As followers of the Christian faith in the United States and throughout the Western world celebrate the culmination of Holy Week with Easter, their counterparts in the Middle East find themselves under fire and on the run for their lives - literally.
The Christians of the Middle East are in great peril.
Christians in that part of the world are being subjected to an unprecedented religious cleansing at the hands of Islamic extremists who have declared jihad against them.
Christians frequently suffer attacks on their Churches, businesses and homes. They also suffer acts of vandalism perpetrated against their property and belongings, discrimination in employment, education, housing, governmental services and other aspects of daily life. In extreme cases they suffer death threats.
Such is the life of a Christian in a country dominated by a Muslim majority.
There is a significant threat to the Christian community of the Middle East. It is a two-pronged threat, the first of which involves the ever looming threat of Islamic-based terrorism.
The jihadi terrorist threat comes from a wide array of lethal and wildly zealous militant Islamic organizations. The most notable of which is, of course, al-Qaida and it's various off-shoots, but there are numerous other exceedingly violent entities, many of which are well-known and established terror groups like those of Ansar al-Islam and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba.
Terrorists have long had the Middle East Christian community in it's sights and have targeted them to a steady rhythm of bloodshed and violence. Terrorists have displaced hundreds of thousands of Christians throughout the region through death threats, kidnappings, shooting sprees and assassinations against Church pastors and nuns and other clergy or church staff. Terrorists have also burned and bombed hundreds of Christian homes, businesses and Churches.
The atrocities against Christians in the region by terror groups are shocking to say the least. Acts of hate and sheer villainy so dark and twisted that they simply break your heart and take your breath away. However, of the countless hundreds of terrorist actions perpetrated by these criminals of humanity, a few in particular stand out for their noted depravity and wanton carnage.
The most recent atrocity took place on the night of January 1, 2011, at The Saints Church, a Coptic Christian Church in Alexandria, Egypt.
In the attack, terrorists detonated a car bomb in front of the Church
as a evening worship service was underway. The attack claimed 23 lives and left 97 parishioners wounded. The bombing was the worst terror attack against Christians in Egyptian history. Egyptian authorities were largely lukewarm about investigating the attack and pursuing the culprits because most of the victims were Christian (at least one Muslim, a man selling Qurans near the Church at the time of the blast, was killed.) To this day authorities have not arrested anyone in connection with the attack. The Army of Islam or al-Qaida is believed to be responsible for the bombing.
In yet another terrorist attack, several heavily armed members of al-Qaida in Iraq stormed Our Lady of Salvation Church
in Baghdad, Iraq on October 31, 2010. The terrorists seized the Church as a worship service was in progress and held nearly a hundred Churchgoers as hostages. After a multi-hour long standoff with police and both Iraqi and U.S. military forces, an Iraqi counter-terrorism team stormed the Church. A wild shootout ensued that left 58 of the hostages dead and 78 wounded. All of the terrorists were killed as were several members of the counter-terrorism team. Huthaifa al-Batawi, the architect behind the attack and former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq was later captured by authorities and killed along with several other senior members of the terror group while attempting to effect a violent but botched prison escape attempt
In a statement obtained from the group by the Associated Press
after the attack, the terror group said
Christians are legitimate targets and the killing sword will not be lifted from the necks of Christians in Iraq and across the region. Our group will go after your children in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. You will be targeted if you do not submit to our demands.
Another terror atrocity by al-Qaida in Iraq saw the group bomb a nursery in 2007. A nun was slain in that attack as were several bystanders. Scores of children were left wounded.
Christians are typically viewed as infidels and collaborators with the West by Islamic extremists.
The terrorists that fill the ranks of al-Qaida and other groups believe it is halal or permissible to harm Christians.
Islamic extremists have zero tolerance for Christians and other religious minorities. These radicals are hellbent on realizing their ultimate goal of purging the Middle East of all Christians once and for all. A rather dark vision that could only enthrall monsters and enemies of humanity.
The second threat to Christians is more subdued and less high-profile than that of the hardcore jihadi threat but is no less detrimental to the well-being of Christians in the region.
