Half an ounce of gold. In the 7th century, that’s how much Christians in what is now Syria had to pay for the privilege of living under the protection of the Caliphate. If they didn’t want to pay, they had two other options: they could convert or, as some interpretations of the pact between Muslim rulers and their Christian subjects suggest, “face the sword.”
In February, the 20 or so Christian families still living in the northern Syrian town of Raqqa were given the same choice. The cost of protection is now the equivalent of $650 in Syrian pounds, a large amount for people struggling to make ends meet in a war zone. The other two options remain unchanged. This time the offer came from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), an extremist antigovernment group that seized Raqqa in May 2013 from more-moderate rebel brigades and declared the town the capital of its own Islamic state.
Most of Raqqa’s 3,000 Christians had already fled the fighting, leaving just a few families in a place suddenly run by a group known for its violent tactics in both Iraq and Syria, including beheadings and floggings–tactics so ruthless that even al-Qaeda has disowned the group. The number had fallen even further by the time ISIS commanders promised the Christians that as long as they paid the levy, the one church that had not already been destroyed in the fighting would be left untouched and the Christians would not be physically harmed. They would have the right to practice their religion as long as they didn’t ring bells, evangelize or pray within earshot of a Muslim.
Church leaders urged Raqqa’s Christians to pay the militants. “[ISIS] told me that all I need to do is pay the taxes, and they will protect me,” says George, a 17-year-old Christian music student still living in Raqqa. “I know that under the Caliphate, Christians got a lot of things in return for paying taxes. The Christian community was left in peace.” That hasn’t been the case so far in Syria’s new Caliphate. When ISIS arrived in town, it warned Christians to stay out of sight and hide their crucifixes.
There are no reported instances of ISIS militants physically harassing Christians, but the threat is palpable, says George, who asked to go by a pseudonym out of fear of reprisals. “They don’t need to hit you,” he says, speaking via Skype from his home in Raqqa. “They wound you with their words. It’s how they look at my religion as if it’s not real. With such utter contempt. As if the Bible is all made up.” George says his family, which runs a small car-repair business, can’t afford to leave. Their only hope of survival is to scrape together enough money to pay the twice-yearly tax. But he is not sure they will be able to pull it off, and they may be forced to flee–abandoning everything they have built up over the years.
The choices and compromises faced by the remaining Christians of Raqqa are extreme versions of the choices and compromises Christians have increasingly faced over the past decade across a Middle East roiled by an unprecedented period of war and revolution. Although now defunct regimes like those of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak presided over nightmarish human-rights abuses, they tended to protect Christian minorities and kept much of the region relatively stable. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the upheavals of the Arab Spring, some Arab countries have experimented with democracy, and without exception, Islamist parties have been successful at the polls. In Syria, a bloody civil war has resulted in conflict between many from the Sunni Muslim majority and the minority Christians, who have tended to side with the regime of Bashar Assad, a member of the Alawite Muslim minority. The turmoil in these countries has made many of the Middle East’s Christians feel deeply concerned for their safety.
A New Exodus
When granted the opportunity, many Christians leave, as happened in Iraq. Nearly a million Christians fled the chaos after Saddam’s fall from power in 2003 and a brutal insurgency that saw Islamists attack Christians and their churches, among other targets. Today only about 300,000 Christians remain in Iraq, living under a Shi’ite Islamist government. Other Christian communities in the Middle East have stuck with an old survival strategy, supporting authoritarian regimes in exchange for protection. In Egypt, the Coptic Pope has tacitly supported military dictatorship for decades and recently backed the leader of last year’s coup, former field marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, for May’s presidential election. In Syria, church leaders have tolerated 40 years of Assad family rule for fear of an Islamist alternative. Such self-preservation puts Christian leaders in the camp of strongmen who frequently use violence against their own people. In backing these authoritarian regimes, those leaders and their supporters have failed to help their countries develop into states where justice, the rule of law and tolerance are applied evenly, not just to the ruling sect and its allies.
