Michael Hirst
Christianity has a rich cultural seam in the Middle East. On the first Pentecost, when the disciples were blessed with tongues to tell the good news, one of the languages spoken was Arabic. So successful was the spread of Christianity across a region that now includes parts of Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt that by the sixth century it had 15 million followers. The number of Christians in the Fertile Crescent is roughly the same today and comprises some 20 different churches, including Catholic, Coptic and Orthodox. But while 15 centuries ago Christians made up 95 percent of the region’s population, that figure has slumped to 5 percent. And it is dropping fast.

Five days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush warned the American people: This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while. His comments provoked fury in the Muslim world, calling to mind barbarous military operations by Christian knights 1,000 years ago. There was concern that by affronting moderate Arab opinion, Bush could alienate previously supportive elements of the region and instigate Osama bin Laden’s goal: a clash of civilizations.

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 activityincluding the wearing of such non-Muslim religious symbols as a crossthat 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 hardline 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 minorityestimated at about 1,000is 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 cartoonswhich first appeared last September in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Postenoffered 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 Islamto the extent that it is currently seeking European Union membershipChristians endure the wrath of angry Islamists. The 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 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.

The Flight of Christians

Turkey is not alone in this phenomenon. Across the Middle East, declining Christian birth rates have taken their toll, as have the charismatic efforts of Protestant evangelical missionaries, whose proselytizing activities are frowned upon by strict Muslims. It is ironic that the evangelical zeal of these new churches is sapping the strength of their ancient counterparts by dislocating or reorienting their traditional faith-base.

In Syria, where a third of the population was Christian at the beginning of the 20th century, Christians now account for less than 10 percent. In Lebanon, they have been reduced to a minority in the last 15 years for the first time in 15 centuries. Even Egypt’s Coptic Church, one of the world’s oldest and most settled Christian communities, now has a diaspora more than two million strong in the West.

Meanwhile in Iraq, Chaldeans represent the largest Christian denomination, but their number has been halved to less than 200,000 in the past five years. In the immediate post-independence era, many embraced the Baath party and became exponents of national unity, with Christians like Tariq Aziz taking prominent governmental roles. With the fall of Saddam Hussein and the occupation by Western allied troops, Christians were targeted by local Islamic groups because of their affiliation with both. Tens of thousands of refugees have been flooding across Iraq’s borders into temporary camps in Turkey, Syria and Jordan.

Palestinian Christians Under Pressure

The figures from the Holy Land paint the grimmest picture. A century ago, 20 percent of Palestinians were Christian; today they number less than 2 percent. There are now more Palestinian Christians living in Australia than in the Holy Land. Christians are particularly hard hit by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because many rely on the country’s paralyzed tourism industry for their livelihood.

The local church faces draconian travel restrictions imposed by the Israeli government. This Easter, for example, only 1,000 permits were granted to Bethlehem’s 30,000 Christians to attend Easter services in Jerusalem, little more than five miles away. Under such conditions, I was not surprised when a Palestinian friend spoke of how even traditionally Christian areas like Bethlehem are being drained of educated young Christians, who marry Palestinians living abroad in order to escape a life of hardship and fear. The emergence of the Islamist party Hamas has not served to ease Christian fears about their future, and the exodus has become so severe that indigenous Christians could disappear from the city of Christ’s birth within as little as two generations.

An Appeal for Solidarity

One West Bank priest pointedly asked me why, if pan-Muslim solidarity stretches from Kashmir to Kosovo, Palestinian Christians did not receive the same sort of support from their own co-religionists? We think that the Christian presence here is not only a responsibility on our shoulders, but is also the responsibility of all our brothers and sisters all over the world, who should have a special care of their mother church of Jerusalem, he said.

Pope Benedict XVI called attention to the plight of the Holy Land in his Easter Sunday message urbi et orbi (to the city of Rome and the world), calling all parties to patient and persevering dialogue, so as to remove old and new obstacles.

May the international community, which reaffirms Israel’s right to exist in peace, assist the Palestinian people to overcome the precarious conditions in which they live and to build their future, moving toward the constitution of a state that is truly their own, said the pope.

The international community, however, seemed to be doing the reverse, with both the European Union and the United States withdrawing funds aimed at propping up the fragile Palestinian society. Whatever the impact of such policies on the fledgling Hamas government, they will only worsen the situation for the area’s struggling Christian community. And so the exodus will continue. Whether or not Mr. Bush is winning his war on terror, he is undoubtedly losing his crusade in the Middle East.

Persecuted Christians Around the World

For many around the world, association with Christ is as dangerous as it was in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. The Middle East is by no means alone in this regard. In countries controlled by totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, religious freedom is seen as a threat to the central authority’s ideology. Minority religious groups are seen as enemies of the state and punished accordingly. Here are some of the worst offenders:

North Korea

The Communist government has destroyed more than 1,500 churches since 1948, and 300,000 Christians are said to have disappeared. Anyone found carrying a Bible can be shot, and even talking about God can carry a prison sentence. It is believed that tens of thousands of Christians are currently suffering in North Korean prison camps, where they face cruel abuses. Despite this, an estimated half-million Christians remain out of a population of 23 million.

Pakistan

Christians comprise less than 2 percent of a population of 150 million. Islam is the state religion, and in a court of law the testimony of a Christian carries less weight than that of a Muslim. Section 295(c) of the Penal Code calls for a death sentence for anyone who defiles the name of the Prophet Muhammad and requires the testimony of four Muslims for a conviction. This fosters an environment in which Muslims can feel free to use intimidation and violence against religious minorities for personal gain. Last November, the Christian area of Sangla Hill in the Punjab was ransacked by 3,000 Muslim men, who burned two churches and their adjoining presbyteries and schools. They were responding to the calls of irate local imams after a Muslim man lost a game of cards to a Christian and accused him of burning a copy of the Koran.

Myanmar (Burma)

Between 5 percent and 10 percent of Myanmar’s 40 million people are Christian, but the government generally infiltrates or monitors the meetings and activities of all religious minorities, while banning all Christian public ceremonies. Strict state guidelines exist to impose restrictions on freedom of expression and association, and non-Buddhists experience discrimination in the workplace.

Somalia

Christians make up less than 2 percent of eight million people and are not allowed to meet in the open. Islam is the official religion and there is no legal provision for the protection of religious freedom. In the face of a weak national government, warlords still rule over much of the country, where local clan-based traditions or Sharia law are used in conflict resolution. Social pressure to follow Islamic tradition is strong, especially in certain rural parts of the country.

The Maldives

In the island paradise visited by tens of thousands of tourists each year, Christianity is simply not tolerated. While local Christianssaid to number around 300 out of a total population of 300,000do get together to worship, they do so at the risk of imprisonment or worse if discovered by the Muslim authorities. Bibles are banned, and tourists can be arrested for trying to bring them into the country.

Michael Hirst is news editor of The Tablet, the London-based Catholic weekly.