The Persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa
Ever since the birth of Islam, Christians and Jews have been relatively well-tolerated in the Middle East. Certainly, some Muslim regimes were not kindly disposed towards their religious minorities, but for the most part Christians and Jews living in Muslim countries could live in comfort and safety so long as they paid a special tax and showed deference towards Muslim custom.
For the Jews, this arrangement began to change in 1918 with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Arab nationalism. Suddenly, the millennia-old community faced pogroms in Iraq and Iran, causing Jews to live in constant fear. Jews left their Arab homelands en masse in the late forties and fifties, looking for a safer life in the newly established state of Israel. Meanwhile, Christians stayed behind and faced relatively little intolerance…until now.
In a throwback to the early Islamic empire of 500 – 900 CE (the time of the European Middle Ages,) there is now a revival of violence against Christian communities that is fanatical. The multinational terrorist group ISIS has been destroying Christian lives and culture, simply because they refuse to convert to Islam. Some of the oldest Christian communities in the world are being threatened with annihilation, and thousands have been forced to flee for their lives. Ancient churches are being destroyed and converted into mosques.
For those Christians who manage to escape, it is very difficult to find a new place to call home. While Jews will always find a home in Israel, Christians have historically lived in isolated pockets throughout the Middle East and they have no central Christian homeland in the region where they can find refuge.
One of the most numerous and ancient Christian communities until a year ago, was Iraq. Iraq’s Christian community dates back almost to the founding of the religion and it existed centuries before Islam came about. Most Iraqi Christians are Assyrian Chaldean Catholics and speak a dialect of Aramaic. They have historically made important contributions to world culture such as their translation and preservation of Aristotle’s works.
Last July, thousands of Christians fled the city of Mosul after an ISIS ultimatum threatening execution if they refused to either convert or pay the extortionate jizya tax (a tax historically imposed by Muslim regimes upon non-Muslim minorities.) ISIS went around the city painting the Arabic letter nun on Christian homes and churches to mark them as Nasrani (an Arabic term for Christian). They then captured the city and have there has been mass destruction and looting. Unsurprisingly, thousands of Christians fled the city with little more than the clothes on their backs.
ISIS has destroyed Christian graves amidst report of the rape and sale of women into slavery. Mosul, like all other places ISIS have captured, is now under a draconian regime that seeks to erase Iraq’s non-Muslim past and punish those who oppose them with an iron fist. Qaraqosh, once Iraq’s Christian capital, fell to ISIS after Kurdish forces defending the town withdrew. As in Mosul, thousands of Christians fled there as well, leaving everything behind. ISIS destroyed many churches, including the famous Mar Behnam Monastery, which was built in the 4th century C.E. and had been visited by thousands of Christians and Muslims alike.
Some Christians have fled to Jordan or Lebanon, some even to Europe. However, most refugees sit in camps in the Kurdish city of Erbil, living in makeshift tents and living on the streets as they wait for Western countries to either grant them visas or help them take back their homeland. With scarce resources and unemployment high in the camps, many of them feel abandoned and forgotten.
Syria’s Christians can also count themselves among the oldest of Christian communities in the world, and they too have been decimated by ISIS’ merciless onslaught and have been forced to flee their homes. Reportedly, entire Syrian Christian villages have been wiped out and countless churches and other Christian monuments have been destroyed. Christians living in the capital, Damascus, are relatively more secure but still face the stigma of being seen as government supporters. The reality is that many Syrian Christians did not want to take sides when the civil war started but felt that the government would offer them protection from ISIS. Electricity blackouts, food shortages and poverty are daily challenges for Christians along with all Syrians.
As terrible as remains the Syrian government, the Assad regime and Baath party have previously protected Christians, even offering them positions of power. Now, in the lawless parts of Syria, such protections seem a distant memory. Just two months ago, almost 4,000 Christian families were forced to flee the Syrian town of Hasakah after 200 Christians were taken hostage in the same town earlier this year.
ISIS have targeted churches and other Christian monuments in Syria as well. Just last week, ISIS ransacked and destroyed Qaryatain’s ancient Mar Elian monastery, parts of which date back 1,500 years. In ISIS’ self-proclaimed capital city of Al-Raqqah, an ancient Armenian Catholic church was converted into one of the group’s headquarters. The Krak des Chevaliers, a hilltop fortress that was once a symbol of Crusader power, has now been severely damaged in fighting between the government and ISIS forces. As in Iraq, the future of Syria’s Christians is very uncertain.
Egyptian Christian Copts are also being harassed and terrorized simply for professing their faith, but not only by ISIS. They have also had to deal with the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood (linked to Hamas) as well as the corruption and apathy of their own government. The revolution of 2011 and the Morsi government essentially gave Islamic radicalism free reign to slander and persecute Copts. Since 2013, the Sisi regime has tried to calm tensions but much of the old anti-Copt sentiment remains. Copts are blamed by many Egyptian Muslims for social and economic ills, and Copt stores are often looted with impunity. Coptic leaders are routinely ignored by the government and they were recently pelted with stones and Molotov cocktails by Muslim mobs when they asked to build a new church.
