For Many Christians in Middle East, Intimidation or Worse
Persecution extends beyond Islamic State in Syria and Iraq
BEIRUT—The attack on a French church signals the arrival in Europe of a type of intimidation long familiar to Christians in the Middle East, whether from religious extremists, other armed groups or even secular governments.
In areas of Syria and Iraq under its control, Islamic State has seized churches, dismantling crucifixes and vandalizing paintings depicting scenes out of the Bible—considered to be idolatry in their hard-line interpretation of Islam. Many Christians flee when the militants sweep their areas; thousands escaped from northern Iraq when Islamic State took over in summer 2014.
Islamic State and its Affiliates
Its branch in Libya killed 21 Egyptian Christians and 31 Ethiopian and Eritrean Christians in two separate massacres last year, slitting their throats and recording their deaths for Islamic State propaganda, which highlighted their religion as justification for the slaughter.
Islamic State’s Egyptian affiliate, Sinai Province, in late June claimed the shooting death of a Christian priest in the north Sinai city Al Arish. The group said the priest was targeted for being a “disbelieving combatant.” It has attacked hundreds of police and military personnel in the area since 2014.
Egypt’s Coptic Christians have long claimed they are treated as second-class citizens by the country’s secular but authoritarian governments, and peaceful protests against discrimination have been met with brutality by security forces, resulting in dozens dead and injured.
There also have been attacks by other extremist groups and unknown actors in Syria and Iraq.
Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who lived in Syria for three decades, went missing in 2013 in the city of Raqqa, shortly after it was captured by Islamic State. His fate remains unclear.
In 2014, 13 Syrian nuns and other women captured by al Qaeda-linked rebels and released three months later in exchange for a hefty ransom. They had been abducted from their monastery in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, north of the Syrian capital Damascus.
When claiming attacks across Europe in recent months, Islamic State has claimed they targeted “Crusaders”—a reference to Christian armies that battled Muslims in the Middle Ages, used to denote Western intervention in the Mideast—and members of the U.S.-led military coalition striking its positions, rather than citing specific religious motives.
In Islamic State’s statement Tuesday, it said the assault was “in response to calls to target Crusader coalition states,” suggesting the operation was inspired by its propaganda, with the target chosen by the perpetrators on their own.
In the Quran, Christians are protected as “people of the book”—a reference to the three monotheistic religions, and extremist groups respect the decree to varying degrees. Jesus Christ is recognized as a main prophet in Islam as is Moses.
Some Christians do live in Islamic State’s core caliphate in Syria and Iraq, but they are forbidden from practicing their religion openly and are forced to pay jizya, a religious tax levied on minorities.
In those countries, the group has pointed to its treatment and coexistence with Christians—despite heavy discrimination—as an example of strict adherence to its creed and respect for monotheism.
But many Syrian and Iraqi Christians have fled to Lebanon, which has a large native Christian population. One Christian farmer from Aleppo province fled recently after more than a year of living under Islamic State rule, saying the heavy taxation stripped him of his livelihood.
Islamic State widely broadcasts its large-scale attacks and execution of those it labels infidels such as Shiite Muslims, who they say have strayed from the Quran in their heretical interpretations, and Yazidis, an ancient religion they say is polytheistic.
Unlike Christians, Shiites and Yazidis aren't given the option to pay jizya, but face execution or enslavement.
“In truth, Christians and Muslims in our country have been concerned for a long time and these concerns are increasing with time,” said Father Georges Massouh a Greek Orthodox priest and a director of the center of Christian-Muslim studies at Balamand University in Lebanon. “Terrorism does not spare anyone regardless of the person’s religious affiliation.”
—Noam Raydan in Beirut, Sarah Kent in Baghdad and Tamer El-Ghobashy in Cairo contributed to this article.
Write to Maria Abi-Habib at email@example.com