The second threat comes in the form of institutionalized discrimination and general intolerance from governments regimes that are governed according to Islamic beliefs.
Christians living in Islamic societies face general abuse and are treated as second-class citizens. The practice of policies that are inherently intolerant and hostile towards Christians ensures that they experience discrimination and hardship in obtaining and maintaining employment and housing. Millions of Christians live in poverty and squalor while entire families are homeless because they have been unable to obtain employment due to the legal and administrative restrictions and hurdles placed before them by Islamic governed regimes.
Churches and Christian groups are subject to surveillance and harassment by the state.
The educational system in many Islamic nations teach young students that Christians are the descendants of apes and pigs. While television networks hurl vitriolic abuse against Christians.
Because authorities in many Muslim states provide their Christian citizens with substandard police services and often will not investigate crimes perpetrated against this minority group, Muslim fundamentalists believe they can act with impunity in their crimes against Christians.
Muslim converts to the Christian faith are regularly imprisoned, ostracized, beaten and/or killed.
Young Christian women and teenage girls live with the threat of abduction, sexual assault and force marriage to a Muslim man.
Of course, Christians are not only welcome to convert to Islam but are also encouraged to do so if only to avoid the hardship that comes with the relentless onslaught of persecution.
Tragically, it is reported that thousands of Coptic Christians in Egypt covert to Islam each year to finally be free of religious persecution.
Christian persecution is especially high in the nations of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Iraq and the Palestinian Territories.
In fact, Saudi Arabia is one of several Islamic states which views Christianity as a threat to it's national security.
The wave of persecution currently sweeping the region has triggered a mass exodus as many Christians migrate from Muslim-governed states to Israel.
Israel, a democracy that guarantees the freedoms of religion and speech, has seen a notable increase in it's Christian population. Persecuted Christians have been making their way to the sole democracy in the region because it offers the promise of a stable and dignified life while protecting Christians and all other religious minorities.
In fact, while every other Middle Eastern state has seen a dramatic decrease in their Christian populations, Israel is the only nation to experience an increase. According to the Jerusalem Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel's Christian community currently numbers 163,000 and will reach 187,000 in 2020.
Israel has also seen an influx in illegal immigration as Egyptian Christians sneak across the border to avoid Muslim persecution in their home nation.
While Israel gets the highest marks of any Middle Eastern state, it is far from being the ideal safe haven for persecuted Christians.
Churches in some cities have received threats of violence from Jewish militant groups
. And though Israel guarantees protection and freedom of religion to Christians living within it's mainland, Christians in the Palestinian Territories suffer a notable degree of ongoing hardship
from the Jewish state.
Palestinian Christians are also persecuted by Muslims. Though that persecution is most severe in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, there is notable hardship in the West Bank.
In the West Bank, Muslims permanently boycott Christian businesses.
While thousands of Christians have made the journey to Israel, some have opted to flee the Middle East completely to escape Islamic-based persecution in their home nations. Many have chosen to migrate to Europe, America or Canada.
Because of the ongoing mass exodus to Western nations, the Middle Eastern Christian population has seen a steep and alarming decline.
As Christians move away from cities and nations in the region, Muslims move into their vacant homes and Churches, claiming them forever.
One Church leader in Iraq acknowledged the threat the Christian people of that nation face and the very real possibility that Christianity could cease to exist there within a few decades.
In a interview with The Wall Street Journal
, a leader in the Chaldean Catholic Church was quoted as saying
Iraq could be emptied of Christians.
A brief look around the region reveals in graphic detail the persecution and challenges faced on a daily basis by followers of Christ.
Iran: Youcef Nadarkhabi
, a Muslim covert to the Christian faith and a popular Church pastor is currently in prison, awaiting a death sentence for practicing Christianity.
According to a report by the Christian Broadcast Network (CBN)
, First Baptist of Bethlehem has been firebombed by Islamic extremists at least 14 times during it's history.
Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, the grand mufti (top religious official) of the nation issued a fatwa
(Islamic religious ruling) just days ago calling on Muslims to destroy all Churches in the Arabian Peninsula.
