By DAVID PARSONS, JPOST—
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring’s mass uprisings against repressive military dictatorships, radical Islamists are stepping into the political vacuum to seize power, while also unleashing a brutal wave of persecution against vulnerable Christian communities.
Yet one would hardly know this harsh reality looking at a statement coming out of a meeting of the Middle East Council of Churches in Beirut at the end of May, which instead focused its attention once again on condemning Israel as the main source for the region’s ills.
Some 150 Christian leaders from 35 countries took part in the gathering of the MECC, a branch of the World Council of Churches, to discuss the status of Christians in the troubled region in preparation for the 10th Assembly of the ecumenical body in South Korea in late October.
The concluding statement of the Beirut conference asserted, among other things, that Israel’s occupation of Palestine is still the central cause of conflict in the region; Jerusalem remains an occupied city in need of liberation; Christians who support Israel are twisting Scripture, helping the “Zionist lobbies” manipulate public opinion and damaging intra-Christian relations; and those who draw attention to Muslim violence and aggression are spreading Islamophobia.
Some reference was made in the Beirut statement to the increase in Islamic extremism and its impact on indigenous Christians, but always in an apologetic tone. Concerning the carnage in Syria, for instance, the MECC suggested it has continued unabated because the West has so far failed to offer a viable solution to the bloodshed.
Bishop Munib A. Younan, a Palestinian cleric who now heads the Lutheran World Federation, conceded at the Beirut gathering that “the Middle East is boiling,” but insisted that the answer was “engagement with all monotheistic faiths, especially Muslims.”
“Our voice is missing at this time of Arab awakening,” Younan told the conference. “Our silence has given the impression that we are afraid or that we simply accept recent developments. The future of Christianity in our region is found when we show a different way, the way of love to our societies.”
Younan particularly took aim at “the problem of the illegal Israeli occupation. Once this conflict is resolved, there will be many other conflicts that can be solved.”
Responding to the Beirut conclave, leading Christian scholars on the Middle East are saying the MECC is indeed guilty of a misleading “silence,” but of a different nature, in that they are providing cover for Islamic cruelty and lending legitimacy to Israel bashing.
“The administrative clerics of the Middle East Council of Churches know very well the long history of Muslim persecution of Christians in the region and yet they are bearing false witness about it,” pointed out Rev. Dr. Petra Heldt, a Jerusalem-based scholar who heads the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Israel. “They are a small minority but they have a loud voice with a shrill tone, which has influence abroad.”
“The much more profound tone is spoken by the greater part of Arab Christian society through the local pastors of the Arab flocks,” Heldt explained to The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition. “The administrative leadership has often gone off the Christian path and taken a line that serves other masters. They bring dishonor on the church, while the local clerics are serving the faithful and crying out for help.”
Among the possible “other masters” are the PLO, the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Heldt has been tracking the MECC for some 30 years and has noted an uncanny resemblance between the Beirut statement and the political agenda of these Arab/Islamic entities.
Currently, this political agenda includes among its tenets: weakening Israel by pushing it back to the pre- 1967 lines, including in Jerusalem, as a step towards its eventual elimination; passing a provision in international law that would universally condemn Islamophobia; and enacting an international convention that would require all countries to criminalize blasphemy against Islam.
“We have seen this before,” noted Heldt. “I have seen the rejection of Israel and of Jewish control over Jerusalem in the ‘three nos’ of Khartoum in 1967. I have seen it in the PLO charter in 1963. I have seen these two paragraphs in the policy papers of the Sabeel Palestinian Liberation Theology Center, which say that ‘all of Palestine’ needs to be given back.
“When we add in the stand against Islamophobia; these all are on the agenda of the OIC, which it is pursuing at the United Nations and through its many outlets. And so these administrative clerical voices at the MECC look like a voice for the OIC, even if unintended. It remains an unbiblical agenda. These administrators do not work on the basis of the Bible and show no commitment to Jesus Christ, born a Jew.”
