Cross-carrying mourners march after the funeral of Coptic Christians who were killed in Minya, Egypt, on May 26. Photo: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

The Christian population in the Middle East is being decimated. Repeated attacks by Muslim extremist groups along with indifference by Middle Eastern governments have resulted in this religious minority fleeing their historical homelands in record numbers. But it is not only Christians who will suffer if this exodus continues: It will eventually result in loss of Muslim lives as well, since Christianity has been a positive influence for centuries in the region.

Maria Abi-Habib, a Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, wrote in May: “The exodus (of Christians, and Coptic Christians particularly) leaves the Middle East overwhelmingly dominated by Islam, whose rival sects often clash, raising the prospect that radicalism in the region will deepen.

“Conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims have erupted across the Middle East, squeezing out Christians in places such as Iraq and Syria, forcing them abroad” to Europe, the US and elsewhere.

While stories of how good Christians had it in Iraq before the US-led invasion in 2003 may be exaggerated, it can’t be ignored that Saddam Hussein kept Islamic extremists at bay during his reign. According to some estimates, in 2003 there were roughly 1.5 million Iraqi Christians, and today there are only 300,000.

The current chaos in Syria has brought similar results for Christians in their historical homeland. In 2011 there were reportedly 2.5 million Syrian Christians, and today that number has been cut in half. Syria is a disaster for Christians and Muslims alike.

Abi-Habib noted: “More Arab Christians live outside the Middle East than in the region. Some 20 million live abroad, compared with 15 million Arab Christians who remain in the Mideast.”

And it’s even worse when Coptic Christians are included in the equation. The largest Arab nation – Egypt – enforces strict anti-Coptic laws dating back to the subjugation of that country under the Ottoman Empire, and the persecution of this large Christian minority heated up during the 2011 Arab Spring revolution and continues today.

ISIS bombed a Coptic Orthodox Cathedral compound on December 11, 2016, and formally announced that it had entered Egypt two months later via a video proclaiming the Copts as instigators of the Crusades. Thus far the Egyptian government has battled ISIS in the Sinai and elsewhere in the country, but its efforts to protect Copts has been limited.

Ironically, Coptic Christians weren’t part of the Crusades. Their Christian brethren in the West, because of theological differences, have never understood Copts, and these differences made them outsiders during the Crusades – as, indeed, they are today.

Currently there are 9 million Egyptian Copts, and they form the Middle East’s largest Christian and non-Muslim population. However, they are treated as second-class citizens without equal protection under the law, as is is also the case for the majority of Christians in the Middle East.

But if Islamist extremists can dehumanize and systematically kill Christians – as ISIS did in Iraq – then what will happen to the Middle East when these barbaric practices are not stopped, or are even encouraged? If nothing is done, the region will experience destabilization similar to that seen during World War II.

Where Islamic extremism is allowed to succeed, death and the withdrawal of civilized society follows. What’s hard to grasp is a recent Pew Research Poll indicating that 74% of Egyptian Muslims wanted sharia law governing their country, and nowhere in the poll or subsequent research did Islamic adherents speak about protecting Christians.

The international security threat is tied to attacks on Christians in the Middle East this way. ISIS has cleansed northern Sinai of its tiny Christian population through deftly making sure that Muslims aren’t harmed while they surgically strike and drive out Christians. Islamist terrorists then use suicide attacks and other violence to push Christian refugees into Israel, Jordan, Europe and the United States. But what Egypt and other Middle Eastern governments could face if they don’t stop attacks on Christians under their jurisdiction is that their militaries could be forced to fight asymmetrical wars in urban environments that are nearly impossible to win.

In Syria, Iraq, and anywhere else that urban, asymmetrical warfare exists, damage occurs that tears at the social fabric, rips apart economies and leads to large numbers of refugees. Polarization could then drive the Muslim world into fought on ideological lines.

The United Nations, Nato, the European Union and the US need to pay attention to a great geopolitical disaster happening at this time, otherwise persecution of the world’s largest religion will continue unabated – to the detriment of the Middle East.

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Todd Royal

Todd Royal has a master's in public policy from Pepperdine University and has worked for Duke University. He is published by the U.S. Library of Congress on hydraulic fracturing and the geopolitical implications of expanded US oil and gas production. He is a consultant and writer on international geopolitical strategy, energy, and US state and local government.

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