During this holy season, Christians turn their thoughts to that first Christmas and to the early Christians. This year, we should prayerfully reflect on the fact that those church communities founded by Thomas, Mark, Paul, Andrew, and the other disciples of Jesus, communities that have remained faithful for 2,000 years, are now suffering mightily for their faith.
The reason is religious persecution. Christians will always be persecuted, the Scriptures tell us, but the unbearable scope of this wave is due to burgeoning extremism within some Muslim sectors. It now poses an existential threat to Middle Eastern Christians - though it is not limited to the Middle East.
At an address this month in Rome before Georgetown University's Religious Freedom Project, Archbishop Louis Sako of Baghdad, the Chaldean Catholic patriarch of Babylon, expounded on this development:
For almost two millennia Christian communities have lived in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. . . . Unfortunately, in the 21st century Middle Eastern Christians are being severely persecuted. . . . In most of these countries, Islamist extremists see Christians as an obstacle to their plans. Some nations, dominated by extremist ideas, do not want so-called "Arab Spring" democracy. Freedom and pluralism are dangerous to them and their goals.
On December 17, Britain's Prince Charles, after visiting Middle Eastern churches in London, made a similar point: "Christians in parts of the Middle East are being deliberately targeted by Islamist militants in a campaign of persecution." This observation was considered so extraordinary it made headlines in Britain.
The Islamist religious-cleansing campaign is now acute in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, countries that are home to three of the four Mideastern Christian communities of significant size. New data released by the United Nations Committee for Refugees estimates that 850,000 Christians have fled Iraq since 2003, meaning that as few as 250,000 might remain. Syrian Christians have well-founded fears that this is now their fate, too. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of oppressed Egyptian Copts are hedging their bets and buying houses in Georgia, Cyprus, and the United States.
The voices of the persecuted are searing. In addition to relating the horrors they face, they frequently raise another problem, their abandonment by the West. "We feel forgotten and isolated. We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West? Would they do something then?" Archbishop Sako asks.
Congress's impassioned champion of religious freedom, Representative Frank Wolf of Virginia, speaks frequently about his own frustration that Western leaders are silent about this immense human-rights crisis. "We're seeing the destruction of Syrian Christianity. The road to Damascus, the very road where Paul found Jesus, may be the one that passes close by Maaloula," he emphasized in a recent conversation with me. He was referring to the historic Christian town recently laid siege by jihadists and from where a dozen Orthodox nuns were taken hostage this month.
A few days ago, I received a message from Rima Tüzün of the European Syriac Union. Like the Iraqi archbishop, she voices palpable despair:
Kidnapping, killings, ransom, rape . . . 2013 is a tragedy for Christians in Syria. All Syrians have endured great suffering and distress. The Christians, however, often had to pay with their lives for their faith. Our bishops and nuns have been kidnapped, our political leader killed by torture. After our Christian villages have been occupied, our churches have been destroyed and even mass graves were found in Saddad. Referring to latest information from December 16th: Two thousand Christians are hostages in the hands of the Islamists. On Saturday night rebels of Al-Nusra occupied the Christian city Kanaye, region Idlib. Since then, the Christian residents of Kanaya are being held hostages. The Islamists have put [to] the Christians the alternative: Islam or death. Why [is] the West just watching?
Many Middle Eastern Christians are leaving, and some are now refugees twice over. This month, my Smith College alumnae magazine features Taleen Dilanyan, a Smith sophomore majoring in chemistry. In 2006 she fled her homeland of Iraq to Syria, only to have to flee again five years later, from Syria to Massachusetts. "I'm thankful for each day that I'm living here and not having my life threatened," she says. Like many Americans, her classmates have little awareness of the ongoing religious persecution in that part of the world and are surprised that she, or any of her compatriots, could be Christian. "People assume I'm a Muslim because I'm Iraqi," she notes.
It has been a hard year for Egypt's Copts, too. My colleague Egyptian analyst Samuel Tadros concluded that last August's mass attacks against Egyptian churches have been the single largest onslaught against the Copts in 700 years. There were other firsts as well, such as the first assault against Cairo's St. Mark's cathedral, seat of the Coptic pope, while inside a funeral was being held for four Copts murdered by a mob that had been incited by a rumor of blasphemy.
The Copts' problems did not end with the military ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government. On December 10, Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church testified before the Africa Subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives that the attacks by "radical elements in society" are "increasingly disturbing" because they "are not merely on individuals but on the Christian and minority presence in its entirety."