Heldt added that there is a clear shifting of attention from the internal Islamist fights, toward bashing Israel and Zionism.
“And on top of this,” she said, “there is an outrageous attitude against those Christians who are faithful to the Bible and to Israel, treating us as heretics.
“Those sounding the alarm and showing they care are Bible-believing Christians: Evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox alike. We hardly see this in the Western press, even though Raymond Ibrahim, a Coptic Orthodox Christian, and others are documenting it every day.”
Indeed, Ibrahim, an Egyptian believer and scholar with the Middle East Forum, issues a monthly report compiling his daily tracking of global Muslim persecution of Christians. In his report of December 2012, for instance, Ibrahim wrote of dozens of Christians slaughtered in attacks on churches in Nigeria, with the throats of several victims cut; of a Christian man beheaded in Iraq; of a 70-year-old Bible school teacher shot in front of her home in Pakistan; and of an explosion that killed two at a Coptic Christian church in Libya.
“At this moment, from one end of the Muslim world to the other, Christians are being persecuted,” Ibrahim recently told CBN News. “Wherever and whenever Muslims are in power or getting more power, churches are outlawed, burned and bombed, while Bibles and crucifixes are confiscated and destroyed. Freedom of speech – to speak positively of Christianity or critically of Islam – is denied, often on pain of death.
“In many places, Christian women and children are routinely abducted, raped, and forced to convert to Islam,” added Ibrahim, author of the new book Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians.
In his writings, Ibrahim notes that in the early part of the 20th century, 20% of the Middle East was Christian. That number now stands at around 5% and is dwindling fast, he claims.
“The steady rise of Islamism and reactionary forces in general has made life tougher for Christians and many decided to move to Christian majority countries,” he said. “However, that process has been accelerated dramatically since the Arab Spring, and life for the ordinary Arab Christian in countries affected by the recent uprisings is getting worse and worse.”
Majed el-Shafie – an Egyptian-born Muslim who was jailed and tortured for converting to Christianity before he fled into Israel from Taba on a jet ski a decade ago – agrees with Ibrahim. activity were bad under the Mubarak regime but, as you can imagine, it has only gotten worse as the Muslim fundamentalists have filled the political vacuum in power,” he said.
“The Arab Spring is actually an ‘Arab Winter’ against the Christian minorities in Egypt and throughout the region,” lamented el-Shafie, who today lives in Canada and defends the rights of persecuted Mideast Christians through his foundation One Free World International.
Christianity happens to be the largest religion in the world with 2.2 billion adherents, yet Christians are also “the single most widely persecuted religious group in the world today,” according to Hudson Institute scholars Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Nina Shea, who document this “global assault” on Christians in their new book, Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians.
Christians are being “tortured, raped, imprisoned or killed for their faith,” the authors write. “Their churches may also be attacked or destroyed.”
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life concurs that Christians are suffering in more places than any other religious group – including at least 133 nations.
Yet, the Hudson authors insist: “It is in the Muslim world where persecution of Christians is now most widespread, intense, and ominously increasing.”
Still, this global assault on Christians has been met with relative silence by global leaders and the media, note the trio of authors. Perhaps this is due in part to the dismissals and downplaying of any Muslim persecution by clerics associated with the MECC.
But one prominent Christian voice is going public with its criticism of this ongoing tragedy: the Vatican.
During the same week as the MECC conference in Beirut, a senior Catholic official, Monsignor Silvano Maria Tomasi, sounded an alarm against the unchecked persecution, claiming that around 100,000 Christians are killed every year around the world because of their faith. In an address to the UN Human Rights Council broadcast by Vatican radio, the archbishop cited the Middle East, Africa and Asia as the worst places for the ongoing mayhem, describing it as “shocking” and “incredible.”
“Other Christians and other believers are subjected to forced displacement, to the destruction of their places of worship, to rape and to the abduction of their leaders, as it recently happened in the case of bishops Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yaziji, in Aleppo,” Tomasi stated, in reference to two Orthodox bishops kidnapped in Syria in early May.
