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Christians in the Middle East face persecution, pushed to the periphery

By Michael Hirst


Catholic Online

Arab Christians marginalized

Christians were at the forefront of the revival of Arab nationalism that swept across the region in the middle of the 19th century. But today Islamist movements have obscured the identity of Christians as Arabs. Emphasizing generic Islam as their primary source of solidarity, they have pushed Christians to the periphery of Arab life.

Comparatively low birth rates, conversion to Islam and natural emigration have played a part in the departure of Christians from the Middle East during the last century. The war on terror, though, touted as a freedom-bringing campaign, has become a huge push factor.

“The United States needs to think very carefully about the impact of its foreign policy on indigenous Christian churches across the Muslim world,” said John Pontifex of Aid to the Church in Need, a charity that helps oppressed Christians across the globe.

Militant Islamic groups become inflamed by injustices perpetrated by the Christian West, argues Pontifex. When the militants seek reprisals, defenseless local Christian communities can become an easy target because of their cultural, social and religious affiliation with the perceived aggressors. “A major issue is that the West has said for far too long: ‘This is someone else’s problem.’”

Pontifex describes a situation of “insidious persecution of Christian communities” across much of the Muslim world. While this persecution may not always be state-sponsored, he says there is a psychological battle being waged on a local level, with Christians facing discrimination when seeking employment, enduring harsh taxes on church properties and suffering attacks on their homes.

Persecution of Christians at Easter

This climate was clear for all to see over Easter, as Christians across the region risked discrimination and persecution to practice their faith during the most important part of the church year.

In strict Saudi Arabia, at the start of Holy Week, an Indian priest was arrested and deported when seven Mutawwa’in (religious police) officers broke into a private house where he was celebrating Mass. Basic religious freedoms are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam.

The pro-Western government claims to allow non-Muslims to observe their faith in private, and there are said to be as many as one million Catholics in the country, but the punctilious work of the religious police ensures that non-Muslims face arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation and torture for engaging in any religious activity – including the wearing of such non-Muslim religious symbols as a cross – that attracts official attention. Last year alone, more than 70 expatriate Christians were arrested during worship in private homes in Saudi Arabia ’s largest crackdown on Christians for a decade.

In northern Egypt , one man was stabbed to death and 12 were wounded as men wielding knives targeted three churches within the space of an hour during religious services on April 14. Having initially said there were three attackers, police later claimed there had been only one, who was both drunk and mad. Copts in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria claim there has been a coverup and that the attacks were part of an orchestrated anti-Christian plot by extremist Muslims.

“We are persecuted everywhere, in school, in our lives,” said the sister of one victim. “But we should not be persecuted when we are praying.”

After 78-year-old Noshi Atta Girgis succumbed to his wounds in a hospital, 500 Copts gathered outside Alexandria’s Church of the Saints to voice their anger, shouting anti-government slogans and waving banners that read: “Until When?” and “Stop the Persecution Against Copts.” The attacks sparked days of clashes between Christians and Muslims that left two people dead and 50 more wounded. Police fired tear gas to separate Muslim and Christian groups attacking each other with knives, sticks and stones. More than 100 people were arrested as the violence left storefronts smashed and burnt carcasses of cars littering the streets, marring the run-up to the Coptic Easter celebrations on April 23.

Egypt , Afghanistan and Iraq

Egypt ’s Copts, who make up about 7 percent of Egypt ’s population of 73 million, frequently complain of harassment and discrimination in the predominantly Sunni Muslim nation. The success of the hard-line Islamist Muslim Brotherhood group in elections last December has done little to allay Christian fears of persecution, as Copts claim the government does little to protect them, arguing that previous sectarian attacks have either gone unpunished or drawn light sentences.

Even in countries where Western allies have fought to establish respect for human rights, Christian communities were forced to celebrate Easter in secret. In Afghanistan, the case of Abdul Rahman, a Christian convert who faced the death penalty for apostasy in March, highlighted how life is little different for Christians today than it was under the stiflingly harsh rule of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001.

Ninety-nine percent of the country’s 29 million people are Muslim, but a tiny Christian minority – estimated at about 1,000 – is said to survive despite regularly facing random searches by security forces, phone taps and death threats. Few publicly acknowledge their faith out of fear of retribution, and there are no known churches in the country apart from those serving expatriates, found mostly inside foreign embassies. The post-Taliban constitution states that “followers of other faiths shall be free within the bounds of law in the exercise and performance of their religious rights,” but it goes on to add that “no law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam.” Attempts to practice religious freedom, in other words, can still carry a death sentence.

In Iraq this Easter, armed guards stood on patrol outside Christian churches. Fears of attacks in the country have been high since three Christians were killed in the coordinated bombings of five churches in Kirkuk and Baghdad in February. Those strikes were ostensibly to punish Christians for cartoons denigrating the Prophet Mohammed.

The cartoons – which first appeared last September in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten – offered an excuse for angry disenfranchised groups to take out on an easy target their frustrations over a failing democratic process. Muslim students beat Christian colleagues at Mosul University in response to fatwas issued by religious leaders calling for Muslims to “expel the crusaders and infidels from the streets, schools and institutions because they insulted the person of the prophet.”

Such sentiments were shared across the region. In Lebanon ’s capital, Beirut , 20,000 Muslim demonstrators crowded into the Christian area of Achrafieh, where a Maronite church and the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox archbishop were vandalized. Pakistani rioters beat up Christians, while in the West Bank the militant group Islamic Jihad warned the Christian community there it would pay in blood for the caricatures.

Conflict in Turkey

Even in Turkey , a country often lauded as a model of moderate Islam – to the extent that it is currently seeking European Union membership – Christians endure the wrath of angry Islamists. Rev. Andrea Santoro, an Italian missionary, was shot dead as he prayed in his parish church in the Black Sea port city of Trabzon . A teenage gunman angered by the cartoons screamed “Allah-u-Akhbar” (“God is great”) as he fired two shots from close range at the 61-year-old priest.

The reaction of the pope’s representative in Anatolia to Father Santoro’s killing, however, suggests that the anti-Christian violence was about much more than the cartoons. Bishop Luigi Padovese argues that rising Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Christian prejudice in the Muslim world shaped the context for the teenager’s crime.

“There’s a strong current of religious extremism, and that climate can fuel this sort of hatred. It is passed along in families, in schools, in the newspapers.” He added that areas of Turkey are now “completely Islamified, where it is dangerous to be a Christian.” The result, he said, is that Turkey ’s small Christian population has dwindled from several million to 70,000 since the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of world War I. For the full article