A Bad Year for Christians in the Middle East

By Robert George & Katrina Lantos Swett

During Christmas week, Christians joyously celebrated Christ's birth in a manger. But across parts of the Middle East, the cradle of Christianity, followers of Jesus face a rising tide of repression, intimidation, and violence.

In some countries, persecution and the resultant flight of the persecuted clouds the very future of these communities, some of which have existed for nearly two millennia. Even communities that do not face persecution deal with difficult challenges as their congregations try to live out their faith in a conflict-ridden environment. In Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus, many Palestinian Christians, who are part of a small and diminishing minority, feel marginalized and insecure.

In Egypt, persecution against Coptic Christians, the region's largest non-Muslim religious minority, numbering 8 million, has reached critical proportions. While Hosni Mubarak's military-backed regime failed to punish attacks against Copts and other religious minorities, Mohammed Morsi's election to the presidency in 2012 was followed by rhetoric leading to more violence before and since his ouster this July. Since mid-August, following a military crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood supporters, Brotherhood sympathizers have assaulted more than 200 Christian religious structures, homes, and businesses.
In Iraq, violence against Christians rose after Saddam Hussein's fall. Christians have endured increasing levels of rape, torture, and murder, driving many away. On Christmas Day, at least 37 people died in bombings in Christian areas, including a car bombing outside of a church. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has failed repeatedly to bring perpetrators to justice. Once home to about one million Christians, Iraq has half that number today.

Many Iraqi Christians sought refuge in Syria, where Christians and Muslims - from Sunnis to Shi'a, including Alawites - once co-existed peacefully. President Bashar Assad, however, treated his people as members of sectarian groups that competed for his favor, not as individual Syrians with equal rights under the law. Once people demonstrated for their rights, Assad's regime fired on them, while turning sectarian groups against each other. The catastrophic civil war that followed has left Christians vulnerable, with the regime failing to protect them and extremist groups on both sides attacking them.

In Saudi Arabia and Iran, it's mainly the government that represses Christians and other religious minorities. Saudi Arabia bans churches and any public religious expression that conflicts with its own interpretation of Sunni Islam. Iran subjects Christians and other religious minorities that contradict its brand of Shi'a Islam to arrests, intense surveillance, imprisonment, and even death. Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen, remains jailed for the "crime" of participating in Iran's underground house church movement.

Clearly, the forces of religious extremism are driving much of the persecution Christians and others endure. These forces seek to defeat pro-freedom movements, dominate and radicalize Muslims across the world, and curb or eliminate non-Muslim influence. Since Christians remain the region's largest non-Muslim community, they are prime targets.

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These same extremist forces also threaten Christians and other religious minorities beyond the Mideast.

In Nigeria, the rise of the terrorist group, Boko Haram, has poured fuel onto longtime Muslim/Christian communal fires. For the past three years, extremists have attacked churches on Christmas or Christmas Eve, killing dozens of churchgoers.

In Pakistan, attacks against Christians are escalating. In September 2013, suicide bombers launched the worst attack against Christians in Pakistan's history, assaulting All Saints Church in Peshawar, leaving nearly 100 dead and more than 150 other parishioners wounded.

Clearly, silence is no option, but what can we do to save Christian and other religious minorities?

First, the United States must press governments to bring to justice those who assault religious minorities - not only Christians but Shi'a Muslims in Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, Sunni Muslims and Baha'is in Iran, and Shi'a and Ahmadis in Pakistan.

Second, Washington must urge these governments to cease punishing the innocent. In countries like Egypt and Pakistan, Christians and others face not only violence from extremists who rarely are imprisoned for their misdeeds, but prison at the hands of these same governments, thanks to blasphemy laws which violate freedom of expression as well as religion.

Third, the United States must firmly support religious freedom as an antidote to religious extremism in these countries. By supporting a robust marketplace of beliefs and ideas, religious freedom enables more tolerant beliefs to compete in the struggle for hearts and minds.

While the Christmas season is celebrated by a particular faith, it shares a universal message of "Peace on earth, goodwill to men." The surest way to make progress toward this goal is by building a world in which the precious freedoms of conscience, belief, and religion are safeguarded for everyone. It is both ironic and tragic that in this season of universal goodwill the Christian communities of the ancient Biblical lands should find themselves in grave danger. Let us stand in solidarity with them today, and let us rededicate ourselves to the cause of protecting the religious liberty of men and women everywhere.

Robert P. George and Katrina Lantos Swett serve as chairman and vice chairwoman, respectively, for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Republished with permission.

(AP Photo)

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