Op-Ed: The darkest season: A ‘Christian Winter’ in the Middle East

Posted May 23, 2014 by Shawn Kay
Originally lauded as a progressive alternative to tyranny in the Middle East, the Arab Spring has been a season of persecution for Christians. As persecution reaches pandemic proportions, the very survival of Christianity in the region is in question.
The Christian flag. This particular flag is meant to be universal and represent all Christians regar...
The Christian flag. This particular flag is meant to be universal and represent all Christians regardless of denomination or nationality but is especially linked to American evangelical Christianity.
Bradley Roberts
The bloodthirsty hate a person of integrity and seek to kill the upright. – Proverbs 29.10
As the winds of change continue to blow through the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region, the political upheavals caused by the increasingly Islamized Arab Spring uprisings and a corresponding rise in Islamic militancy have spawned a new evil that is currently sweeping the region: the ‘Christian Winter.’
The ‘Christian Winter’ – which is entirely as grim and depressing as it sounds – is for all intents and purposes a living nightmare for the region’s Christian community. This dark phenomenon is a byproduct of the Arab Spring which has served as the driving force behind a ten-fold increase in cases involving persecution of Christians by Islamic oppressors.
A map of the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. This region has a collective population of over...
A map of the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. This region has a collective population of over 350 million and consists of the following countries: Lebanon, Egypt, Palestinian Territories, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Libya, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Algeria, and Yemen. Sometimes Turkey and Cyprus are included as MENA nations.
In fact, some veteran political analysts and religious freedom advocates have readily noted that the current wave of persecution against Christians resembles a pogrom – an especially harsh form of persecution that has historically foreshadowed genocide.
Despite the fact that the MENA region is the ancient homeland of Christianity and that this faith and it’s followers have existed here some 2,000 years before the founding of Islam, fanatical Muslims are seeking to rid the entire region of Christians and claim it as their own.
There are currently 12 to 14 million Christians living among 350 million Muslims in the MENA region. If persecution persists at it’s current rate, or worse, accelerates, the Christian population will plunge to as low as six million by the year 2020.
The Christian presence has been thoroughly decimated in the region by the recent and ongoing campaigns of persecution and is now in great peril. Christianity is so much on the wane that it may be effectively wiped out from the region in this generation or the next.
Millions of Christians in MENA are faced with extortion, humiliation, discrimination, displacement, assault, death threats, and murder on a daily basis from their Muslim persecutors.
Churches, homes, and businesses owned by Christians are frequently subjected to bombings and arson attacks.
Young Christian women and teenage girls in the region live with the looming threat of abduction, sexual assault, and forced marriage to a Muslim man. They are especially vulnerable and remain very popular targets for maniacal jihadists.
Clergy are another notable and highly popular target. Al-Qaida and other Islamic terrorists frequently target clergy for abduction, assassination, or execution.
The unrelenting persecution wave has targeted believers from every Christian denomination.
In a 2011 interview with CBS News, Amin Gemayel, the former president of Lebanon made a rather bold statement on the issue of Christian persecution in the region. In a direct quote he said
Massacres are taking place for no reason and without any justification against Christians. It is only because they are Christians.
With life becoming increasingly unbearable for followers of Christ, many are opting to flee the region in a mass exodus that is biblical in proportion.
While it is difficult to pin down an exact number, it is believed that hundreds of thousands of Christians are either internally displaced or have migrated from the region completely to escape jihadist-inspired violence.
It is estimated that at least 300,000 Christians in Syria alone have been internally displaced or left for Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, or elsewhere.
Before the unrest Syrian Christians numbered between 1.2 and 1.4 million and accounted for at least ten percent of the population. During the 1920’s, Christians comprised as much as 30 percent of the total population of Syria.
A decade ago, as many as 1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq. At that time followers of Christ comprised at least five percent of Iraq’s total population. Today, estimates on the number of Christians living in that country range from 200,000 and 600,000. The Iraqi Christian population continues on with it’s rapid decline due to extremist persecution by Islamic terrorists, especially from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – a regional offshoot of al-Qaida.
Within recent years, that particular jihadist outfit has unleashed a relentless wave of terrorism involving bombings and shooting sprees at churches and the assassination of clergy, including nuns, priests, and pastors.
Meanwhile in Egypt, there has also been a massive Christian exodus since the 2011 uprisings that toppled Hosni Mubarak. At least 100,000 Coptic Christians (Egyptian Christians) have been driven out of that country due to the rise of Islamist elements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, an increase in terrorism, and mob attacks.
Christians and their property in Egypt are not protected by the security services (police/law enforcement) to the same degree as are Muslim citizens.
