Persecution of Christians in the Middle East

Posted: Nov 24, 2013 8:00 AM

Violence against Christians is rising across the Middle East. Open Doors USA's CEO David Curry investigates for the December issue of Townhall Magazine.

Christians in the Middle East and around the world are being persecuted, impris- oned and martyred for their faith. There is widespread, systematic violence and no one in the mainstream media and government seems to have noticed. We may see the elimination and extinction of Christianity in its very birthplace, with- out a whimper of protest from the West.

Today tens of millions of people live under oppression, persecution and danger simply for identifying themselves as followers of Jesus Christ. In fact, according to Pew Research, nearly 75 percent of the world lives in a country where religious freedom is highly restricted. And many of these believers are Christians. Some of the greatest persecution is in the Middle East, but it also exists in totalitarian regimes like North Korea, which is the worst persecutor of Christians, according to the Open Doors 2013 World Watch List.

Middle Eastern Christians are not persecuted because they are criminals, anarchists, or for participating in uncivil behavior. They are persecuted because of what they believe. They are not promoting any particular political party or agenda, they simply want the freedom of faith and religion that Americans experience every day.

It is puzzling why most of our media and political leaders remain silent, despite overwhelming evidence of a major humanitarian crisis. When the scope of the persecution is seen, it’s hard to understand how this could have slipped under the radar of nearly all our leaders in Washington. One is left wondering if the oversight is intentional or merely a giant blind spot the size of the entire Middle Eastern region.

Consider what occurred during a four-week period during August and September:

  • Syrian rebels attacked the historic Christian enclave of Maaloula, damaging some iconic churches while driving out most of the Christians as well as other residents.
  • Jihadi terrorists blew up a church in Peshawar, Pakistan, taking more than 85 lives and injuring many more. After the attack, Pakistani Christians protested in the streets, to no avail, demanding protection of their churches and schools, which are under daily threat of harassment and destruction.
  • Muslim Brotherhood forces in Egypt attacked and burned 73 churches, hundreds of Christian-owned businesses, properties and schools.

  • These are but a handful of attacks that make news. Each day Christians in the Middle East are suffering all manner of indignities for their faith. Those include destruction of property, harassment, targeted rape of Christian women and a legal system that ignores the rights due to their faith; many governments fail to pursue, capture and prosecute jihadist radicals who perpetrate these crimes against Christ’s followers.

    A Broader Pattern

    As if current events weren’t enough, a December 2012 Pew Research study indicates that over the past century, the percentage of Christians in the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity, has shrunk from 20 percent of the population to under 4 percent today. Take Iraq for example: in 2003 there were 1 million Christians in Iraq. Now fewer than half remain due to violence against the church. An Open Doors fieldworker says if this trend continues, there could be no Christians left in Iraq by 2020.

    “What does the future hold for me?” asks Samar, a young Christian woman who recently moved from Baghdad to Erbil in northern Iraq with her husband, baby and in-laws. Looking for a safer place, she was shocked by the increase of bombings in the city during September.

    Some victims were specifically targeted because they are Christians. Also in September, the Christian community was startled when a suicide bomber blew up a car near the house of Emad Youhanna, a Christian politician. Nineteen people were injured, four seriously. Three of the injured were children of Emad.

    A widespread culture of intolerance created by Islamic extremists, coupled with an apparent strategy to drive out or eliminate Christians from the region, has led to a rapid decline of Christian populations throughout the Middle East. While this has a direct affect on Christians, more moderate Muslims suffer too.

    This is most dramatically illustrated by the unrest in Egypt, where moderate Muslims and Christian believers are united in opposition to the extreme Muslim Brotherhood movement.

    A Leadership Vacuum
    The data and anecdotal evidence that Christians are being targeted is staggering yet aside from a few notable politicians, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) for example, few in our government have spoken out on the issue or even seem to be aware of the problem.

    Last year Wolf proposed a bill to add a State Department Envoy for Religious Freedom in the Middle East and South Central Asia. The House passed the bill in September, but it is unlikely to clear the Senate. It does not have the backing of the current administration.

