On New Year’s Day, a bomb was detonated outside the Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria as worshippers were leaving midnight mass. Twenty-three Christians were killed and at least ninety were wounded in the worst attack against the country’s Christians in recent memory. The explosion ripped through the crowd leaving the church’s entrance-way covered with blood, bodies and severed limbs (see video below).
Days after the bombing, Coptic Christians took to the streets in protests which some believe helped ignite the fervor of Egypt’s January 25 revolution. “This was the most powerful protest that Christian Copts ever held in recent history,” said a Coptic human rights activist. “It went three days and inspired the 25th youth movement. We wanted to end a life under dictatorship, and we were not alone in our aspirations.”
However, details on how the attack was carried out remained disputed. Immediately after the bombing, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced that it was the work of the Army of Islam, an Al-Qaeda affiliated Palestinian network. Mubarak’s accusations ignited further Coptic frustration from those who believed that the attack was executed by Egyptians and that Mubarak was trying to avoid confrontation with internal Islamic terrorism targeting Christians.
Mubarak’s disregard was nothing new for Copts who had experienced considerable persecution the past year. Murders have been accompanied by anti-Christian propaganda in Egyptian media, acquittals of Muslim offenders who initiated anti-Christian attacks, the inability of Christians to build churches without special government authorization, and the lack of basic freedoms for Christian converts from Islam. Marginalized by the government, Christians were left helplessly exposed. It came as no surprise that Christian frustrations boiled over in January.
“We have suffered a lot as Christians,” said the same activist. “We’ve seen churches being bombed, innocent people being killed, girls being kidnapped, and the spread of Islamization against our will. We want to get rid of the dictatorship that we have been living under for over thirty years.”
The New Years Eve bombing led many Christians to participate in Egypt’s revolution to demand the end of oppression under Mubarak’s dictatorship and the beginning of religious freedom. However, there is grave concern among Egypt’s Christians that persecution could potentially increase if free elections give power to the Muslim Brotherhood.
“If the Muslim Brotherhood were to take over, it would not only be dangerous for the Christians in Egypt, but for the whole world,” said Magdi Khalil, Director of the Middle East Freedom Forum. “It means the entire Middle East will be an Islamic Middle East. Egypt is the key state. We must support the secular approach and rewrite the constitution to be a secular constitution.”
While Egypt and its Christians sit on the brim of uncertainty, Christians around the world ought to be careful in fully embracing revolutions that could lead to greater influence for radical Islam. Yet, who can blame Egyptian Christians for demanding the end of tyranny and hoping for a better future?
“We are seeking freedom, we are seeking democracy. No one can live without freedom. Freedom is life.”
Who could have imagined in 2003 – the year the U.S. invaded Iraq – that the country’s Christians would be a focal point of the war’s discussion eight years later? U.S. policymakers couldn’t. Procedures set in place to protect religious minorities were characterized by careless oversight, and at times, by outright neglect. Today, the sad realization is that years of failure to protect vulnerable Iraqi Christians has resulted in the near extinction of one of the oldest and most vibrant Christian communities in world.
The U.S. government had received numerous cries for help. By July 2010, Christian leaders from Iraq visited Capitol Hill to beg for the preservation of their communities. They came as representatives of a newly established council of churches. Putting aside denominational differences, the council was formed by the common belief that only together could they avoid annihilation. At the time of the visit, some estimated that only 400,000 Christians remained in the country, a fraction of the 1.4 million who were there before the war.
“We have no militia. We have no way to defend ourselves. We are sitting ducks. And, when we are attacked, no one is prosecuted. How can we survive?” the head of the council told a congressman’s office. However, pleas and policy recommendations fell on deaf ears and the Christian council grew void of hope. “Nothing is going to change,” one council member told me. “Who is concerned about Christians when the U.S. is trying to win a war?”
On October 31, only three months after the Iraqi clergy’s visit to Washington, Christians would pay the ultimate price for government inaction. In a violent siege of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Baghdad, Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists massacred more than fifty worshippers. The attack was the worst since the war’s beginning and triggered a series of attacks on Christians.
Consider the days following the massacre:
- November 10, thirteen bomb raids on Christian homes in Baghdad kill six.
- November 16, gunmen in northern Iraq murder two men in a Christian home.
- November 17, a bomb wired to a Christian’s vehicle in Mosul kills a man and his 6-year-old daughter.
- November 22, militants shoot two Christian brothers dead inside their vehicle workshop. That same day, an elderly Christian woman is found strangled in her home.
- December 5, gunmen murder an elderly couple in Baghdad.