The Vatican decided to go public with the figures following a spate of attacks in Africa and the Middle East, and the Holy See’s estimates mirror the recent findings of human rights groups which claim that anti-Christian violence is on the rise. Christians in countries such as Egypt, Nigeria and Pakistan have experienced an upward spike in attacks in recent years.
Nigeria continues to be the deadliest place to be a Christian today. In 2012, 70% of all Christians murdered due to Muslim persecution were killed in Nigeria. In mid-May, Muslim militiamen from the terror group Boko Haram gunned down Rev. Faye Pama Musa, a prominent Pentecostal pastor, inside his home. The attack came shortly after President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency because of a rash of ongoing attacks in which 185 people were killed.
In Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is personally overseeing a campaign to suppress the growth of underground churches in his country. Several Evangelical pastors have been jailed recently for apparently violating a ban on conducting services in Farsi, the native language of most Iranians. One such pastor, Saeed Abedini, was reported to be suffering internal bleeding from the beatings and torture he endured in Tehran’s notoriously brutal Evin Prison.
In Egypt, the estimates of the number of Coptic Christians who have fled the country since the Muslim Brotherhood was elected two years ago run in excess of 100,000. Numerous Christians are being tried and convicted under a new law in the Islamist-backed constitution adopted last December, which makes it a crime to blaspheme Islam. Even Egyptian security forces took part in a recent assault on Cairo’s St. Mark’s Cathedral.
In other places, governments are increasingly suppressing local churches or standing on the sidelines as Muslim extremists impose the punishments dictated by Shari’a law on Christians, including beheadings.
And in countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, vigilante enforcement is not so needed because the governments have already so severely restricted Christian worship.
Yet the most acute situation for Mideast Christians right now is in Syria. The ancient Assyrian and Coptic Christians are facing horrendous conditions, as they are being attacked by armed factions on both sides in the brutal civil war. Assad loyalists are attacking the Christians for not taking up arms to defend the regime, while the Sunni-dominated rebels are retaliating for their historic alignment with the minority Alawite rulers.
Many of the Chaldean Christians now caught up in the Syrian cauldron fled there from Iraq after the US-led invasion against Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. As that conflict escalated, al-Qaida in Iraq gave Christians a deadline for agreeing to revive the jizya head tax – a type of protection money which Christians were traditionally forced to pay to Muslims. When they refused, al-Qaida militiamen bombed five churches on one Sunday alone.
The Islamic extremists were quite clear that their goal was to drive all Christians out of Iraq, and indeed the Iraqi Christian population has plummeted from around 1.5 million to as low as 300,000 during the past decade. Many escaped into neighboring Syria, since they speak the same language, often have family ties and both follow the ancient liturgy and customs of the Assyrian Orthodox church.
Having fled Iraq for Syria, these Christians are now wondering where is there left for them to go.
“It is not the first time in history this has happened,” recounted Heldt, a scholar on the historic churches of the region. “If we go back to 1918, after the First World War, the Western powers – through the League of Nations – decided to give the local Arab peoples their own countries. And these various regimes began chasing out the native Christians.
“The Christians of Iraq were pushed out into Syria, but Syria did not want them and chased them back into Iraq. And in these upheavals over 1.5 million Assyrian Orthodox Christians were killed. This was all written up in a dissertation called ‘The Death of a Nation,’ which appeared in 1968.
This was a “systematic massacring of Christians,” Heldt concluded, saying that “we are seeing it again today against the Assyrians Christians in Iraq and Syria, the Copts in Egypt, and all through the region.”
El-Shafie noted that while the persecuted Christians of the Middle East are being mercilessly targeted, “they still have hope.”
“They are in a very deep dark night, but they still have the candle of God,” he said. “After every night there is the light of morning. After every storm there is a calm. And after every wave of persecution there is victory in Jesus!”