The New Year began for Christians in the Middle East in the same manner as the last one had ended: twenty-one Egyptian Christians were murdered in a bomb attack in Alexandria, just weeks after more than fifty Iraqi Catholics had been slaughtered inside their church by Islamic terrorists. Perhaps all this is best described as the work of some crazed, gruesome optician, because while Christians in Islamic states have suffered for decades now much of the world, including and sometimes particularly the Christian world, seemed blind to what was going on. It has taken the horrors of Egypt and Iraq to clear the vision of at least some who prefer political myopia.
Let’s be clear why these innocent men, women and children were slain while at prayer in Egypt and in Iraq. Militant Muslims at best grudgingly tolerate Christianity and often see it as a foreign, western, heretical cancer that has to be removed from the body of Islam. There are eight million Christians in Egypt, in a country of 70 million Muslims. They face daily persecution, regular violence, and a frequent refusal by the police and state to provide basic protection. In Iraq there has also been a determined attempt to provoke Christians into joining the virtual civil war between Sunni, Shiite and the rest. So far and to their great credit Christians have not retaliated.
What they have done, and what Christians have done throughout the Middle East, is to leave, resulting in the evaporation of an historic community that pre-dates Islam and has worshiped as followers of Christ while those who knew Him personally were still alive. One of the horrible ironies of the Iraqi situation is that under Saddam Hussein Christians were not singled out for persecution and even enjoyed religious toleration in what was – contrary to what some would have believe – a secular state where religious fundamentalism was not only controlled but vehemently rejected.
Syria has a similar approach and the thriving Christian community, around 10 per cent of the population, is part of the fabric of the country. The same applies to a large extent in Jordan. In Egypt the situation was different in the past, but the rise in Islamic fundamentalism has made sure that Christians face a difficult time. In Saudi Arabia it is illegal to announce one`s Christianity and virtually impossible to live as a Christian.
Palestine is more complex. Christians and Muslims co-existed in the area and continued to do so long after Israel was created in 1948. Christians left more often than Muslims because they tended to be more educated, were less attached to the notion of “the land” and had more connections in and familiarity with the west.
Today there are still numerous parts of the West Bank where Palestinian Christians live equal and full lives but, tragically, Islamic fundamentalism here and especially in Gaza has created a whole sea of problems and many Christians would rather swim to a foreign shore than drown at home. Supporters of Israel will argue that the Christian exodus from towns such as Bethlehem is all the fault of Islam, enemies of the Jewish state will tell you it’s about Israeli aggression. Truth is it’s a combination of both.
Outside of the Arab world the situation also varies. Pakistan has become a living hell for Christians, with this small and often besieged community blamed for everything from political problems to natural disasters. As of now, a 45-year-old mother of five children has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, because as a Christian she refused to revere the prophet Mohammad. Christians have been beaten to death for merely praying and blasphemy laws are used to arrest and torture them. In Indonesia there is far more civility but Muslim extremist groups have been responsible for the murder of Christians, including the beheading of young girls on their way to school. In Iran Christians face regular persecution, in sub-Saharan Africa an increasingly militant Islam and a flow of Saudi money and Jihadist propaganda had led to internecine strife and downright pogroms. Then we have Europe.
There is increasing evidence that in Muslim-dominated areas of France, Sweden, Britain, Holland, Germany and Denmark Christians are insulted, threatened, spat at and told that they have to leave. Not the stuff of churches being destroyed and worshipers killed but a tremendously worrying sign of the shape of things to come. The future? It depends on the fortitude, honesty and consistency of the west, because it is in North America, Europe and Australia where there is sufficient money and influence to change the situation for largely powerless Christians in Islamic nations. This, however, will require the courage to name the culprits and ignore calls for political correctness. Because Christians have a right to live and worship wherever they want – a desire that is only extreme to an extremist.
Michael Coren is a broadcaster and writer living in