Rather than upholding the freedom of religion clause in the Egyptian constitution, the police and courts often side with the mobs and force the Copts to compromise their requests. Even when Copts are allowed to build churches, they must agree not to have any outer symbol of Christianity and the building must be situated on a side street. Bishops report being kidnapped and held for ransom. Five Coptic children were recently charged with “blasphemy” and “insulting Islam.” When Copts are attacked by Muslims, rather than carrying out justice, police arrest both perpetrator and victim and force them to attend a “reconciliation session” in which, many times, the perpetrator gets off free or gets a slap on the wrist. Violent clashes in recent years between Muslims and Copts have left hundreds dead. Although the position of the Egyptian Copts isn’t nearly as dire as in Iraq and Syria, the rise of ISIS and the destabilization of Egypt since the Arab Spring has left them Copts in a very precarious position.
Highlighting the danger the Copts face, 21 Coptic migrant workers in neighboring Libya were kidnapped and executed earlier this year in a broadly publicized tragedy that was filmed and distributed on the internet. The Egyptian government carried out airstrikes against ISIS in Libya but it has done little to reassure Copts in Egypt that they will be safe from persecution. The Libyan government states that all Libyans are Sunni Muslims and thereby forbids Arabic-language Christian Bibles from being imported to the country. One government official considers Christians a “threat to national security,” and in the more rural parts of the country, Christians are often killed with impunity.
The situation for Christians in Yemen is like that in Egypt except more restrictive. Although the Yemeni constitution officially allows for freedom of religion, the actual situation is, according to one Christian Yemeni, a “farce.” They must pray in private homes and are not allowed to build churches or own Christian Bibles. The fall of the old Saleh regime and its replacement with Islamism and sectarian conflict has made the practice of Christianity in Yemen a more dangerous proposition than ever.
In Saudi Arabia, the heart of Islam, the restrictions against Christians are among the Middle East’s harshest. There are currently around 2 million Christians in the country, the vast majority of whom are foreign workers. However, even for foreigners, the apartheid Saudi government imposes its laws with the same severity it does for citizens. In fact, non-Muslims cannot be Saudi citizens and cannot enter the revered Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina. There are zero official churches in the entire country. Private house churches are often raided and shut down by police. Christians who pray publicly and/or missionize risk imprisonment, torture and deportation. Non-Muslim religious items are not allowed in the country. To convert from Islam is to risk losing one’s family, losing one’s job and even being executed. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, the highest religious authority in the land, called on all churches in the Arabian Peninsula to be destroyed.
Even in more stable Muslim countries such as Oman, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Pakistan and Qatar, there is a great deal of hostility towards Christians. Conversion from Islam to another religion is often treated as a capital offense, and those who missionize or criticize Islam are severely punished or killed. The exception to this is Oman, where conversion from Islam is not itself criminalized but can have secondary legal ramifications such as losing custody of one’s children. And even then, converts still face enormous stigma from their family and society, leading to many of them being harassed, threatened and even killed.
Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco are the best Middle East options for Christians, although these countries deny Christians the right to worship publicly and punish Muslims for converting, but there is little threat to Christian lives.
Things are also better for Christians in Iran, where churches can be built and where the government doesn’t interfere too often in Christian religious activities. However, this only applies to Armenians and Assyrians. Persians, the majority ethnic group in Iran, are forbidden to convert from Islam under penalty of death. Persian language Christian Bibles and Persian language preaching are also illegal.
Turkey is often seen as one of the most progressive and democratic countries in the Muslim world. Certainly, Christians fare much better there than in neighboring Iraq or Syria, and Turkey has even taken in Christian refugees. However, Christians still face general intolerance and suspicion from the Muslim populace. More and more old churches are being converted into mosques, and Christians often have to deal with job restrictions and harassment. That said, the Turkish government recently approved the first new church in 92 years, thus giving some hope that Turkey can once again live up to its secular, democratic principles.
In Gaza, Hamas has made life extremely difficult for the 1,300 or so Palestinian Christians that live there. Hamas’ Islamification of Gaza has made apostasy punishable by death, and the open display of Christian symbols illegal. In one incident, Hamas operatives kidnapped five children and forced them to convert to Islam. Christians reportedly have to smuggle in grapes from Israel to make wine in defiance of Hamas’ ban on alcohol.
The situation in Muslim Africa is equally perilous and the persecution of Christians, rivals the Middle East. Somalia, for instance, is one of the least tolerant when it comes to non-Muslim faiths. The primary Islamist terrorist group, al-Shabaab, has publicly called for the removal of all Christians from Somalia. Those suspected of professing Christianity are instantly killed, often being accused of working for Ethiopian intelligence. There are no churches, and any Christian meetings are done in the utmost secrecy. Al-Shabaab routinely monitors phone conversations and web traffic for Christian messages. Christian graves have been desecrated and looted. Even the weak government, which has been struggling for survival against al-Shabaab and tribal separatism, effectively encourages this anti-Christian sentiment.
