For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
Christians have been concerned for decades now at the suffering of our sisters and brothers across the globe from persecution and even genocide. The distress has been especially acute while looking at the anguish of the Christians in the Middle East.
We are aware of their terrible persecution and flight from the region, but a key question has remained: exactly how many Christians are actually left in what is the cradle of the Christian faith?
Various efforts have been made to assess the numbers, but the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), a papal society founded in 1929 by Pope Pius XI to assist the Christians in the Middle East, has made an important contribution to the discussion with one of the most detailed reports in years assessing the population and also the movement of Christians across the Middle East. While grim, the report is a valuable snapshot of the current situation
As the CNEWA reports states:
The shifting population of Christians throughout the Middle East in the last several years — owing to the war in Syria, the rise of ISIS and ongoing political upheaval — has had a profound impact on the region. The cultures and countries that form the very cradle of Christianity lie shattered and splintered, with the followers of Jesus’s faith dispersed and displaced. Some have migrated to neighboring countries; others have fled the region entirely.
The report itself was constructed using a variety of sources, including the Holy See’s many statistical resources, regional Church officials, the CIA World Factbook, the World Bank, the United Nations and the U.S. Census Bureau. The report also breaks down the coverage by country, focusing on Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and three reports on Israel, Palestine and Jerusalem.
The wider picture is that Christians continue to decline in numbers as they face economic, political, social and of course religious disabilities and oppression across much of the Middle East. Overall, the CNEWA report found that there are approximately 14.5 million Christians in the region, down from 14,7 million just seven years ago. They comprise around 17% of the total population, although that is somewhat deceiving as the largest Christians populations are found in only two countries: Lebanon and Egypt. Christians in Lebanon make up some 40% of the total population, down from over 53% in 1932, while Christians in Egypt, some 10 million strong today, were nearly 20% of Egypt’s population a century ago.
The story for Christians in Iraq and Syria is especially heartbreaking.
The report states about the Christian population of Iraq:
The U.S.-led war that brought about the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 had a powerful impact on Iraq. The country was devastated politically and economically. While Iraq managed to return to some sense of order after several years of strife, it came at a high cost: Iraqi Christians fled the country by the hundreds of thousands. A population of Christians that once numbered more than a million in the 1990s dwindled to barely 300,000 in 2006.
Since 2014 and the rise of ISIS, the Christians in Iraq have only suffered more acutely. The radical Muslim forces of the Islamic State captured Mosul – the largest center for Christians in the country – and the Nineveh Plain. Mass had been said in the city for 1,700 years until the city was taken, and Christians were tortured, beheaded, crucified and driven from their homes. The tens of thousands of survivors fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, while others made their way to Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
In 2010, as the report indicates, there were 300,000 Iraqi Christians. Since 2014, nearly half have been displaced because of ISIS and more than 50,000 fled the country entirely. Christians in the north are returning slowly to Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, but CNEWA and other relief organizations recognize the process will be slow and agonizing.
Still, there are a few signs of hope.
Aid to the Church in Need, a global papal charity, has reported that 3,000 Christian families are returning to Qaraqosh, on the Nineveh Plain, and the families will be looking soon to place their children at local schools. The town was severely damaged during the ISIS seizure and occupation and a total of 10,000 families were driven out, but the community is working to repair houses and schools as quickly as possible. In an interesting side development, a Catholic woman, Lara Yussif Zara, was recently elected the new mayor of Alqosh, a town on the Nineveh Plain. She is the first Christian woman to be elected mayor in Iraq, and only the second woman to hold the post of mayor after a Muslim, became mayor of Baghdad in 2015.
The scale of the devastation facing Christians in Syria, meanwhile, is genuinely staggering. Since the start of the Arab Spring in December 2010 and the resulting bloody civil war, the Christian population has been almost cut in half. In 2010 there were some 2.2 million Christians, 10% of the total population. Today, there are around 1.2 million in a country literally shattered by the civil war, especially the large cities of Homs and Aleppo. Christians were subject to genocide and brutality by ISIS and other Islamist groups, and many fled to Jordan and Lebanon or found sanctuary in places held by government forces (Christians were generally protected under the Assad regime). As CNEWA notes,
The loss of Christians in Syria carries a particular poignancy because Syria is a true cradle of the faith. St. Paul famously traveled to Damascus, intent on persecuting Christians, and it was on that journey that he underwent his conversion. After the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70, the Syrian city of Antioch — where the followers of Jesus were first known as “Christians” — became the center of Christian thought in the eastern half of the Roman Empire.
As with Iraq, Syrian Christians are facing immense challenges to return and rebuild. Aid to the Church in Need has announced its commitment to fund 32 projects for a total of more than a million dollars with a focus on Homs, Aleppo and Damascus to assist humanitarian and pastoral needs.
And both Iraq and Syria are the intense focus of the Knights of Columbus who have raised more than $12 million for the help of Christian refugees since 2014. Just recently, the Knights announced that they would contribute nearly $2 million in new assistance. Supreme Knight Carl Anderson announced: “A year ago, our country declared with one voice that genocide was occurring to Christians and other religious minority communities, but words are not enough. Those targeted for genocide continue to need our assistance, especially since many have received no funding from the U.S. government or from the United Nations. The new administration should rectify the policies it found in place, and stop the de facto discrimination that is continuing to endanger these communities targeted by ISIS for genocide.”
The Knights have also played a very significant role in securing the important recognition by the U.S. State Department in March of last year that ISIS was perpetrating genocide against the Christians and other religious minority groups. The Knights and their partners drafted a 300-page report that was crucial in making incontrovertible that ISIS was waging a genocidal campaign.
The CNEWA report is an important tool in knowing where the Christian population stands today in a tortured and troubled part of the world. Looking at the numbers, it is easy to grow discouraged. The Christians in the region, however, are not giving up. We owe it to them to give them our help and especially our prayers.