Gwynne Dyer: Middle East Christians are going, going, gone

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      Two high-profile incidents last week, at opposite ends of the Arab world, tell the story. In northern Iraq, recently conquered by the zealots of the newly proclaimed “Islamic State”, the Christians in Mosul were given three choices: convert to Islam, pay a special tax (about $750, on this occasion), or be killed. They all fled, and now Mosul is Christian-free for the first time in almost two millenniums.

      Meanwhile, in Sudan, Meriam Ibrahim finally got permission to leave her homeland after spending months chained up in a jail cell. The young woman had been condemned to hang by a Sudanese court for the crime of having “converted” to Christianity, but the government couldn’t legally kill her until after her baby was born.

      Now, neither of these incidents gives an accurate picture of government policy in Arab countries that have traditionally had Christian minorities (which is to say most of them). Indeed, big Arab countries like Syria, Iraq, and Egypt have all had Christian ministers in their governments, and their laws guaranteed religious freedom.

      Sudan, whose legal system has been based on Islamic shariah law since a military coup 30 years ago, does not treat its citizens equally regardless of their religion. At first glance, however, the restrictions apply mostly to the Muslim majority, who, for example, are forbidden to leave their faith on pain of death. That was the law that almost killed Meriam Ibrahim.

      Her father had been Muslim, but he had abandoned the family when she was very young and her Christian mother had brought her up in the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, according to Sudanese law you are a Muslim if your father was, and professing any other faith makes you an apostate. She refused to abandon her Christian faith, and so she was sentenced to hang.

      But they do understand the concept of bad publicity even in Khartoum. The suspicion hangs heavy that the prosecution grew out of a blackmail attempt gone wrong, for Meriam Ibrahim is a doctor and her husband, also a Christian, holds dual Sudanese and American citizenship. To your average impoverished Sudanese—like, perhaps, her absent father’s family—that would have spelled “money”.

      So the accusation was made that she was really a Muslim who had abandoned her faith and married a Christian (both hanging offences), but it may have been made privately at first. Then, however, the professional zealots who make a living out of “defending Islam” got in on the act, demanding the apostate be killed, and the Sudanese government had to enforce its own laws.

      The only saving grace was that Meriam Ibrahim was pregnant and could not legally be killed until her child was born and had lived about two years. This gave time for the saner elements in the Sudanese government to work with her lawyers, and ultimately with U.S. and Italian government representatives, to find a way to let her go. (Meanwhile, for all but the last month of her six-month ordeal, she was chained to the floor in a jail cell.)

      It all finally came right, and last Thursday Meriam Ibrahim, her 20-month-old son, and her newborn daughter flew out of Khartoum, landed in Rome, and were whisked off to a meeting with the Pope.

      “She is unhappy to leave Sudan. She loves Sudan very much. It's the country she was born and grew up in,” her lawyer told the BBC. “Her life is in danger so she feels she has to leave. Just two days ago a group called Hamza made a statement that they would kill her and everyone who helps her.”

      So a happy(ish) ending to the story—but there were probably several other Sudanese Christians on the same flight who were leaving their country forever with less fanfare. It’s no longer wise for Christians to live there if they have any other options. And that is rapidly becoming the case for Iraq, too.

      There were still about 60,000 Christians in Mosul when the United States and its sidekicks invaded Iraq 11 years ago. By last year, it was down to 30,000. Only two months after the arrival of the ISIS extremists, there are none. Most have fled to Kurdistan with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They are not going back, and if they can they will leave the Middle East entirely.

      What has changed? For many centuries, the Christian minority of Arabs lived in relative peace and prosperity under Muslim rule. In the early 20th century, they were in the forefront of the nationalist and literary renaissance in the Arab world. But in the past decade, about a quarter of the Arab world’s 12 million Christians have emigrated, and the flow is increasing every year.

      Most of them are not facing execution, like Meriam Ibrahim or the former residents of Mosul. They just feel excluded from an Arab discourse that is increasingly radicalized and obsessed with religious differences—both Muslim-Christian ones and Sunni-Shia ones—and they have lost hope. They are Arabs who have lost their place in the Arab world, and they have to find one elsewhere.




