As Christians around the world celebrate the nativity of our savior, we gather in churches and hear the story of a Middle East where the holy family, as religious minorities in the Roman Empire, witnessed the birth of Christ, far from their hometown. We will recall that they then fled to Egypt as political refugees.
Two thousand years later, the Christian communities of the Middle East — descendants of the first Christians — persevere in their faith in Christ. They live in an era of violence, unrest and persecution. Many have been forced to flee their homes and many more their countries.
The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, recently wrote of the plight of Christians in the Middle East, stating: “Many have left. Hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes.” He warned that “across the region Christian communities that were the foundation of the universal Church now face the threat of imminent extinction.” I am sorry to say the archbishop is not overstating the dire nature of the plight faced by Christian communities throughout the region.
Lebanon, the last safe home to Christians in the Middle East, has generously welcomed a great number of Syrians fleeing their country's civil war. A nation of 4 million people is hosting an estimated 2 million refugees and displaced people, the highest per-capita home to refugees in the world. This population increase has presented legitimate challenges to Lebanon’s infrastructure, economy and education system. After seven years of conflict in Syria, with no end in sight, more children are born in Lebanon to displaced people and refugees than to Lebanese citizens.
Lebanon’s delicate, pluralistic balance of power between faith groups could be toppled in a complete redrawing of the demographic map. The lack of a roadmap for charting the safe return of refugees and displaced people to Syria is not providing a viable future for these victims.
In northern Iraq’s former breadbasket, the Nineveh Plains, the ancient Christian and Yazidi communities are slowly returning and rebuilding their homes, but they are a skeleton of what they once were. The Christian population of Iraq has dropped from 1.5 million before 2003 to less than 250,000 today. Those who remain are in a struggle to keep their culture and heritage alive in a place where their families have celebrated Christmas since the time of Christ.
In Egypt, the Coptic Church was again the target of terrorist violence in recent months. In 2017 alone, 128 Coptic Christians were killed because of their faith. Churches have been bombed, pilgrims have been targeted and Christian homes have been vandalized. Attacks on the Coptic community have been horrific and they are tragically leaving Egypt in record numbers.
Another year is passing in which the United States has not recognized the Armenian genocide, and Turkey continues to harass churches and unjustly imprison innocent people.
Yet, Christmas is a time of anticipation, new birth and hope, so while we hold the suffering of religious minorities in the Middle East in our hearts, let us reflect on the good that has been done in 2018 to bring a much needed ray of hope and expectation for the coming year.
In Iraq, the promise of Vice President Pence that “help is on the way” resulted in U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) committing more than $300 million in aid for religious minorities. USAID Administrator Mark Green went personally to the region to conduct a needs assessment and appointed special representative Max Primorac to directly oversee the implementation of U.S.-funded programs. Green deserves credit for managing the difficult deliverance of aid in a complex sectarian environment.
Just two weeks ago, President Trump made history by signing the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act, a bipartisan and precedent-setting law sponsored by Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) that will for the first time allow religious minorities, who are the most vulnerable victims of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), to be given direct aid by the U.S. government.
Another precedent was set when the Trump administration sanctioned Turkey, a NATO ally, until it released American pastor Andrew Brunson. This direct use of American influence to free an innocent man should be a model for future foreign policy.
In Egypt, continuous congressional pressure has led President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to take some important steps toward justice and security for Copts, which include prosecuting terrorists who have targeted them, rebuilding destroyed churches and appointing the first Coptic female governor of an Egyptian province. Egypt also recently launched a program to restore its Jewish religious sites. Given that Egypt is the recipient of $1.6 billion in U.S. aid, we should make clear that future support is dependent upon its improvement of human rights.
In Lebanon, America continues to support the Lebanese Armed Forces, the nation’s legitimate security force, and constantly denounces Iranian and other outside interference that threatens Lebanon with instability and conflict.
While much has been accomplished, much work remains to be done before Christians can celebrate Christmas without fear in the place where it all began two millennia ago.
From a Middle Eastern Christian, writing from the lands where Jesus walked, Merry Christmas.
Toufic Baaklini is a Lebanese-American with more than 30 years of business experience in finance and development. Baaklini is the president and chairman of the Board of Directors of In Defense of Christians and has committed years of service to preserving the historic Christian communities of the Middle East.