in there.

Church buildings

Christians are not only forbidden from building churches or monasteries, they are also forbidden from repairing any in the vicinity of where Muslims live. This is why even today it is almost impossible for Christians to get permission to build churches in most Muslim majority contexts and often need official government permission to even repair churches, which is almost impossible to obtain,.

The implication is that the Christian community can only continue living in the area as a temporary concession. Indeed, within 50 years of the Muslim conquest of the Middle East there was a huge wave of destruction of churches, particularly after 705 AD. These then, according to the terms of the Pact of Umar, could not be rebuilt. This pattern continued for centuries. For example, the caliph Harun al Rashid (786-809), successor to Muhammad as leader of the global Islamic community, ordered the destruction of all the churches in the empire built after the Islamic conquest. Two centuries later, the caliph al Hakim (996-1021) carried out a purge broadly similar to that being enacted today by IS, in which every church and synagogue in Egypt, Palestine and Syria was destroyed, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This pattern of attacks on churches in an attempt to destroy Christianity in the region has continued to this day in many Muslim majority contexts, as we have regularly reported.


Restrictions on worship and preaching, death for apostasy

Christians are also forbidden from sharing their faith and from worshipping other than behind closed doors. They must only worship in such a way that Muslims cannot hear them. Christians are also specifically forbidden from displaying the cross or other Christian symbols in public. At a relatively mundane level this is the theological background to the recent series of attempts to ban public celebrations of Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter in countries such as Brunei, Somalia and Iran. However, it is also linked to the apostasy law, with all four Sunni schools of shari’a as well as the Shi’a requiring the compulsory death penalty for any adult Muslim man who embraces another faith.


Christians ruled by Muslims

Christians are required to be totally subservient to Muslims, even to the extent of standing when Muslims wish to sit down and being required to wear distinctive clothing. For example the shari’a textbook of an-Nawawi, hauntingly foreshadowing the holocaust, states that the Christian “has to make himself distinguishable by a piece of yellow cloth”, a rule that was later applied by the Taliban to non-Muslims in Afghanistan. They may not defend themselves or even own weapons, nor may they criticise Islam. This goes to the heart of the problem with political Islam, the teaching of Islamic theology that Muslims should always rule non-Muslims and Christians may not even criticise this state of affairs without being accused of blasphemy against Islam, which carries the death penalty. All of this is symbolised by the payment of jizya, which the Qur’an (Q9:29) stipulates should be a sign of Christian’s humiliation and subjugation.  


Death for infringement of the dhimmi contract

If Christian were deemed to have made the slightest infringement of any of these restrictions in the dhimmi contract they could be executed on the spot. For example, in 1758 the Ottoman sultan noticed a Jew in Constantinople not wearing dhimmi dress and immediately ordered him to be beheaded. The next day an Armenian Christian suffered the same fate for similarly breaching the dhimmi contract.

The alleged breach of the dhimmi contract by Christians was used to justify repeated large scale massacres of Christians by Muslim rulers. For example in 1843, when the British consuls in Van and Mosul encouraged Christians not to pay jizya, an estimated 10,000 Christians were massacred and others sold into slavery. This was by no means an isolated incident. The recent exodus of Christians from the Middle East, where they used to constitute 20% of the population, began with two massacres in 1860. One in Lebanon where 10,000 Christians were murdered and another in Syria where similar numbers are estimated to have been killed. In what is now Eastern Turkey, 1400 Christians were massacred in 1877, while estimates of the numbers killed in the Hamidan massacres a generation later (1894-96) range from 100,000 to 300,000. The early twentieth century saw the Adna massacre (1909) in which 30,000 Christians were killed, followed by the genocide Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Christians (1914-23) in which at least 3 million Christians are estimated to have lost their lives and which inspired Hitler to think that he could get away with his own genocide of the Jews and other enemies of the Nazis.


Classical Islam and jihadist violence

That does not of course mean that most ordinary Muslims persecute Christians. Muslims practising a purely devotional form of Islam represent no threat to Christians. However, western governments need to recognise that there are significant aspects of the historic interpretations of Islam (Classical Islam) that are not only political, but assume Muslim subjugation of non-Muslims and enforcement of shari’a and these directly lead to persecution of Christians.

non radical

Following devotional aspects of Islam

- 5 daily prayers (salat)

- Fasting during Ramadan (sawm) etc.

increasing radicalisation

Advocating aspects of shari‘a as a formal legal system alongside parliamentary law


- Family law

- Commercial law/ shari‘a finance etc.


Advocating shari‘a replacing parliamentary law


- Criminal law including Hudud punishments.

- execution for those leaving Islam (apostasy) or criticising Islam (blasphemy) 


Advocating the teaching of Classical Islam/shari‘a  on

- Jihad to enforce Islamic government and law

- Imposition of jizya on Christians and Jews. etc.

- forced conversion/ enslavement/execution  of non-monotheists 


Practice of jihadist groups such as IS  on

- Jihad carried out against non-Muslims now

- Jizya enforced on Christians now

- non monotheists forced to convert to Islam or killed/ enslaved

Unless western governments grasp this, not only will they be unable to understand the attraction of jihadist groups like IS for a minority of Muslims, but the persecution of Christians in the Middle East by jihad, jizya and periodic genocide that has sporadically existed for 1200 years will continue until the entire Christian community in the Middle East has been wiped out in our generation.