Violence from Muslim extremists is causing Christians to flee the Middle East in staggering numbers. In the early nineties, there were 1.3 million Christians living in Iraq and today there are less than 200,000. Senior staff writer at Legatus Magazine, Sabrina Arena Ferrisi, addresses this in the latest Legatus Magazine.
The Middle East is experiencing a new kind of exodus. This time it’s Christians who are leaving the region in droves, driven out by Muslim fundamentalists. Christians make up less than 5% of the population today, down from 20% in the early 20th century, according to a 2010 BBC report. If the exodus is not stopped, it will empty the Middle East of the oldest Christian churches on the planet.
The Vatican reported in May that a staggering 100,000 Christians around the world are martyred annually for their faith, and human rights groups claim such anti-Christian violence is on the rise in Muslim-dominated countries like Iraq, Syria and Egypt.
The Franciscans are finding solutions to try and keep young Christians in the area.
The Franciscans, custodians of the holy sites in the Holy Land for the last 800 years, decided to do something about [the Exodus]. They set up a foundation for college scholarships in 1997, which has already doled out $4 million. Their applicants are poor Christian Palestinians or Israeli Arabs. Students receive $6,000 per year and must attend one of six local universities. They must also promise to stay in the region.
“Seventy percent of these kids become dentists, engineers, lawyers, architects, nurses or work in the pharmaceutical business,” Fr. Vasko explained. “They give hope to our society and they give back.”
Besides the university scholarships, the Franciscans offer 14 other programs to help Christians in the area with vocational training, housing, child sponsorships and musical scholarships, among others.
The Catholic Church’s aid to the region can be traced back to Pope Pius XI’s efforts in 1926 and Pope Paul VI’s 1964 trip to Jerusalem.
“If possible, the Church wants Christians to stay in the region,” said Marshall. “The Coptic Church, Orthodox, and Catholic Church seek to provide whatever aid it can locally.”
One of the biggest complaints analysts have is that Western Christians are seemingly unaware of what’s happening to their brothers and sisters in the Middle East. They say it’s likely the result of poor media coverage and geography.
“Christian churches need to highlight this issue,” Marshall said. “European churches are more outspoken — perhaps because they are closer and have more historic ties.”
The analysts we spoke to for this article agree that the U.S. government does little to aid Middle Eastern Christians. The State Department has an office for religious freedom, which is rarely mentioned by the news media.
Legislatively, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) introduced a bill earlier this year — H.R. 301 — that would create a special envoy to promote religious freedom for minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia.
Ultimately, however, the situation for Christians in the Middle East is increasingly desperate. Fleeing the region seems to be the only, if painful, solution. But many Christians, with a little help, will do anything to stay.
“In Israel, as you drive through, you often see olive trees in some people’s yards,” said Steve Ray, Catholic apologist, author and Israel pilgrimage guide. “The Palestinian Christians have a saying that they are like the olive trees. When the Persians killed them, they were pruned, but the fruit was better. All through history the Christians in the Holy Land have been pruned. So now, even though it is hard to stay, they will stay, be pruned, and bear good fruit.”
Read ‘The New Exodus: Christians Flee the Middle East in Droves’ here.