    In addition, Wolf has identified a need for faith leaders and Christians in America to speak out and rally behind those who are persecuted around the world for their Christian faith. There is much that our government can do to put pressure on allied governments to end religious persecution and allow for greater freedoms. Many of the Middle Eastern countries identified as having the most inhospitable environments for Christians are our allies in commerce and multi-national coalitions. We have the ability to use these alliances to extract concessions for religious freedoms. Do we have the political will?

    Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for example, have been important strategic partners of America economically and militarily over the years, receiving billions of dollars from the United States government. These governments are extremely hostile to the open existence of the Christian faith, or any faith outside of Islam. Saudi Arabia is No. 2 on the World Watch List and Qatar No. 20, which means that there are only a few places on earth where it is more dangerous to be a Christian.

    Practically, this means that people in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other countries are imprisoned, harassed, raped and even martyred for nothing more than seeking to exercise their faith. Individuals in these countries lack the basic freedom to study, discuss, choose and share the faith of their choice. Saudi and Qatari citizens lack the freedom to determine for themselves what they believe in regards to faith. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

    Some of the factors that feed this glaring oversight include:

    Willful Ignorance of Theological Dogma: Jihadists are theologically disposed to be imperialist—they believe that they are called to conquer lands and forcefully impose their beliefs on others.

    This is exactly what they are doing in the Middle East; intimidating and punishing those who seek to practice other faiths and forcing conversion to Islam. America was formed with freedom of religion in order to keep the church from imposing its will on the state, but also and perhaps more importantly, to keep the state from imposing its will on the church. As such, we should not be neutral on the subject of freedom of religion around the world.

    This is especially true in countries where we are investing billions of dollars, only to have these allies squash religious expression. It seems obvious that most politicians lack any basic knowledge of the theological religious agenda of extreme Islamic jihadists and, therefore, are slow to respond to the “religicide” (the intentional, systematic and institutionalized effort to eliminate a religious belief and its followers from a country or region) that is happening in the Middle East.

    This lack of understanding isn’t just leaving a vacuum for radical elements to punish and attack Christians. It is also creating an environment that leaves moderate Muslims pressured to accept more radical political dogma.

    Fortunately, Egyptians and others are seeing the inherent danger in a radical, imperialist jihadist agenda and are revolting, but unless we see how theology is playing a part in geo-politics in the Middle East we are bound to continue to make mistakes and endanger hundreds of millions of lives.

    Secular Bias: Since its inception the United States has valued freedom of religion. Yet more recently there is a growing movement towards even more secularization of our society.

    Secularists hold that Christianity needs to be distanced from the public square, a part of private lives perhaps, but not a part of public morality and laws.

    It is possible that this philosophy is influencing how some are approaching the persecution of Christians around the world. If they are inclined to see the marginalization of Christians as a good thing, perhaps they are less likely to speak out. Jihadists, aware that some have no sympathy for faith in America’s public square, are capitalizing on this insensitivity and ignorance and enforcing Sharia Law without a word of dissent from the West. Perhaps this new evidence of looming extinction of Middle Eastern Christians will help get both religious and secular leaders speaking with one voice on religious freedom.

    Real-Politik Run Amok: Even before the coining of the phrase “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” there were complicated political entanglements that kept America from being an outspoken voice on moral issues in the world. There have been times when America was slow to recognize injustice—anti-Semitism and apartheid, to name a couple—due to political entanglements and back room arrangements. Now we may be witnessing one of the greatest moral lapses in our short history.

    What will we do?

    In order to maintain political stability, we have over-looked, excused and even endorsed regimes that have arrested, beaten and murdered Christians for the open expression of their faith. Middle

    Eastern citizens deserve freedoms like reading and studying of scriptures, sharing and discussing their faith in public, and determining for themselves what they believe. They should even have the right to change their mind if they so choose. Right now, they have none of these freedoms.

    One would think the unrelenting news of targeted destruction of Christian holy sites and properties and the death of hundreds of Christians would unsettle even the most tone-deaf. However, if history is any judge, we may have to wait until the carnage gets worse and we see clearly the immorality of the present situation and decide to take action to stop the “religicide.”

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