Some Christians in Syria have defied church leaders and called for Assad’s downfall, in the hope that fighting for the rights of all Syrians will strengthen the place of Syria’s minorities in the future. “If Syria’s Christians had sided with the revolution in the first place, standing, like Jesus, in solidarity with all those oppressed by the regime, I don’t think we would be in this situation today,” says Bassel, a novice Jesuit monk from Syria who recently left his order in part to protest its ongoing support for Assad. Bassel (using a pseudonym to protect family members still in Syria) says the revolution “could have succeeded. And we would be talking now about the right leader for Syria instead of having to choose between the radicals and the regime.”
In the last census of the Ottoman era, conducted in 1914, Christians made up a quarter of the Middle East’s population. Now they are less than 5%. Christians in the Middle East represent less than 1% of the world’s Christians, but their declining numbers are of particular concern to the Vatican, which does not want to see the birthplace of Christianity devoid of the faithful, whether they be Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or members of other denominations. The departure of Christians also has consequences for the societies they leave behind. Tolerance of minorities is a powerful indicator of the future health of viable modern states. “We will not resign ourselves to imagining a Middle East without Christians,” Pope Francis told regional Christian leaders in November during a meeting at the Vatican.
But it may already be too late. If current demographic trends continue, the Middle East’s population of 12 million Christians will be halved by 2020. While much of the decline can be attributed to opportunistic emigration and falling birth rates, political turmoil in the wake of the Arab Spring has accelerated the trend, say Christian commentators and analysts. At least 1 in 4 Syrian Christians, who made up 8% of the country’s population in 1992, have left since the war started. An estimated 93,000 Copts left Egypt in the year following the 2011 revolution that toppled Mubarak, a secular-leaning Muslim strongman who made a point of protecting Egypt’s Christians during his 29 years in power as a way to gain legitimacy from the West. If the exodus is to be stanched, Christians will have to astutely navigate a way between extremists and dictators.
On July 3, with his khaki shirt bristling with military insignia, al-Sisi announced on Egyptian television that he had just overthrown the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi, a former senior official of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s two most important religious leaders flanked al-Sisi: Ahmed el-Tayeb, the moderate Grand Sheik of al-Azhar Mosque, and Pope Tawadros II, head of Egypt’s Coptic Church.
For Egypt’s 8 million Christians, many of whom had prayed for God to deliver them from an Islamist government that threatened to write their rights out of the country’s new constitution, the coup seemed little short of a miracle. Some hailed al-Sisi as a messiah. But their public celebration of the coup made other Christians worry that there would soon be a price to pay. It did not take long. Within days, the full brunt of the Islamists’ rage over the coup was directed at Egypt’s Christians in one of the worst spasms of communal violence the country has ever seen. Islamist mobs attacked 63 churches and ransacked Christian orphanages and businesses. In October, unknown gunmen opened fire on a wedding party at a Cairo church, killing four, including an 8-year-old girl. “It felt like we were at war,” says parishioner Nagah Sehata, who was in the church office when he heard the gunshots.
Al-Sisi will almost certainly win the presidential election in Egypt, which is due to take place on May 26 and 27. As Egypt prepares to vote in a man who could easily turn into the country’s next military dictator–recent months have been marked by media suppression and crackdowns on almost all forms of dissent–Christians backing al-Sisi defend their choice. “If Egypt had not been saved by al-Sisi, you would have seen an exodus of all the Christians from Egypt,” says Naguib Sawiris, a Christian and one of the country’s most prominent businessmen. Majority rule in the Arab world leaves minorities at risk, says Sawiris, so better to support a secular-leaning coupmaker than risk annihilation by popularly elected Islamists.
That kind of thinking may preserve Christian interests in the short term, but it risks putting them on the wrong side of history, says Michael Wahid Hanna, a Middle East analyst at the Century Foundation, a New York City–based think tank. “Christians in the region are forced into these Faustian bargains in which they end up supporting authoritarian regimes for fear of what the alternative would look like. But the price is that it can aggravate underlying sectarian tensions and create further animosities and bigotry.” That leaves Christians even more vulnerable and thus more likely to defend the strongmen who abhor democratic change. And as the Arab Spring uprisings showed, even the most entrenched dictatorships can fall within days.