- December 30, a bomb left at the doorstep of an elderly Christian couple’s home blows them apart when they answer the doorbell.
- January 15, a Christian doctor is shot point blank in the head while on duty at a hospital in Mosul. The goal of these attacks: the complete annihilation of Christians from the country.
While it was too late for the U.S. to correct its mistakes, the U.S. could no longer remain silent as the terror unfolded. On January 20 – eight years too late – a congressional hearing was held in Washington seeking a solution to protect Iraqi Christians. An Iraqi nun, testifying at the hearing, repeated the same pleas and recommended the same policies as the church leaders who visited Washington long before her.
“The Iraqi Christian community has been very patient working towards a hope for the new Iraq that will provide a peaceful and secure environment… Yet, year after year, our situation has deteriorated… The people of Iraq need the U.S. to fulfill its moral obligation to help repair the damage that the war has caused.” (Hear her full testimony here.)
Nina Shea, the vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), proposed concrete steps to begin a new era of policy to protect Iraqi Christians. “[USCIRF] recommends that the U.S. and Iraqi governments – in consultation with Christian and other religious minority communities – upgrade security, identifying vulnerable targets for terrorists and implementing a plan for Iraqi military protection of these areas… we have a special obligation to render our assistance while our presence remains in that nation. The transition from dictatorship to political democracy must include the protection of religious freedom.”
Until today, the U.S.’s war strategy to stamp out sectarian violence never involved protecting Iraq’s Christians. Leaving Christians out of the U.S. counterinsurgency equation has proven decisive. To continue to ignore the warnings will mean nothing less than the complete and permanent annihilation of Christianity from the region, and the U.S. will have nobody to blame but themselves.
Scripture exhorts us to “encourage the exhausted and strengthen the feeble” (Isaiah 35:3) and to “strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble” (Hebrews 12:12). As a persecution ministry, this is obviously a part of our mandate, but with so many exhausted, weak, and feeble . . . where do we start?
I believe the Father gives us a clue in the instructions he gives to Moses prior to his death, “Charge Joshua, encourage him and strengthen him, for he shall go across at the head of this people” (Deuteronomy 3:28).
The Father’s plan for Israel’s success was to exhort Moses to encourage and strengthen Joshua – the godly leader who would go at the head of the people. Last year, we sent a pastor who is gifted in encouraging exhausted and weak leaders into a Muslim stronghold area in Africa to implement exactly this strategy. He told us something that really solidified this vision for us: “Touch a pastor, you’ll touch a church. Touch a church, you’ll touch a city. Touch a city, you’ll touch a nation.”
Pastor Greg spent four days training, strengthening, and encouraging 2000 pastors and key church leaders that we had gathered from 19 different denominations and 21 towns and villages. The pastors had arrived at the training weary and battered from continual persecution from radical Islamists, many of them ready to give up their calling. One of the pastors told us, “Mere words cannot fully express the unspeakable impact of the four days of training. My life and ministry vision is totally refreshed.”
The revival in the hearts of the pastors spilled over into three days of ministry to around 20,000 people from around the region. The team estimated that on the first night, about 90% of those in attendance were under 25 and 40% accepted Christ – including former Muslims who knew they were risking their lives to take such a stand. More than 2,000 rushed into a soccer field one night to pray for the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
One of the church leaders told Pastor Greg that the ministry to the pastors alone probably impacted an additional 20,000 people in their home churches.
“Our region is known for famine and drought, but today we have seen the fresh visitation from the Lord touching our lives and region,” said a senior government official. After the trip, we learned from our partners on the ground that the “visitation” the official spoke of had continued. Town drunks were actually stumbling into churches in the region asking what they must do to be saved!
In our line of work, touching pastors is touching the men and women on the front lines of persecution who literally lay down their lives for their flocks. This kind of ministry is enabling pastors who are faltering in their calling to return to their suffering congregations and encourage them to continue “rejoicing in hope” and “persevering in tribulation” (Romans 12:12). We are strengthening the weak hands and feeble knees of those who will strengthen the church, and in turn, the nations.
As the 25 January Revolution carries on in Egypt, Christians are among the thousands of protesters demanding that President Hosni Mubarak stand down. Although uncertain who may rise to power if free elections take place in September, a long history of discrimination under Mubarak’s regime has compelled Christians to join the demonstrations. In doing so, Christians have chosen to walk a precarious path which will either open the door for a secular government or for an Islamic state.
