NEW YORK (CNS) — A rising tide of intolerance in the Middle East threatens minority faith communities with cultural extinction, said speakers at a May 10 lecture in New York.

Religious minorities are the most seriously impacted among the millions who have fled their homes to escape violence and the percentage of Christians in the region has dropped to an all-time low, panelists said.

The Russo Family lecture event at Jesuit-run Fordham University was titled “Endangered: Religious Minorities in the Middle East and their Struggle for Survival” and co-sponsored by Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture and its Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

A vast and vibrant network of religious and spiritual communities flourished in the Middle East for millennia and managed to live in peace, although with difficulty, according to journalist Eliza Griswold, who has traveled in and written extensively about Christianity and Islam.

Christians and other religious minorities were first targeted for persecution after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, she said. Iraq was destabilized and the Arab Spring felled tyrannical leaders whose forces previously “shored up” religious minorities. Neighbors turned against one another. Griswold said religious minorities were attractive targets because they had money.

“It’s not a sensational story; it’s the reality for those living in the region,” she said.

Although numbers vary from country to country, Griswold said the Christian population of the Middle East is now 4 percent, down from 20 percent. She said Islamic State buys and sells Christian women and girls in telephone negotiations. She witnessed a man in an Iraqi restaurant pose as an Islamic State member to negotiate the purchase of his kidnapped wife and daughters.

Iraqi Father Gewargis Sulaiman, a priest of the Assyrian Church of the East, described the plight of Christians in Iraq as cultural genocide, for which immigration is the only immediate solution.

Father Sulaiman said he did not think Christianity would die in Iraq, because Christians have overcome violence in the past. “We are people of that land and believe God put us there to be the salt and light our ancestors were,” he said.

“When there was justice, people could live together. The cultural norms were protective to each group, but when politicians abuse power for personal benefit, there is no justice or protective norms,” Father Sulaiman said.

“Christians are integral to the social fabric of the country. They’ve been the source of peace, integrity and values and raised the standard of every community they’ve lived in,” Father Sulaiman said. “The world is obliged to provide assistance to prevent genocide. The disappearance of Christians in the Middle East will hurt everyone,” he said.

Haider Elias is co-founder and president of Yazda: A Global Yazidi Organization. He said Yezidis are an ancient ethno-religious minority indigenous to what is now northern Iraq. They practice a monotheistic religion and have endured 74 massacres and genocides in recorded history, Elias said. There are now fewer than 1 million Yezidis.

Islamic State militants attacked Yezidis in August 2014, kidnapping 6,000 women and girls and killing 5,800, including several members of Elias’ family. More than 400,000 Yezidis live in camps for displaced persons in Iraq.

Any resolution in Iraq requires the defeat of Islamic State before anything else can be done, Douglas M. Padgett said. He is a foreign affairs officer in the Office of International Religious Freedom in the U.S. Department of State. His office works with vulnerable communities, tracks laws and coordinates with civil society groups to identify and help those persecuted because of their faith.

The subsequent challenge is “to put Iraq back together in such a way that diversity can be maintained” and minority groups can enjoy security and economic and political viability, Padgett said.

“The humanitarian need is so vast, it’s shocking,” he said, but United Nations’ appeals for help are routinely underfunded by at least 40 percent. Padgett said other needs include efforts to document atrocities and mass graves for potential prosecution, and a plan to establish transitional justice to help people live together again after the conflicts. In addition, survivors need medical, psychological and social support.

Sarhang Hamasaeed, a senior program officer at the U.S. Institute for Peace, said Iraqis have three options: return to homes in liberated areas, remain wherever they relocated, or resettle somewhere safe.

Elias is an Iraqi refugee who worked as a translator for the U.S. Army. He said most Yezidis want to be resettled elsewhere. “This is not the first, second or third time this has happened. They’ve lost trust in the Iraqi government and surrounding cultural communities,” he said.

“Those who want to stay want international protection,” Elias said.

Speakers agreed that protection in the form of international peacekeepers, troops on the ground or the creation of a no-fly zone is prohibitively expensive and extremely unlikely.

Padgett said there is potential for a self-secured autonomous zone for religious minorities in northern Iraq after Mosul is retaken from Islamic State. Griswold said the Iraqi Constitution includes a provision for such a zone, but Elias said self-governance of the envisioned zone is complicated by conflicts among five competing groups in the area.

Panelists agreed the needs outpace the resources, but individuals can take action. “In 20 years of covering conflict, I have never seen a more pressing need for funding,” Griswold said.

Jesuit Refugee Services, Caritas, Assyrian Aid Society, Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organization and other small nongovernmental agencies are working in the affected communities to serve people in need, they said.

Griswold urged listeners to invite members of groups such as Yazda to address parishes and meetings of interested people because the extent of the suffering is poorly understood in this country.