Islamic fundamentalists often attack Christians with impunity from arrest and prosecution. Crimes perpetrated against believers by Muslims in Egypt are reprehensible and range from hate crime assaults, forced conversions, kidnappings and rape to actual car bombings and other actions of outright terrorism.
Egyptian authorities – whom are all Muslims themselves - will typically refuse to investigate a crime or make an arrest if the victim is Christian and the assailant is Muslim.
Egypt is currently home to the largest Christian population in the region. Should that nation ever be cleared of it’s Christian community it would be a massive and perhaps even mortal blow for Christianity in MENA.
To better understand the scope of the ‘Christian Winter’ event, it is necessary to look at the region as a whole.
The following are some accounts of persecution and atrocities perpetrated against followers of Christ throughout the MENA region which reveal the savage tendencies and dark hearts of Islamic fundamentalists.
*At least 58 Christians are killed and another 78 are wounded when terrorists with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (an al-Qaida offshoot) attacked the Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad during Sunday evening Mass on October 31, 2010. The attack is the deadliest act of terrorism against Christians in the entire MENA region.
After that vicious attack, the terrorist organization released a statement in which it not only threatened Iraqi Christians but Christians throughout the Middle East:
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.
*Three near-simultaneous bombings targeting Baghdad’s Christian community claim 37 lives on the morning of December 25, 2013. The perpetrator of the attacks is believed to be the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The targets included St. John’s Catholic Church (where 26 of the 37 lives were lost) and a marketplace frequented by Christians of Assyrian ethnicity. The attacks came in the wake of an agreement by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to recognize Christmas as a national holiday.
*Soon after their capture of the town of Qusair in spring 2013, fighters of the terrorist organization known as the al-Nusra Front – an al-Qaida offshoot and one of the leading militant groups fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad - kidnapped Mariam, a tragic 15 year-old Christian girl. Mariam was seized from her family at gunpoint by the militants and held captive. She was forced to “marry” one of the militants who raped her before repudiating her. The following day, she was forced to “marry” another militant who also raped her and then repudiated her. Mariam was repeatedly subjected to this deeply traumatic ordeal by different men for 15 days. This destabilized her psychologically and emotionally to the point of insanity at which point the militants killed her.
*Upon their successful seizure of the city of Aleppo in April 2013, al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army militants, raped 13 Christian women and girls in the presence of their families and then murdered them together with their family members.
*The al-Nusra Front and Free Syrian Army seize the ancient Christian city of Maaloula, after a truck driven by a Jordanian suicide bomber exploded near a checkpoint of the Syrian Army at the entrance of the city. The explosion gave the signal for the attack. The jihadists took control of the checkpoint, killing eight soldiers belonging to the Syrian army and destroying two tanks. Upon seizing control of the checkpoint to Maaloula, the jihadists stormed the city, breaking into and looting the homes of Christians, torching Churches, and perpetrating murders. Some residents were threatened with death if they did not convert to Islam. Also, in a bid to maximize death and destruction against Maaloula’s Christian inhabitants, jihadists rained down artillery shells from nearby mountain ridges upon the city while snipers took shots at Christians from rooftops. Fearing for their lives, much of the city’s estimated population of 3,000 evacuated to Damascus. Many of the Christians in Maaloula speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
*Jihadists from the al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army, seize the ancient Christian village of Sadad and it’s 15,000 residents. The entire village was held hostages by the terrorists who also used them as human shields against the attacking Syrian Army of the al-Assad regime. The town was decimated by the jihadists who robbed the home of each resident and desecrated churches. The jihadists also destroyed schools, businesses, a hospital, the post office, and several buildings. At least 45 innocent men, women, and children were tortured-to-death for their faith and tossed into mass graves. The incident at Sadad – a village so ancient that it is actually mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible - has thus far been the worst massacre of Christians during the Syrian conflict and the second worst in the overall Middle East region after the 2010 attack against Iraq’s Church of Our Lady of Salvation.
*Four Coptic Christians are killed and 19 others wounded during a wedding ceremony at the Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary in al-Waraaq, a working-class suburb just outside of Cairo, when masked attackers on a motorbike raked the event with gunfire. Witnesses believe that Muslim fundamentalists at a nearby mosque assisted in the attack by deliberately blocking a road near the church, thus giving the attackers a clear run on a street normally packed with traffic. Two girl cousins, Mariam Nabeel, 12, and Mariam Ashraf Seha, 8, were among the dead. Seha’s mother was critically wounded by gunfire in the attack.
