On walls in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank these days, one can find the slogan “After Saturday comes Sunday.” Meaning, “On Saturday we will kill the Jews, and on Sunday we will kill the Christians.”
For the past several years, in Iraq, Egypt, Iran, Nigeria and Pakistan, among numerous other countries, Christians have been enduring a perpetual and lethal Sunday at the hands of radical Muslims, especially since last November 1. This most recent wave of anti-Christian violence includes the following incidents (the source here is Open Doors USA):
- Salman Taseer, the Pakistani Muslim governor of Punjab Province, murdered by a member of his security detail on January 4, 2011. He had publicly defended minority Christians against the country’s controversial blasphemy law. His assassin was a member of a radical Muslim group angry about his actions.
- Last October 31, terrorists linked with al-Qaeda in Iran took 100 worshippers hostage at Our Lady of Salvation, a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad. The attack killed 58 people, including three priests.
- On Christmas Eve last yearin Jos, Nigeria, dozens of Christians were killed by Boko Haram, a radical Muslim group. Jos is the main city in Plateau State, which sits on the tension-filled fault religious fault line between the Islamic Sharia-governed northern states and the largely Christian south.
- As worshippers left the New Year’s Mass at the Coptic Orthodox Church of Two Saints in Alexandria, Egypt, a bomb exploded in front of the church, killing at least 23, all Coptic Christians.
- On December 26, special security officers raided the homes of Christians in Tehran and elsewhere, arresting 25. By January 11, the number of arrested Christians rose to at least 70, on charges that they threaten the state.
- On March 2, unidentified gunmen in Islamabad shot dead Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s only cabinet-level Christian and an outspoken critic of the country’s widely-condemned “blasphemy” laws. Suspected Islamic extremists from Pakistan’s Taliban and al Qaeda reportedly left a letter at the scene saying those who try to change Pakistan’s blasphemy laws would be killed.
This human rights catastrophe has a long history. In 1900, Christians constituted over 20% of the population of the Middle East—the very homeland of Christianity. Today, they number less than 2%.
The case of Iraqi Christians is particularly dramatic, especially given the level of U.S. influence there. (Pope Benedict has mentioned this situation several times, such as here.) The ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein by American forces in 2003 spawned violent attacks on that country’s 1.4 million Christians, a group which today numbers between 400,000 and 500,000. Since 2004, human rights groups have recorded 66 attacks on Iraqi churches. In the aftermath of last October’s bombing attack on the church in Baghdad, along with the various kidnapping and murders in Iraq in recent years, it’s clear that more Christians will likely feel impelled to flee for their family’s very survival—precisely what this campaign of ethno-religious cleansing was intended to accomplish.
Two weeks ago I drove to a Doubletree Conference Center in Downers Grove, Illinois to attend a day-long event called “The Persecuted Church: Christian Believers in Peril in the Middle East.” An audience of about 400 included lay leaders of the Coptic Church, the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, and several local evangelical churches, along with representatives from advocacy groups Voice of the Martyrs, the Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights and Open Doors USA.
Seated to my left was an Assyrian man named Tony who said he was a member of the Church of the East, an ancient and non-affiliated Christian body which developed in the ancient Parthian Empire and whose current headquarters are in Chicago. The Chaldean Catholic Church is a branch from this group’s early origins.
Tony remained quiet as various speakers related the sufferings of their churches in the last few months but I could sense his exhilaration at finally seeing these events talked about in a public forum. One speaker reminded the audience that it was Illinois State Senator Barack Obama who twice called attention to this rising persecution when he was a member of that body. Since then, the speaker added, he has been mostly silent.
The conference appeared to have two aims: first, to allow representatives of the churches in Iraq and Egypt to voice their fears at what is happening to their brethren in their home countries, and second, to use the meeting as a platform to launch some kind of group initiative (“the Chicago Initiative” was one suggestion) aimed at increasing this issue’s visibility in the U.S.A.
Dr. Kamal Ibrahim, a surgeon and Coptic activist, noted that the Egyptian uprising actually began amidst the Twitter activity of young Copts, soon after the New Year bombing of their church in Alexandria. “The issue here is nothing about religion,” Ibrahaim argued, “it’s all about human rights.” He hopefully suggested that the rising tide of unrest in Egypt might produce democratic reforms that included constitutional protections for religious minorities—although no one on the panel seemed to expect such reforms any time soon.
Pastor Raouf Boulos is an Egyptian currently teaching at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. He agreed that the uprisings mean different things to different groups—while the Egyptians are hopeful for political freedom, the Israelis only want their peace treaty with Egypt intact.
The latter statement was one of only two mentions of Israel in the entire day’s events. (The other was the reply of a panelist asked what would happen to Christian groups should Iraq or Egypt launch a war against Israel. “Christians will become a primary internal target for Muslim violence” was the universally agreed-upon answer.)
Although the event was sponsored by the pro-Israel watchdog group CAMERA, organizers clearly wished to avoid sidetracking the conversation with debates about Middle Eastern politics in general. CAMERA’s representative (himself a Catholic) told me the conference was part of an effort by his group to broaden its concerns with Middle Eastern issues. He acted as moderator for the day’s events but refrained from any comments relating to either Israel or U.S. foreign policy.
“We need a youth movement,” urged Dr. Refaat Abdel-Malek, an engineering consultant whose slide presentation began with a large image of the famous Pantokrator icon of Jesus. He spoke of prayer, fasting, love of our enemies and steadfastness as one road forward, while another speaker recommended intensive lobbying of the Department of Defense to cut their funding of the Egyptian military if reforms are not undertaken.
Several young Egyptians were in the audience, including one former Muslim now affiliated with an evangelical church. In a discussion of Islam, Pastor Boulos related the surprising verse of Scripture which converted the young man: “As a result of this, many (of) his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (John 6:66). The mere idea that Christianity could be based on one’s free will and voluntary assent struck the Egyptian as a dramatic contrast with Islam’s notions of submission.
The final and keynote speaker was terrorism expert Walid Phares, author of The Coming Revolution. Phares characterized these times in the Middle East as very dangerous and very hopeful. Christian leaders in the U.S., Phares suggested, should “upset the apple cart” here and push to create a united effort for recognition of these issues in the national media and in Congress (where Rep. Anna Eshoo of California is currently the only Assyrian member).
I turned to Tony during the recounting of one of the very frequent Friday mob attacks on a Christian group (Friday being the day of worship when mullahs often rouse mass anger with incendiary sermons in the mosques). “So this Shi’ite attack was about theology?”, I asked him. He looked at me with slight incredulity: It goes without saying, he replied with a shrug.
Let us hope that American Christians in general and we Catholics especially will find ways—both governmental and through NGO groups—to rescue and sustain our brothers and sisters living in these perilous conditions. For more information and links to several groups monitoring this situation, please visit this page.