The Forgotten: Christians Persecuted in the Middle East Print
By George J. Marlin   
Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The upheaval in the Middle East has turned that region into a war zone. Protesters in Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen have been shot, clubbed, and jailed. Public condemnation of the violence by the United States and European Union is certainly warranted, and no-fly zones and other sanctions may be necessary to prevent the mass slaughter of innocent people.

Protesters and freedom fighters, however, are not the only victims of violence in the Middle East. There has been a significant rise in Christian bloodshed. Unfortunately, the leaders of Western powers, with little exception, have ignored those crimes.

In his annual address to the Vatican diplomatic corps, Pope Benedict XVI pointed to the “acts of discrimination against Christians, which are considered less grave and less worthy of attention on the part of governments and public opinion.” The Holy Father renewed his “heartfelt appeal” to Muslim religious leaders “that their Christians fellow-citizens be able to live in security, continuing to contribute to the society in which they are fully members.” Egypt’s Al-Azhar University suspended talks with the Vatican because they found the pope’s references to Muslim violence “insulting.”

Among other duties, I serve as Chairman of Aid to the Church in Need, U.S.A., a charity directly under the Holy Father that supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed, or in need. I receive regular updates and status reports on the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Here’s a roundup of what happened this past year:

Afghanistan: The nation’s constitution designates Islam as the state religion and “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” As a result, in May 2010 a group of Muslims were sentenced to death for converting to Christianity. Fortunately, they escaped and found asylum in India. In August, ten members of an eye-care team from the Christian International assistance mission were murdered in Afghanistan’s northern mountains. The Taliban claimed responsibility saying the volunteers were trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. Open Doors, an international Christian rights organization, rates Afghanistan as the world’s fourth worst country for Christian prosecution.

Egypt: In December 2010, Muslim extremists attacked an Orthodox Coptic Church in Upper Egypt during Christmas midnight Mass and murdered nine. On New Years Day, twenty mass goers died and seventy others were wounded when a car bomb exploded outside the Church of Saints in Alexandria. Egypt is the home to 20-million Christians – far more than any other country in the region. Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants are persecuted for allegedly carrying out clandestine evangelization. Since it takes up to thirty years to receive permits to build a Christian church, the militant Imams have cracked down on Christians who gather in makeshift places of worship, claiming they are illegal.

A bloodstained image of Jesus (Church of Saints in Alexandria, Egypt)
Iran: While the population of Iran has grown since 1979 from 38 to 72 million, the Christian population has declined from 100,000 to 15,000. Christians have fled because they were constantly harassed by the government and falsely accused of being pro-Western. Because renouncing Islam is a crime of apostasy, there have been numerous arrests in Christian communities. In 2009, for instance, two women converts were arrested and charged with “acting against the security of the state” for distributing Bibles in their church. Thanks to international pressure they were released after eight months in jail, and allowed to leave the country. In January, about seventy Christians were arrested for attending services in “house churches.” In a November 2010 letter to President Ahmadinejad, Pope Benedict asked why Christian minorities live as dhimmis, second-class citizens.

Iraq: Since 2000, over 77 percent of Iraq’s 700,000 Christians have fled. In February 2008, the Catholic Archbishop of one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, Mosul (known in scripture as Nineveh), Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped and died in captivity two weeks later. His successor, Archbishop Amil Nona, believes that his diocese has suffered “some of the worst persecution to befall the Church in a generation.” On October 31, 2010, 58 people died and 70 were injured when an organization linked to al Qaeda attacked Baghdad’s Our Lady of Deliverance Syrian Catholic Cathedral during Sunday Mass. Among the dead were two young priests. Archbishop Louis Sako commented: “For us Christians of Iraq, martyrdom is the charism of our Church . . . .We are aware that bearing witness to Christ can mean martyrdom.”

Pakistan: Although the constitution of Pakistan states it is a secular country, violating blasphemy laws can be punishable by death. The Catholic Church’s Commission of Justice and Peace reported that since 1986 approximately 993 people have been charged with slandering Mohammed or desecrating the Qur’an. On March 2, 2011, the only Pakistani Christian cabinet member, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated because he campaigned to reform the blasphemy laws. At his requiem in the Roman Catholic parish of Our Lady of Fatima, only one cabinet member had the courage to attend, Prime Minister Raza Gilani. Imagine if a U.S. cabinet member were murdered and only the president appeared at the funeral.

Saudi Arabia: Religious freedom is not protected under law and is severely restricted in practice. Public ceremonies or services by non-Islamic religions are banned. Saudi Arabia’s 1-million Christians are constantly harassed and police raid private religious gatherings and confiscate religious articles.

Yemen: There are only 8,000 Christians in this nation of 24 million. Yet in February, Yemen’s al Qaeda leader called on Muslims to wage jihad against them.

Despite all these crimes, there is hardly a peep from the Western powers. These victims would be completely forgotten if not for the Holy Father. In his January 1, 2011 World Peace Day message, he reminded the world that Middle East Christians “experience daily affronts and often live in fear because of their pursuit of truth, their faith in Christ Jesus and their heartfelt plea for respect for religious freedom. This situation is unacceptable since it represents an insult to God and to human dignity.”

George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of The American Catholic Voter.

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