Kenya has Christians in the Muslim-dominated north-east and they too live in constant fear. In April, 147 Christians were killed in an al-Shabaab massacre at Garissa University College in Kenya. Since then, Christians have been forced to set up metal detectors at churches and hire security guards for services.
In one of the world’s most egregious examples of anti-Christian persecution, thousands have been killed in the de facto terrorist state of northern Nigeria. Boko Haram, the group that established a so-called ‘caliphate’ in the north and has pledged its allegiance to ISIS, has carried out countless attacks. 4,000 deaths were reported last year alone. Christian girls, often the target of kidnappings, have to dress like Muslims for their own safety. Christian villages in the north often lack basic necessities such as clean water and hospitals, and access to education is routinely denied.
Contrast the stifling restrictions and violence practiced against Christians in Muslim countries with the way they’re treated in Israel. Christianity in Israel is an officially recognized religion, and Christian Arabs are one of the most well-integrated and successful non-Jewish groups. They have served in the government and military, and are allowed to practice their religion without restriction. Some, such as Father Gabriel Naddaf, have openly called for Christian Arab participation in the military and civil service. For this stance, he’s faced death threats and accusations of “helping the enemy of the Palestinian people.” In his words though, “Clearly, these [pro-Palestinian] NGOs have no interest in seeing Christian Arabs become part of Israeli society. Much like the Arab countries that have used Palestinians in various refugee camps as pawns in fighting the State of Israel, these NGOs are content to reduce my community to cannon fodder in their efforts to de-legitimize Israel.”
In stark difference to its neighbors, Israel sees Arab Christians as full citizens deserving of full and equal rights as well as opportunities for advancement in society. As Father Naddaf tells it, “As Christians in Israel survey the situation of our brethren in the wider Middle East, we are appalled by the persecution that so many have experienced in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, among others. Truly, it has only been in Israel where Christians can fully practice our faith and can be productive members of society.”
Israel has not only helped its own Christian citizens live better lives, but has also helped Christian refugees from Syria and Iraq. For example, the relief agency IsrsAID has sent volunteers into refugee camps to deliver desperately needed food, clothing and medical supplies.
The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) represents millions of Christians and churches. In October 2014, ICEJ held an event which was attended by The World Jewish Congress President, Ron Lauder. Typically Lauder advocates for Jewish people in need, but he has now teamed up with ICEJ and with other organizations to fight the persecution of Christians. Speaking at the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, Lauder said, “When hundreds of thousands of Christians – men, women and children – are killed, this isn’t a war, this is genocide. And Jews know what happens when the world is silent to genocide.” In March, Lauder spoke with passion at Georgetown University, Washington DC, “We’ve both been targeted before, often by the same enemy. But today’s rampage against both religions at the same time is a direct attack on Western civilization. It’s an attack on Judeo-Christian values: the fundamental building blocks of almost everything mankind has achieved over the last 2,000 years,”
And it’s not just organizations, there are incidents of individuals who have committed to helping imperiled Middle Eastern Christians. In one instance, Jewish-Canadian businessman Steve Maman is being called the “Jewish Schindler” for raising thousands of dollars from Jewish organizations to rescue kidnapped Christian and Yazidi children. In his words, “I said to myself: ‘I cannot, and will not stand idle. I will not look at the daily reports and stay passive’.”
Another notable example of Jewish generosity is the successful work of Holocaust survivor Lord George Weidenfeld. So far, he has managed to help relocate 42 Syrian Christian families (149 people in all) to Warsaw, Poland with 200 more arriving soon. For Weidenfeld, the issue is very personal: “In the 1930s thousands of Jews, mainly women and children, were helped by Christians who took enormous personal risks to save them from certain death. We owe a debt of gratitude.”
So what’s being done on a governmental level to address the situation? The answer is: not much at all. The U.S. government doesn’t endorse the actions of individuals who are flying to join the Kurds in distant lands to fight ISIS, but so far it doesn’t forbid it either. Many individuals have been reported to leave the safety of the USA and relocate with the Kurds in mountainous regions where ISIS and Iranian shells have caused death and destruction in Christian villages.
Meanwhile, President Obama condemned the massacres of Christians in Libya and Kenya but notably did not mention that the victims were killed simply for being Christian or that the perpetrators were Muslim. At the same time, he had no qualms mentioning the ethnic identity of Syrian Alawites and Ismailis who were killed. Responses by European leaders have been similar. The notion that there is a genocide against Christians in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere is never discussed in government circles, much less the possibility of taking concerted action to stop it.
But perhaps what’s needed now even more than military action against ISIS is relief for the hundreds of thousands of displaced refugees, whether Christian or otherwise. True, Jews have often suffered on account of Christian anti-Semitism but now is the time to see our common humanity. As Jews, we are a light not only to our fellow Jews, but also to the whole world. We can make a difference right now in the lives of people sitting in camps half a world away with no hope and few basic necessities. This is the time to donate and show support.