      Jul 27, 2014 at 8:06pm

      There was a time when Dyer would actually give his analysis as to why such a change is occurring. Dyer stating that "They just feel excluded from an Arab discourse that is increasingly radicalized and obsessed with religious differences" is simply facile. The question is why such discourse has become increasingly radicalized.

      I have become very disappointed in Dyer's writing over the last year or so, if indeed he is still actually doing the writing under the Gwynne Dyer by line.

      I Chandler

      Jul 27, 2014 at 8:36pm

      "But they do understand the concept of bad publicity even in Khartoum. "

      Public relations in Khartoum? We see it spewing from other capitals...Journalism is printing what someone else doesn't want printed. The rest is public relations. - George Orwell

      "It all finally came right, and last Thursday Meriam Ibrahim, her 20-month-old son, and her newborn daughter flew out of Khartoum"

      So was John Kerry or Victoria Nuland involved in the rescue? They've been busy. Eric Margolis writes: "The media have adopted Israel’s narrative about the Mideast. One of the best sources on what’s going on is Israel’s newspaper, “Ha’aretz....Washington is steadily raising the risks of a totally unnecessary war with Russia over Ukraine by arming and financing Kiev’s military forces and waging a massive anti-Russian propaganda war. Welcome back to the Cold War. Last time around men of skill and character conducted US foreign affairs; today, we have midgets."

      "Meriam Ibrahim, her 20-month-old son, and her newborn daughter, landed in Rome, and were whisked off to a meeting with the Pope."

      So sending in the marines wasn't necessary? Eric Margolis writes: "Britain’s general Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon went to Khartoum, to lead the fight jihadists known as Dervishes. Their leader, Mahdi, became a Victorian villain akin to our Osama bin Laden"

      Dr. Jack

      Jul 27, 2014 at 8:40pm

      Dear Analysis.

      Easy to criticize!!

      And what is your opinion? Why are the Christians, who have lived in the Middle East often for two millennia, forced to flee or be killed?

      Please be very specific!!


      Jul 27, 2014 at 9:41pm


      Gee, I find the question of why the Arab discourse has been increasing radicalized to be simply facile. Also redundant, since Dyer has juxtaposed this observation with American military incursion.

      I'm surprised that a deep thinker like yourself even needs to ask about the motivation. To the victim of a pogrom, it doesn't matter whether the rampage is motivated by American military incursion, or because the store ran out of salt and vinegar Miss Vickie's that morning.

      As a Canadian, I'm interested in questions like: how much business do we do with people who persecute others? Do Canadians knowingly make military or commercial deals with people who do this wack, violent shit? How do we stop doing that?


      Jul 27, 2014 at 11:37pm


      Glad it wasn't only me that read the invasion reference as Dyer's diagnosis of the major cause of Islamic radicalisation.

      Curious about which "wack, violent shit" practitioners you're referring to though.

      If it's Isis then I doubt that Canadians have made or even planned any military or commercial deals at this point.

      If you're talking about the nation which actually caused this mess by shattering Saddam's Iraq without a realistic plan to pick up the pieces, then the answers to your questions are, in order:

      "a huge amount", "yes" and "you don't".


      Jul 28, 2014 at 6:37am

      "The question is why such discourse has become increasingly radicalized."

      I'm sure that question would take another column, or even a book. And, yes, the US would get a generous allocation of the blame.

      James Blatchford

      Jul 28, 2014 at 11:31am

      @Bruce....AND a bag of salt and vinegar Ms. Vickie's.

      Dr. Jack

      Jul 28, 2014 at 1:48pm

      Mr. Analysis

      You are quite astute!!

      It is America's fault that Christians are disappearing from the Islamic states in the Middle East!!

      Of course, it was America who triggered the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey some hundred years ago!!

      And surely the Americans were behind the occupation and ethnic cleansing of Northern Cyprus in 1968!! When hundreds of thousands of Christian Cypriots were slaughtered, maimed, chassed away by the Turkish army, will all churches turned into mosques for the almost 200,000 farmers from Anatolia, Turkey who were transferred there to take over Christian lands, businesses, schools,homes!!

      Want more examples!!

      Just ask!

      But you know the truth, only avoid to a
      admit it!!