Eradicating the entire Christian and Jewish, Baha'i, Mandean, Yizidi, and other minority presence - this pattern has now spread beyond the Arab countries to other regions. It has been catastrophic for churches in parts of Africa. Churches of all faith traditions are deliberately targeted; Pope Francis calls this "the ecumenism of blood."
Habila Adamu, a Christian businessman from Yobe in northern Nigeria, was the only man in his neighborhood to survive a Boko Haram massacre in 2012. Last month, brought to Washington by the Jubilee Campaign and brandishing x-rays and photos, he spoke of his ordeal to a Hudson Institute audience:
For the second time, they asked me "are you ready to die as a Christian." And I told them, "I am ready." But before I closed my mouth, they fired [shot] me through my nose and the bullet came out the back. I fell on the ground. The gunmen thought I was already dead . . . and cried out "Allah Akbar." I told [my wife] that I am alive. . . . I asked her to look for help and she went out. She found that our Christian neighbors have been killed. We have one elder in my church, himself and his son were killed that night, including twelve others. . . . I am alive because God wants you to hear a message: Do everything you can to end this ruthless persecution in northern Nigeria.
The Islamist extremist government of President Bashir, an indicted war criminal, for over two decades has visited unspeakable persecutions on the Sudanese Christians, who trace their country's Christian origins to the biblically attested eunuch of Queen Candace (Acts: 26–27). Bashir regularly bombs Nuba Mountains civilians. In 1993, in a militant Islamization and Arabization campaign, he arranged a fatwa declaring the Nuba Muslims apostate and, along with the "infidel" Christians and traditional African believers, thus targets for death. Macram Gassis, bishop emeritus of the Catholic diocese of El Obeid, Sudan, has been a consistent voice for all the Nuba people. He writes that they "die for their languages, for their traditions, culture, and creed" and begins his prayer for blessing, "Lord Jesus, we come to you, we hold you by the hand, bruised, disfigured, maimed, and trembling by the explosions."
Since March, in the Central African Republic, which is overwhelmingly Christian, the jihadist group Seleka has overthrown the secular government, has installed a Muslim one instead, and seeks to establish an Islamic state with the help of foreign fighters. According to international press reports, Christians have been treated mercilessly. Christian self-defense militias, called "anti-balaka" - or "anti-machete," after the Muslim militants' weapon of choice - formed a few months ago and engage in reprisal killings, which are condemned by the Catholic Church. In recent weeks, French- and U.S.-military-supported African Union troops have worked to quell the violence and disarm both groups. The following are excerpts adapted from letters, provided by the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need, that Abbot Dieu-Béni Mbanga, chancellor of the Catholic Archdiocese of Bangui, wrote on December 5 and 6:
Christians in the Archdiocese of Bangui went to sleep last night planning to get up today to join the diocesan pilgrimage to the Marian sanctuary at Ngukomba. It turned out very differently. The firing of weapons of war woke up all of Bangui. . . .
By mid-morning, the parishes of St. John of Galabadja and Bangui's Cathedral of Our Lady the Immaculate had taken in some 1,000 people. . . . The stream of people seeking shelter continued to grow in the afternoon, doubling in size, with their number tripling by nightfall. . . .
Those who have found refuge in Church buildings are not safe from bullets in the least, as attacks by Seleka militants are even penetrating these structures. . . .
The protestant church of Castors has taken in more than 1,000 people. . . . [There] a Seleka colonel named Bichara and his men entered the church and ordered only women and children to leave the church, the men having to stay inside. The men did not comply and decided to leave at the same time as the women and children. That is when Seleka forces opened fire on them, killing five men.
In a major address in November, Cardinal Timothy Dolan focused on persecuted Christians. He called for prayer and urged his listeners to "insist that our country's leaders make the protection of at-risk Christians abroad a foreign-policy priority for the United States."
Few have heeded his call. Representative Wolf's bill for the creation of the office of a special envoy for religious minorities languishes in the Senate for a third year. Many more American voices - religious and political - are needed to raise awareness of this religious-freedom crisis of historic magnitude.
This Christmas, we can all do something. We can keep in mind Abbot Mbanga's words regarding the persecuted: "I keep them in my prayers and commend them to yours: God may guard over each of them and protect them, just as He promised to all those belonging to His people: 'The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace'" (Num. 6: 24–26).