Christians in the Middle East face many challenges

Pope’s recent visit brings hope but many still live in fear

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CAIRO — Pope Francis boosted the spirits of Christians throughout the Middle East last week when he paid a two-day visit to Cairo, the first visit by a pontiff to Egypt in 17 years. But the pope’s visit did not change a harsh reality: Christians throughout the region find themselves under threat from political repression and violent attacks.

In Egypt, Coptic Christians have been chased from their homes, their churches and a monastery attacked. In Iraq, Assyrians have been displaced from villages, whole neighborhoods and business districts gutted by Islamic State. In the West Bank, Iran and Lebanon, Christians have grown accustomed to celebrating under guard.

“Some of the oldest Christian communities in the world are disappearing in the very lands where their faith was born and first took root,” concluded a Center for American Progress report on the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

The Middle East-North Africa area has the highest concentration of Muslims of any region of the world: 93 percent of its more than 340 million inhabitants.

Christians in the region face not only the threat of Islamist violence, but subtler challenges. Many wind up leaving because they can’t find jobs and face social discrimination. Countries such as Saudi Arabia make it difficult for Christians to practice their faiths openly.

We talked to Christians across the region, from Egypt to Iran.

Facing Islamic State

He once owned a house, a hotel, a casino, a herd of cattle and a farm in the Christian city of Qaraqosh east of Mosul in northern Iraq, home to 50,000. Then Islamic State arrived.

Militants forced Tawfiq Abosh Jabu Sakar and most of his neighbors from their homes. They took his hundred head of cattle, his chicken coops, even his irrigation pipes. Then they burned his home and business.

“They want to make us all refugees,” said Sakar, 67, as he flipped through photos of his stolen cows.

Iraqi forces freed the area last fall, but many displaced families refused to return. The government had yet to restore running water and electricity. A Christian militia was patrolling the streets, but they feared militants still lurked nearby.

Two months ago, Sakar decided to move back.

“Christian people have a right to stay here,” he said. “Those who love the area will return and give their soul to protect it.”

Standing in the charred remains of his three-story home, Sakar picked up a piece of plaster and threw it at the cracked ceiling in frustration.

“You can’t use this house anymore. What did I do to deserve this?” he said.

Displaced in Iraq

The three women chopped walnuts in the kitchenette of their two-room trailer, then poured them into a bowl along with dried coconut. Now, as children hovered, the bakers were rolling out and cutting sweet dough to make an Easter Iraqi favorite: klecha cookies.

Islamic State militants forced the trio of Assyrians from their Christian hometown of Qaraqosh two years ago. Suad Rahim and daughters Iman, 30, and Fata, 27, had expected to stay at the trailer park in the town of Irbil for a few months. But they can’t imagine returning home.

Most of the houses and storefronts sit empty. Militias police the area, and many citizens fear the armed groups have been infiltrated by Islamic State.

“In the night, it’s very scary,” said Rahim, 50. “We don’t know who is who.”

So her family of eight is still sharing a trailer, hoping to move to a house elsewhere in the Kurdish region of Iraq, or overseas.

“If they try to push us back there, we’re going to Europe,” Rahim said.

Near Bethlehem

Buses rumbled past Rafat Houary’s stone villa ferrying a stream of tourists to the Shepherds Field Chapel, where Catholic tradition holds the birth of Jesus was first announced.

Standing on his balcony, the 43-year-old carpenter and fledgling craft beer brewmaster pointed out the hotels and restaurants on the horizon that had popped up around the holy site in the last few years as tourism to Bethlehem has picked up. Not long ago, the street was a war zone.

At the height of the Palestinian uprising at the beginning of the 2000s, the road became a battlefield for the Israeli army and Palestinian militants. Israeli tanks patrolled to enforce a curfew as the military scoured the town for gunmen and potential bombers. Many Christians from Bethlehem and suburban villages moved abroad.

“I know 100 families that moved,” said Houary.

But Houary stayed and helped build a new Bethlehem congregation. When he bows his head in prayer at the Immanuel Evangelical Church in Beit Sahur, he faces a colonnade-adorned altar that he erected.

Israel built fences behind his house separating him from his family-owned property. Fellow congregants fret about Islamic militancy spreading to the West Bank. But Houary remains optimistic. Christians, though a diminished minority in the Holy Land, still have a mission to fulfill, he said.

“We are a witness to the Lord in this city. So, we have to be here,” he said.

‘Leave us alone’

Vivian Aziz Shehata Shenoudah always covers her head when she goes out in Cairo. She calls it her “precaution.” The Coptic woman said she has been harassed by men, women, even children on the street for being Christian, for her gold crosses, dyed blond hair and makeup.

She has not seen her brother in San Diego in a decade. He no longer feels safe visiting Shenoudah. Her apartment is in the Abbasiya neighborhood, steps from her church, St. Mark’s. A suicide bomber attacked in December, killing 30 worshipers.

Last week, the chapels she normally attends were packed not just with Egyptians, but also with Christian refugees from Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan.

Three days a week, Shenoudah also attends services at Botroseya church, in the women’s area where the bomb detonated and marble columns are still pitted from the explosion.

Shenoudah blames poverty and wealthy Persian Gulf countries for stoking Muslim extremism.

“I always pray that they change their minds to peace and that they leave us alone,” she said.

‘Grave of the martyrs’

The bombing on Palm Sunday shook St. George’s Church in Tanta, Egypt.

“This is the grave of the martyrs,” says the sign next to the church where 28 who came to worship on Palm Sunday were killed by an Islamic State suicide bomber. They had their funerals there the same night.

Many worshipers still wear black, out of respect for friends and family who were killed. The victims’ names are listed on a golden plaque some touch as they pass, hoping for a blessing.