Coptic Christians were the first Egyptians to organize protests in 2011 when thousands took part in demonstrations following the Alexandria church bombing on New Year’s Eve that killed twenty-four worshipers (see photo at right). Some believe that the boldness of the Coptic protests helped ignite the fervor of today’s revolution. “This was the most powerful protest that Christian Copts ever held in recent history,” said a Coptic human rights activist. “It went three days and inspired the 25th youth movement. We wanted to end a life under dictatorship, and we were not alone in our aspirations.”
Coptic frustration was again triggered just days after the early-January demonstrations when Mubarak publicly blamed the Army of Islam, an Al-Qaeda linked Palestinian network, for the church bombing. Copts believed that the attack was carried out by Egyptians and that Mubarak’s accusation was to avoid addressing internal Islamic terrorism targeting Christians.
Mubarak’s disregard was nothing new for Copts who had experienced considerable persecution in 2010. Murders were accompanied by anti-Christian propaganda in Egyptian media, acquittals of Muslim offenders who initiated anti-Christian attacks, the inability of Christians to build churches without special government authorization, and the lack of basic freedoms for Christian converts from Islam. Marginalized by the government, Christians are left helplessly exposed. It came as no surprise that Christian frustrations boiled over in January.
“We have suffered a lot as Christians,” said the same Coptic activist. “We’ve seen churches being bombed, innocent people being killed, girls being kidnapped, and the increase of Islamism. We want to get rid of the dictatorship that we have been living under for over thirty years.”
“As Christians, we need to support the approach of a democratic secular state,” said Magdi Khalil, Director of the Middle East Freedom Forum. “This means equal rights… it means religious freedom. We want Mubarak to leave immediately to begin a secular constitution that will protect our freedoms.”
While Christians hope for greater freedom, there is a palpable fear that demonstrations will lead to a power vacuum and possible takeover by the only organized, moneyed, and financed opposition: the Muslim Brotherhood. When we asked the human rights activist if he would regret participating in the revolution if it lead to a Muslim Brotherhood takeover, he thought carefully. “I don’t know some Christians would. I don’t think I will personally because all I can do is hope for a better future for my country. I would die for it. And I think there are a lot of Christians who would die for this cause as well. I keep praying that they will not come to power. If the Brotherhood took over power, it would turn Egypt into the Taliban. It would be another Afghanistan. We would go backwards 1,400 years.”
“If the Muslim Brotherhood were to take over, it would not only be dangerous for the Christians in Egypt, but for the whole world,” said Magdi Khalil. “It means the entire Middle East will be an Islamic Middle East. Egypt is the key state (in the Middle East). We must support the secular approach and rewrite the constitution to be a secular constitution.”
While the demonstrations began as a youth movement, we predict the Muslim Brotherhood will hijack the revolution and call it their own. Idealistic in nature, revolutions often showcase the law of unintended consequences. Yet many Christians believe that now – and only now – is their chance at a better life. For Christians to let this opportunity slip away may mean giving up their only hope for religious freedom.
“We are seeking freedom, we are seeking democracy. No one can live without freedom. Freedom is life.”
“Prisoners were fed two pieces of bread three times a day. A bucket in the middle of the room served as a toilet between escorted bathroom breaks, but it constantly spilled and contaminated the room with urine and feces. Many prisoners could not talk due to the lack of water, their tongues stuck to the roofs of their mouth from thirst.”
The quote above is the description of the day to day lives of some of our brothers and sisters who are imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea. The information comes from a leaked US embassy cable recently published by Wikileaks in which US officials quote a recently released prisoner who reported that he and another 600 prisoners were kept together in a 40 by 38 foot cell.
“It was not possible to lie down and barely possible to sit,” he described, adding that his 600 cellmates were “Eritreans who tried to flee the country, military deserters, common criminals, and Protestants [presumably of unregistered denominations].”
Take a moment to imagine yourself with your brothers and sisters in one of these cells, and you might begin to understand why US embassy officials added to the report that “although the physical abuse and deprivations took a toll on [the released prisoner’s] body, it was the psychological abuse of being packed in with so many other people, of not knowing when the next beating would come, and believing he could be killed, that was the most damaging.”
It is estimated that there are currently 3,000 Eritrean Christians imprisoned for their faith in Christ. They are treated as less than animals. Many are kept in underground dungeons, metal shipping containers and military barracks. The “lucky” few who are kept in actual prison cells are still brutalized. Numbers of believers have died in prison due to torture and lack of medical care.
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it,” 1 Corinthians 12:26. The body of Christ in Eritrea is suffering. We need to empathize with their pain. You can help the Eritrean Christians by praying for them, providing assistance to the families of prisoners and calling Eritrean officials to ask them to release prisoners.
For information on helping the families of prisoners, please contact ICC.