*Mary Sameh George, a 24 year-old Coptic Christian woman is brutally murdered by an Islamist mob in Ain Shams, a suburb of Cairo. The marauding mob of Muslims pulled George from her car and then proceeded to violently beat and stab her before finally shooting her in the back. According to officials, her body was badly mutilated in the attack. After murdering George, the mob set her car ablaze. At the time of the heinous criminal assault, George was parked in front of the Virgin Mary and Archangel Michael Coptic Orthodox Church to deliver meals and medicine to the elderly after work that faithful day. George had recently obtained her Bachelor’s degree from a university. She is believed to have been targeted by the Islamist mob because of a cross that was hanging in her car. Most of the assailants in that mob are strongly suspected to be members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ain Shams is well known throughout Egypt as a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold.
*Rampaging mobs of Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Islamists embark on a week-long hate crime spree in which 37 Churches are attacked throughout Egypt. Many of the Churches are torched and looted. Some are destroyed while others suffer severe damage. At least four are killed in the Islamist-inspired violence. In an official statement released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) just days after the hate riots, the agency condemned the Egyptian government for it’s failure to protect Christians against violent Muslim fundamentalists. The statement also revealed that police intentionally ignored emergency calls for help from Christians. HRW urged police and military forces to be proactive in protecting Christians and to be more diligent in bringing to justice individuals and groups who perpetrate crimes against this particular religious minority.
Saudi Arabia
*Authorities sentenced two men to flogging and prison after they helped convert Maryam, a Saudi woman, to Christianity and escape that country. One was a Lebanese Christian man who was sentenced to 300 lashes and six years in prison. The other was a Saudi man who was sentenced to 200 lashes and two years in prison. The woman they helped convert is believed to be in Lebanon, Sweden, or the U.S. Because the legal penalty for apostasy (conversion from Islam to Christianity by any Saudi citizen) is death, it was imperative that the newly converted woman escape the kingdom immediately. In a video interview with another Christian convert, Maryam declares her faith and love for Jesus Christ. The Saudi young woman who gave her life to Christ tells her interviewer that she converted to the faith after being visited by Jesus in a dream. In a bold statement she also says,
I have quit the darkness of Wahhabi Islam and entered the Light of Christianity.
As a direct result of this affair, Saudi authorities have gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent a similar incident from occurring by instituting an elaborate tracking system that monitors any cross-border movements by female Saudi citizens. The tracking system utilizes SMS technology and alerts a woman’s male guardian (father, husband, or other male relative) by text message when she leaves the country, even if they are traveling together.
*Seven Coptic Christian men abducted from an apartment building in Benghazi at gunpoint by Islamic terrorists are found murdered hours later in a remote desert area. The Christians were taken captive by members of Ansar al-Sharia who forced the men into a car after carrying out an armed raid on their residence. The seven victims were driven to the desert where they were shot execution-style by their captors.
In an official press release by the Coptic Orthodox Church, the seven victims were identified as Talaat Seddiq Bebawi, Hani Girgis Habib, Nadhi Girgis Habib, Fawzi Fathi Seddiq, Edward Nashed Boulos, Ayoub Sabry Tawfiq and Sameh Romany. All were from El-Maragha in Egypt’s Sohag Province.
Ansar al-Sharia has been behind numerous terrorist attacks on Christians in that country and has a stated purpose of eliminating the Christian faith from Libya.
In addition to the ever looming threat from outlaw jihadist groups like those of Ansar al-Sharia, followers of Christ in that nation are also subjected to institutionalized religious prejudice and persecution from the U.S.-backed General National Congress (GNC). The GNC is currently the ruling regime in Libya. Even more, according to the Christian Post, the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction party is also present in Libya and is said to be an influential force in that country.
Within this predominately Persian and Shia Islam state, persecution is directed specifically towards the Evangelical Christian population. This particular denomination of Christianity is outlawed and viewed as a national security threat by the Iranian regime.
*The Farsi Christian News Network reports that some 40 Evangelical Christians were arrested by police during a series of raids on house churches in the cities of Shiraz and Kavar in Fars province in September 2012. The arrested Christians were charged with “holding Christian services at their homes.” Severe restrictions on religious freedoms and the fear of arrest by police and even torture in prison for practicing the Christian faith has given rise to a phenomenon known as the underground house church movement where Christians secretly hold church services in each other’s houses or apartments to avoid arrest while engaging in praise and worship.
A squad car of Iran s Tourism Police. Evangelical Christians are considered criminals in Iran and ar...
A squad car of Iran's Tourism Police. Evangelical Christians are considered criminals in Iran and are sometimes hunted as fugitives. An Evangelical Iranian Christian who is arrested by law enforcement in that country typically face penalties that may range from imprisonment, torture, and even execution. Evangelical Christianity is illegal in Iran and is considered a national security threat.
