ALEXANDRIA, VA — In late September, two suicide bombers detonated explosives outside of a historic church in northwestern Pakistan, killing 85 people and wounded another 140 people. The bombing was the deadliest single attack on Christians that church leaders could recall in the country’s 66-year-old history.
The attack on the All Saints Church in Peshawar occurred as worshippers were leaving after services to get a free meal of rice on the front lawn. A wing of the Pakistani Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the bombings.
Angry Christians blocked roads around the country to protest the bombings. “Our people have been killed. Nobody seems to care about us. No one apprehended the killers,” said Aqeel Masih, one of the protestors. Paul Bhatti, the head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (and whose brother, a federal minister, was killed by Islamic militants in 2011), said “Our state and our intelligence agencies are so weak that anyone can kill anyone any time.”
Michael Javed, a Christian leader in Karachi who runs several schools, said the attack left many Christians in the country feeling powerless and unprotected. Christians make up one to two percent of Pakistan’s population; about 97 percent of the country’s residents identify themselves as Muslim. Recently, Javed said, he got a call from a man who threatened to “drown my school” and kill his family if he did not pay a ransom or leave the area.
In Egypt, recent months have seen perhaps the worst anti-Christian violence in 700 years. Egypt has the largest Christian population in the Middle East, totaling 8 to 12 million people. But because Christian Copts make up only about 10 to 15 percent of Egypt’s estimated 80 million people, they have lived for many years as second-class citizens, subjected to attacks on churches and villages and the abduction and forced Islamic conversion of Christian women compelled to marry Muslim men. Such abuse took place even under the secular regime of Hosni Mubarak, but it became much worse under the rule of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt is as old as Christianity itself. It dates to when Joseph, with his young wife and child, fled into that land to escape Herod’s sword. Its history continued when St. Mark the Evangelist established the Church of Egypt and the school of Alexandria sometime around 48 A.D. Christianity thrived as the predominant religion for 600 years. In 640 A.D., Arab forces invaded Egypt. Within a year, Cairo had been conquered; and by 647 A.D., the entire country had fallen to Muslim rule. The first Islamic ruler, Amr, let every Christian decide whether to remain Christian or convert to Islam. He understood that Muhammed had recognized Jews and Christians as “people of the book,” although inferior in status to Islamic believers.
For nearly 13 centuries, the two religions managed to coexist. In 1980, Egypt officially recognized Islam as the state religion, and relations steadily declined. Asia News lists 58 Coptic and Evangelical churches, convents, schools, and monasteries that were attacked and burned from August 14-17. Perpetrators were said to be members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In August — for the first time in 1,600 years — the Orthodox monastery of the Virgin Mary in Degla canceled Sunday prayers.
In Syria, 2.5 million Christians constitute about 10 percent of the population. They enjoyed some protection under the secular (but brutal) Assad dynasty. But as jihadi groups extend their territorial control, the past protection of Christians is often the cause of their current persecution by Sunnis who seek to impose Shari’a law wherever they can. Christians have been targeted and killed by rebels. Early in September, rebels attacked the ancient Christian town of Maaloula. Most of the residents have fled the town, one of the last places where Aramaic–the language of Jesus– is still spoken by Christians and some Muslims. In Maaloula, the rebel attack was led by members of the Nusra Front, a group with ties to al Qaeda in Iraq. The rebels referred to the local Christian community as “infidels.” Mother Pelagia Sayaf, who is in charge of the Mar Taqla monastery, said, “If Maaloula survives, it will be a miracle.”
Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs, an advocacy group for persecuted Christians around the world, reported that in Syria, “We see Christians being targeted. There are Christian villages where rebels have come in, they’ve announced from loudspeakers, ‘Christians, you have 48 hours to get out of the village, or else,’ and literally the Christians pack what they can carry and they leave their homes, leave their villages, because they’re in fear of their lives. Thousands of Christians are leaving Syria, saying there is no future for them.”
In Iraq, terrified Christians are leaving the country in huge numbers. Iraqi Christians at one time numbered 1.5 million; today, fewer than 200,000 remain. In December 2012, Civitas: The Institute for the Study of Civil Society, a British think tank, released a report summarizing the very real possibility that the radicals could completely eradicate Christianity from the land of its birth. The report suggested that the widespread persecution is ignored by much of the media and Western politicians because of fears that they will be accused of “racism.” According to the report, Westerners have failed “to appreciate that in defense of the wider concept of human rights, religious freedom is the ‘canary in the mine.’”
Writing in the British magazine The Spectator, Ed West noted, “The last month and a half has seen perhaps the worst anti-Christian violence in Egypt in seven centuries, with dozens of churches torched. Yet the Western media has mainly focused on army assaults of the Muslim Brotherhood, and no major political figure has said anything about the sectarian attacks.”
In mid-September, a meeting was held at the National Liberal Club in London to discuss the question of why the American and British press have ignored or underreported this persecution of Christians. One of the speakers, Nina Shea of the Center for Religious Freedom, reported that when President Mubarak of Egypt was overthrown, one U.S. government agency assessed the Muslim Brotherhood as “essentially secular.”
Historian Tom Holland sadly declared that we are now seeing the extinction of Christianity and other minority faiths in the Middle East. He pointed out that this is the culmination of the long process that began in the Balkans in the late 19th century; reached its horrific European climax in 1939-1945; and continued with the Greeks of Alexandria, the Mizrahi Jews, and most recently, the Chaldo-Assyrian Christians of Iraq.
Ed West reported, “The saddest audience question was from a young man who I’m guessing was Egyptian-British. He asked, ‘Where was world Christianity when this happened?’ Nowhere. Watching The X Factor. Debating intersectionality. Or just too frightened of controversy to raise Muslim-Christian violence.”
Bishop Angaelos, leader of Copts in Britain, expressed disappointment at the response from other religious leaders, saying that if Christians burned down 10 synagogues or mosques, let alone 50, they would be going over to express their sympathy and shame.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Christians represented 20 percent of the population of the Middle East and North Africa a century ago — but only 4 percent today.
One of the few voices speaking out against the persecution of Christians in the Middle East is Britain’s former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, who referred to what is happening at the present time as “the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing.”
Rabbi Sacks compared the fate of Christians in the Middle East with that of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. He quoted Martin Luther King: “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is THE REVOLUTION LOBBY (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee.
The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright (c) 2013 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, http://www.fgfbooks.com. All rights reserved.