When the revolution of January 2011 gathered momentum, Egypt’s Christians had every reason to be apprehensive. Under Mubarak, Christian leaders could expect patronage and protection from the oft raised threat of Islamic extremism in exchange for votes and political cover. So when, weeks later, tens of thousands of protesters began assembling in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to call for Mubarak’s ouster, the Coptic Church’s head at the time, Pope Shenouda III, ordered Christians to stay home. Father Abdelmessiah Bassit, who leads the congregation at the Church of the Virgin Mary on the outskirts of Cairo, was one of the few priests who defied the directive. He now considers himself to have made an error of judgment. “Shenouda warned me that it would be an Islamic revolution, not an Egyptian revolution, and that it would destroy us,” he says. “Shenouda was right.” Little more than a year later, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was voted into power, led by Morsi, who, in an interview before the 2011 revolution, told TIME that a Christian would never be permitted to lead Egypt.
Under Morsi, physical assaults against Christian targets declined, but anti-Christian rhetoric rose in their place. Female Christian students were asked to wear veils on some university campuses, and churchgoers were forced to lower the volume of their services in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods. When the Islamist-controlled parliament rammed through a new constitution in December 2012 that effectively enshrined Islamic law above all else, Christians feared for their rights and identity. Bassit, regretting his early support for the revolution, urged his congregation to pray for Morsi’s downfall. Al-Sisi’s coup, he says, was God’s answer.
If anything, Egypt’s Copts are more closely intertwined with the military leadership than ever before, a risky state of affairs, says Christian columnist Theresa Moussa. Allying with strongmen only keeps Christians weak. Instead, she says, Christians need to stop seeking favors and support the rule of law by backing a presidential candidate who shares their values. “Our strength can only come from a state that respects our rights and the rights of everyone else–women, Christians and Muslims–equally.”
Destruction of History
Father Nadim Nassar, an Anglican priest from Syria who now lives in London, stays in regular contact with Syrian Christians as part of his work with an interfaith nongovernmental organization. The stories and rumors he hears from Syria shock him. “For the first time in modern history, we are being persecuted for our faith,” says Nasser, who left Syria more than a decade ago. While YouTube is full of horrific videos purporting to show Christians being beheaded, attacked and, in one gruesome case, even crucified, most have been debunked as regime propaganda passing off Alawite victims as Christians to try to earn Western sympathy. As with most videos and rumors coming out of Syria, little can be verified.
That has not stopped Christians from fleeing in terror. And the exodus may grow in the wake of the killing on April 7 of Father Frans van der Lugt, the Dutch head of a Jesuit monastery and the last foreign religious leader in the western city of Homs. It is not yet clear whether his death was at the hands of the rebels or the regime, which controls most of the area. No one has claimed responsibility, and each side accuses the other, augmenting the Christians’ sense of insecurity.
Although he is no supporter of the regime, Samir, a 29-year-old Syrian Christian trader who splits his time between Damascus and the Gulf, believes that if Assad were to fall, it would prove a catastrophe for the country’s Christians. “They won’t be singled out and slaughtered, at least not in most places,” he says, speaking by phone from Dubai. (He asked to go by a shortened name to protect his identity.) “But if Islamists come to power, Christians are doomed. Islamists will make it unbearable for them to live in Syria, so they will have to look elsewhere. The only thing that will really keep Christians in the Middle East is secular regimes. Of course, it’s better if they have popular backing, but what is worse–a dictator or an Islamic theocracy?”
Christians may simply not survive the Arab revolutions. Backing tyrants may buy them some time, but many Christian commentators believe that the only way these communities can guarantee their continued presence in the region is by pushing for the rights of others as much as for their own. In Egypt, they note, Christians can still help build the kind of society that will protect their numbers down the line–but only as long as al-Sisi doesn’t turn into a dictator or if Christians turn against him if he does.
In Syria, it may be too late. The chasm that has opened there between Christians and Sunni Muslims is vast. “Of course, as believers we should be standing up for the rights of all Syrians, no matter who they are,” says Samir, the trader. “But what if at the end of the day it backfires and our 2,000-year-old presence in this country is destroyed?” To the former Jesuit novice Bassel, the answer can be found in Scripture. He asks, “What is the point of having Christians in the Middle East 100 years from now if we are not acting as Christians in practice–standing up for the oppressed, the downtrodden and the poor?”
–With reporting by Hania Mourtada/Beirut, Ashraf Khalil and Hassan Elnaggar/Cairo and Karl Vick/Jerusalem
This appears in the April 21, 2014 issue of TIME.