*In July 2012, Saeed Abedini, 33, an Iranian-American pastor was arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps while in that nation to visit family and build an orphanage in Rasht. The criminal charges brought against Abedini were a direct result of his Evangelism activities throughout Iran which reportedly spanned the course of several years. In January 2013, Abedini was convicted of “threatening the national security” and sentenced to eight years in prison. Naghmeh Abedini, pastor Saeed’s wife, has become an impassioned advocate for her husband’s freedom. She is assisted in her advocacy efforts by the American Center for Law and Justice, a U.S.-based Christian law firm which is representing her in the campaign to free her husband. Naghmeh has spoken before Congress and the United Nations, testifying about her husband's plight while calling on the international community to press the Iranian regime to release her husband.
Palestinian Territories
*Emboldened by Hamas’ rule over Gaza and other Islamist entities that have risen to power in the region as a direct result of the Arab Spring uprisings, Muslims have increased pressure and harassment tactics in a bid to get Christians in the area to convert to Islam. There have even been some reports of forced conversions of Christians in Gaza.
Fewer than 3,000 Christians live among the estimated 1.7 million Muslim residents in Gaza.
While Christians in both the Palestinian Territories of Gaza and the West Bank have had to endure a noticeable increase in Muslim-based religious discrimination and persecution within recent years, life has been undoubtedly worse for believers in the Hamas-ruled Gaza.
*The Al-Saeh library, a massive Christian library in Tripoli, a city in northern Lebanon, is burned to the ground in a massive arson attack by Muslim fundamentalists. The fire ravaged the renowned library and destroyed as many as 50,000 of the estimated 80,000 books and manuscripts on the premises.
The ‘Christian Winter’ has been nothing short of a humanitarian disaster for followers of Christ in MENA.
As the Arab Spring continues, it has become glaringly evident that democracy, human rights, and religious freedoms are by no means hallmarks of this phenomenon. Rather, widespread criminality, bedlam, and persecution of religious minorities, especially Christians, are part and parcel of the uprisings.
Many of the dictators overthrown by the uprisings, though undeniably brutal in their governance, had been keeping violent Islamic militant groups in check and were generally tolerant of Christians.
The Islamic fundamentalist dominated governments that have emerged from the ashes of the fallen dictatorships have been less tolerant towards religious freedom for Christians.
Basically, the Arab Spring has ousted secular dictators like those of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi for the exceedingly harsher Islamist dictatorships of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar fundamentalist entities.
Governmental officials and leaders in the United States and the European Union have a largely simplistic and myopic view of the uprisings, hailing them as vehicles of legitimate political change and democracy while failing to acknowledge the fact that jihadists have taken advantage of those very same uprisings to commence with a sinister campaign of religious cleansing against Christians in the region.
Barack Obama  the 54th President of the United States of America. President Obama has been less outs...
Barack Obama, the 54th President of the United States of America. President Obama has been less outspoken on the issue of religious persecution than his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Pete Souza, The Obama-Biden Transition Project
Meanwhile, Christians in the Western World, including those in the United States, remain largely unaware – perhaps even blissfully so - about the plight of their sisters and brothers in the faith on the other side of the globe.
As Christianity in the West continues to sort through it’s profound identity crisis, Christians in the MENA region wonder if their American and Western counterparts will ever break their silence in any meaningful way.
It is time to respond.
Followers of Christ in the Western world, especially those in the U.S. must do more to support their brothers and sisters in the Middle East-North Africa region against the Islamist onslaught.
Christians must raise their collective voices and make some noise on behalf of the distressed and persecuted church in MENA. Evangelical American Christians are especially well positioned and equipped to serve as a voice in high places for the persecuted.
There needs to be more public awareness, more advocacy, and more prayer.
We simply cannot afford to remain silent in the face of such extreme injustices anymore.
The only hope for MENA Christians is God and the global Christian community and as such we must take a stand and come to their aid. We must take action even if our respective governments do not.
With talk of the ‘Christian Winter’ intensifying and possibly even turning into a genocide (God forbid), the time to act is now.
The time to act is now!
The Holy Bible notes that the prayers of righteous men and women are both powerful and effective. With that in mind let us now pray for the persecuted church in the Middle East-North Africa region.
Oh Heavenly Father, we pray for your divine intervention in the Middle East-North Africa region. Protect your sons and daughters in this region, shield them from harm and comfort them. Let them know that their cries are heard and that they are not alone.
We pray for your justice and provision.
Let your love and grace rain down upon this windswept region.
We pray that you will bring lasting peace and stability to this woefully conflicted land.
Let your light illuminate this region and drown out the darkness of extremism and hate.
We pray that those who persecute other Christians in that region will come to know you and accept the light of the Gospel.
But the Lord is with me like a mighty warrior; so my persecutors will stumble and not prevail. They will fail and be thoroughly disgraced; their dishonor will never be forgotten.
- Jeremiah 20:11 (NIV)