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'The Body And The Blood' Follows Exodus Of Christians In The Middle East


Last week in Egypt, a group of Coptic Christians were traveling to a monastery where they intended to pray. Their convoy was attacked by gunmen. More than two dozen people were killed, and a similar number were injured. The Islamic State issued a statement saying that the attack was carried out by what it called a security detachment of soldiers of the caliphate. Egypt responded with airstrikes on ISIS targets in neighboring Libya.

The plight of Egypt's Christians dates back well before the ISIS declaration of a self-styled caliphate. As journalist Charles Sennott wrote back in 2001 in his book "The Body And The Blood," persecution and emigration have steadily diminished the numbers of Christians in Egypt and in nearly all of the Middle East. Charles Sennott, welcome to the program once again.

CHARLES SENNOTT: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Seems like one of the hardest questions to answer is, how many Egyptians are Coptic Christians? What would you say?

SENNOTT: Commonly it's been said that there are 10 percent or about 9 million Coptic Christians in Egypt. I think that number is very high. I think it's much closer to 5 percent or about 4.5 million. And I think this diminishing presence of the Egyptian Coptics has really taken a toll in the last 20 years or so.

It's a long journey for the Copts. They've been persecuted for a long time. They've suffered different spates of violence. They've also benefited in some ways as a protected minority, but through it all the numbers are down, and I would say down from the 10 percent and much closer to 5 percent.

SIEGEL: And if there's a common theme to the exodus, what drives, say, Coptic Christians to leave Egypt or Christians to leave the Middle East more broadly, what do you say?

SENNOTT: This is a tough one because the thing that is said often and in the heat of the violence is that there is somehow this war by Islam on Christianity. And I think that is a wrong framing. I think it's really troublesome, and it can lead down a bad path. But what is clear is that there is a very specific theology that views Christians as minority, and it's very demeaning often to them.

And this is viewed by some secular authoritarian regimes that you find in the Middle East, and it's also very much the ethos of the Islamic militant groups like ISIS, al-Qaida or Egyptian Islamic Jihad. They've always sought to put a lot of pressure on the Christian minority. For one thing, it drives a wedge between Islam and the West. They're very aware of that. And it unfolds in a very complex dynamic.

SIEGEL: The two Middle Eastern countries that have been the sign of the greatest sectarian violence in recent years have been Iraq and Syria. What's the status of Christian communities in those countries?

SENNOTT: Well, it's bleak. I mean, the minority Christians in Iraq and in Syria have been singled out and attacked in very violent ways. And as a result, there is a tremendous exodus of the Christians from those countries. There's, of course, an immigrant exodus we've witnessed of Muslims as well. But for the Iraqi Christians, for example, there were 1.2 million Christians before the current eruption of violence in Iraq, and now there are an estimated 500,000.

So we're seeing a pretty significant outflow of Christians there. I spoke to a father, Sebastian Echlemes (ph), recently. He was born in Mosul. And he was basically trying to explain to me that it's over. As he put it, for Christians of the Middle East, it's over, and that he says this with a heartbreak but that it's true. So you're even hearing the Christian clerical leadership of its own land recognizing that there is a feeling of the beginning of an end of the Christian presence across the Middle East.

SIEGEL: Journalist Charles Sennott is the founder and executive director of the GroundTruth Project. Thanks.

SENNOTT: Thank you, Robert.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BROOK'S "IONISM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.