“With all this hatred against Christians — I don’t know, I’m so afraid,” said Osama Edward, founder of the Sweden-based Assyrian Human Rights Network. “I feel the whole religion is threatened.”
More than 1,300 Christian families fled their homes in Syria this week after the Islamic State kidnapped Assyrian Christians from four villages. Now, many of those families are seeking refuge at a cathedral and a church in the nearby city of Al-Hasakah while others have gone to Al-Qamishli, both in the far northeastern corner of Syria, Edward said.
Christians and Muslims alike have suffered widespread instability since the Arab Spring movement began toppling longtime autocratic regimes in the region more than four years ago.
This week’s abductions, though, highlight the plight of members of the Christian community, especially in light of an Islamic State video released earlier this month that showed the beheadings of 20 Egyptian Christians.
The events are part of a historic attack on Christians in the Middle East — “a very silent genocide,” said Habib Ephrem, head of the Syriac League of Lebanon, a non-governmental group that supports the Syrian people in Lebanon.
“What will be the fate of the Christians? I think this is a big question,” Ephrem said. “The Christians should be united and ready for all possible scenarios.”
In the past seven months, many Iraqi Christians in or near Mosul have fled their homes after Islamic State militants gained control of the city. Some moved to the Jordanian capital of Amman, where they have taken refuge in churches, said James Stapleton, international communications coordinator at the Jesuit Refugee Service, which works in 47 countries including Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.
While they’re safe in Jordan for now, there’s always a threat the situation in that nation could change, Stapleton said.
“What we’re seeing at the moment in many parts of the world is that the security situation can be very localized and the situation can change quite rapidly,” he said.
Threats posed by fluctuating levels of security are something Christians in Egypt know well. After an uprising pushed a longtime leader out of power four years ago, the nation’s Coptic Christians, who make up roughly 10% of a mostly Muslim population, faced heightened violence amid a broader breakdown in security. Then in 2013, mobs attacked dozens of churches nationwide as another leader, an Islamist, was ousted. The attackers blamed Christians in part for his removal.
Some say hostility toward Christians is only common in specific nations or communities.
“There is no general anti-Christian sentiment in Libya,” said Claudia Gazzini, a senior analyst on Libya at the International Crisis Group, which works to prevent and resolve conflict. “After spending several years in this country, I have never heard any remark against Christians and I still don’t — and that is by and large the prevailing vision here.”
Recently, violence aimed at Christians in Egypt has slowed, said Mina Thabet, an Egyptian Christian and a researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. But problems that date back decades remain: Copts face discrimination and are restricted in their right to build and restore places of worship, among other issues, he said.
Thabet is also wary of what the future holds, particularly if the Egyptian government continues to use repressive policies amid a widespread crackdown on dissent, and if economic conditions in the country don’t improve.
“I think someday we may face the scenario of chaos. And the biggest victim will be Christians because they are the weaker group,” he said.
Still, Thabet is also confident Christianity in the region will withstand threats, just like it has for two millenniums.
“We have faced a lot of persecution and we didn’t vanish,” he said. “We still exist.”