My new book is entitled Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity. The day before it was published a soldier in my country of Canada was run down and killed by a convert to Islam who had wanted to travel to Syria to murder infidels but decided after the security services confiscated his passport to commit the crime closer to home.
The day after my book was published another soldier, standing guard by the war memorial in Ottawa with an unloaded gun, was also killed by a convert to Islam who had wanted to conduct slaughter in Syria.
From the bottom of my heart I wish the book was not so timely. But as grotesque as these crimes were, they are mere daily and sometimes hourly occurrences in countries where Muslims form a majority and Christians the minority. In Egypt, Pakistan, post-Saddam Iraq, Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, northern Nigeria, even Indonesia and Turkey, Christians are never treated equally and are often persecuted, beaten, raped, forcibly converted, arrested, killed. Let us take the example of just one country.
In March 2014 I interviewed Sister Hatune Dogan, a Turkish- born nun who is a member of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church under the Holy See of Antioch. She and her family were forced to leave Turkey when she was a young girl because of Islamic persecution and they found safety and refuge in Germany. She studied theology and psychotherapy in her adopted country and is now an accomplished, multi-lingual woman who has toured the world extensively and seen humanity at its finest as well as worst.
She has travelled throughout the Islamic world, partly to expose the persecution of Christians and to try to ease their plights. She has spent particular time in recent years in Iraq and, most recently, in Syria. As much as she has seen many examples of atrocity and suffering over the years and is hardened and experienced, the fate of Syrian Christians has shocked her.
“I met with a man who had gone out one morning to tend his fields. He did so in all innocence, as part of his daily routine. He suddenly looked up and saw a body, then another, then another. All of them with their heads cut off. He looked to the next field and then to the next and realized there were hundreds of murdered and decapitated people, all of them Christians. He still shakes even now when he describes the experience because of the trauma.”
She pauses, trying to control the speed and clarity of her speech, English not being her first language.
“There are slaughter houses, many slaughter houses, in Syria where Christians are taken to be tortured and slaughtered. People who are not political, who do not choose or take sides in the conflict, are taken from their families, kidnapped, forced to deny their faith and then –whether they have or not – are killed, often by beheading. This is not about siding with the government, not about siding with President Assad, but about sheer persecution of a peaceful but vulnerable minority. Yet the world says so little, and often nothing at all. I have been lied about because I speak out, accused of being an Assad puppet. No, no, no! I simply want to tell the world of what Christians are having to suffer at the hands of radical Islam.”
What has occurred in Syria to Christians in particular in the past two years has been appalling and is all the more horrifying because Syria has been for many years one of the few places in the Arab world where Christians enjoyed something approaching equality. Ruled by an Arab nationalist rather than an Islamic ideology, and by the Ba’ath party under Hafez al-Assad and then his British-educated son Bashar Hafez al-Assad, Syria and its more than 2.5 million Christians was a relatively modern, secular if heavily controlled and policed state.
The Assads ruled despotically, were often oppressive and not at all democratic or liberal in any genuine sense; but sharia law did not dominate the body politic and Assad, himself part of a Muslim minority sect, gave individual Christians positions of authority and responsibility, protected Christian communities, and tried to – at least within an Arab, Islamic context – achieve a relative separation of mosque and state.
This is not in any way to paint Assad’s Syria as some pluralistic paradise but for Christians it was relatively speaking a place of freedom; to live, to work and to worship.
That has all changed.
The town of Ma’loula speaks volumes. It has a large and ancient Christian population, one of the very few left in existence that speaks a western neo-Aramaic used by Jesus Christ. In other words, these people speak the language of their Messiah. By ethnicity they are Assyrian/Syriac, established in the area long before the birth of Islam and the Arab invasions, and even the Muslims with whom they live alongside are pre-Arab, indigenous and local people who embraced Islam rather than immigrants or invaders who brought their Muslim faith with them.
Built high and into the mountainside and a little less than 60 kilometres from Damascus, this unique town is a living memorial to the longevity and resilience of Middle Eastern Christianity and a thriving, living community in itself. For some months Islamic terrorists connected to Al-Qaeda and part of the Al-Nusra Front had been entrenched close by and had attacked local Christians when they came into contact with them or tried to prevent Christian farmers from working in nearby fields.
Then, on September 4, 2013, a concerted Jihadist attack began. It started when a suicide bomber from Jordan drove his truck into a Syrian army checkpoint guarding the village. This was not merely a lone attack on government forces but the pre-planned signal for a mass and concerted attack on the Christian town.
Islamic militia quickly overran the checkpoint and killed eight soldiers, destroyed tanks and established a military headquarters in the Safit hotel in Ma’loula. They used the hotel as a base from which to fight against Syrian forces trying to re-capture Ma’loula but also poured down gunfire on the Christian community living close-by and around. The army counter-attacked but after initial successes was driven out by additional jihadist fighters.
Once in control the Islamic groups killed many Christians, destroyed their homes, set fire to a church and tried to and sometimes forced local Christians to convert to Islam on fear of being beheaded if they refused. After further attacks and counter-attacks the town was restored to government control but will never be what it was and what is had been for so many centuries.
Also, during the last jihadist attack twelve nuns from the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Takla were kidnapped, to be exchanged two months later for what the government claim were 25 and the jihadist 150 Islamic militia prisoners. All of this was a specific attack on Syrian Christianity, with no concern for the politics of the population or the wider campaign against President Assad.
An aspect of the attack that not often reported in the media was the way the Islamist invaders tried to not only remove the Christians bur remove the Christianity from the town, a phenomenon that is common now when Islamism expands in the Middle East and in the greater Muslim world.
It is not enough that Christians should leave, convert or die but that all traces of Christianity should be removed as well. In Ma’loula there was an actual, physical attempt to change the architectural history, with churches attacked and sometimes destroyed and monuments and shrines obliterated.
The statue of Christ the Saviour at the entrance of the St Thecla Convent and the statue of the Virgin Mary close to the Safir hotel were both blown up, even when the destruction exposed the jihadists to direct fire from the Syrian army. This was a cause more important to the Muslim militia than life itself. On a more mercenary level, while numerous artefacts and relics were simply smashed, others were evidently sold abroad because some have been directly traced to sales elsewhere in the Middle East and in Europe.
The slaughter has been repeated and replicated times beyond counting, in Syria and elsewhere. Much of the book is, sadly, a chronicle of the attacks and such is the regularity of the violence in Syria, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iraq and Egypt in particular that sometimes the mind begins to numb and even the senses take on a coat of mud. But that must not, must not, cannot happen.
My father’s family were east European Jews and I feel qualified to say that what is happening to Christians in the Muslim world today may not be the same as but is in the same realm as the Holocaust. If we are not careful, large regions of the world will become “Christian-free”, and the faith a mere museum memory. Time has long gone to do nothing; act now or forever hang your head in shame.
Michael Coren is a broadcaster and writer living in Toronto, Canada. His website is www.michaelcoren.com. Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity is published by Signal Books. The video below foreshadows some of the ideas in his book.