As paradoxical as it may sound, the trouble of the region’s Christians began in the modern era. First, in the deadly deportation of 1915, the Ottoman government wiped out a big portion of its Armenian population — the very Armenians who had lived and flourished under the same Ottoman rule for four centuries. Throughout the next 100 years, various waves of deportation, massacre, persecution and discrimination reduced the size of Middle Eastern Christians dramatically — from 14 percent of the region’s population in 1910 to a mere 4 percent in 2010.
A part of this modern crisis was political: The fall of the pluralist Ottoman Empire gave rise to furious nationalists and paranoid nation-states that perceived minorities as suspects, if not enemies within. Christians, some of whom were leading thinkers in developing secular Arab nationalism, often found themselves branded as the fifth column of Western colonial powers. Similarly, long-established Jewish communities in the Arab world became the collateral damage of the anger at the expansionist policies of the state of Israel.
However, a part of the modern crisis was also religious — and it was rooted in the very tolerance of classical Islam. This tolerance had been based not on equality but on hierarchy. Muslims were the superior rulers, whereas non-Muslims were protected but inferior communities called “dhimmi.” The latter had to pay an extra poll tax, their temples could not be too loud and new ones were rarely permitted, and they were subject to various social limitations. And while their conversion to Islam was encouraged, conversion from Islam to the faith of dhimmi could be a capital offense.