Syria: Agenzia Fides
, the official Vatican news agency, reports the Syrian Orthodox Church is worried about "an ongoing ethnic cleansing" of Christians
in the embattled Syrian city of Homs. According to the news agency, anti-government militants and possibly al-Qaida fighters that have been waging an insurgency against the regime of President Bashar Assad are taking advantage of the ongoing bedlam in that country to harass and threaten Christians. The Vatican-based news agency cites sources saying militants are going door-to-door in the Homs neighborhoods of Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan, forcing Christians to flee, without giving them a chance to take their belongings.
The U.S. and many other Western nations overwhelmingly back the anti-government militants and have even debated the merits of arming them as they press President Assad to step down.
Syria's Christian community has generally been regarded as supportive of the secular regime of President Assad, which despite it's systematic repression of political dissent, has been tolerant of religious minorities.
the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as a serious contender for the office of President in the wake of former ruler Hosni Mubarak's fall from power during the 'Arab Spring' uprising in February 2011.
While things have never been easy for Christians in the region, levels of intolerance and persecution are currently at an all-time high.
It may come as a shock to many in the West, especially the U.S. to know that the 'Arab Spring' uprisings are playing a star role in the stark increase of persecution and secretarian violence against Christians.
The 'Arab Spring,' which began in late 2010 and has changed the political and social landscape of the Middle East, has also been a source of significant turbulence in the region as the former status quo of dictators and tyrants are uprooted in favor of a new and murky cast of players that may prove to be exceedingly more dangerous than the brutal and corrupt leaders they are supposed to replace.
Many of the new players filling the power vacuum created by the massive upheaval of the religious secular dictators and tyrants, have taken a noticeably harder pro-Islamic stance. While their intentions remain unknown, they likely care little for America's vision of a democratic Middle East and are merely paying lip service to the West with talk of new regimes that are tolerant of Israel and Western values.
Even more, there is word that al-Qaida, which has long coveted it's own nation to claim rulership of, lurks in the shadows and is possibly pulling the strings on this new cast of players, which include such obscure entities as the Libyan National Transitional Council, or at the very least forming dangerously close alliances with some of them
Obviously, the U.S., United Nations and their other Western partners do not subscribe to the old axiom that it is better to deal with a devil that you do know rather than one that you do not.
At present, the Middle East has 14 million Christians. However, if the rate of persecution continues or increases, that number is expected to drop to six million in 2020.
What is almost more shocking and bewildering than the persecution and violence against Middle Eastern Christians itself, is the inattention and indifference it has been met with by President Barack Obama and his administration, the news media and the American public.
And when the mainstream American news media does address this crisis, they merely gloss over the issues.
Christians in America should not be so dismissive of their Middle Eastern brothers and sisters in Christ.
The West has made a few otherwise weak condemnations of the persecution but has otherwise largely ignored the problem.
The U.S. which typically touts itself as the global leader and protector of human rights and religious freedoms is fast asleep at the switch in a very big way as one of the biggest occurrences of religious persecution thus far this Century is fast underway.
In the West, we take it for granted that we can live openly as Christians.
The freedom to attend religious services and practice our faith at a house of worship.
The freedom to publicly assemble with other followers of our faith for the purposes of fellowship.
Or even the freedom to just be able to pray.
As Americans, and citizens of the Western world in general, we have the freedom to engage in all these acts of worship without the threat of violence from terrorists or arrest and persecution by authorities.
The Freedom of Religion.
The Freedom of Speech and Expression.
These are all hallmarks of a democracy, of a modern civilized society.
The American Christian community as well as Christians in nations throughout the Western world must band together, stand up and shout, "ENOUGH!"
We must be prepared to offer assistance in any way that we can be it through donations or prayers.
We must take a stand and come to their aid. We must take action even if our governments do not.
Surrounded, embattled and under siege by their enemies, the Christians of the Middle East remain steadfast in their faith.
They are waiting for reinforcements, waiting for their Christian brothers and sisters in the West to step forth and make some noise on their behalf.
Pray for your Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East region. Pray for an end to their persecution and Pray that the Lord moves in a forceful way against their persecutors. Pray that he opens their dark and hateful hearts to the light and love of the Gospel.