Sorry my first post in days concerns such a tragic topic. But truth be told we need to know about these things…right?
Christians in the Middle East have been the victims of pogroms and persecution. Where’s the outrage in the West?
Like many Coptic Christians in Egypt, Ayman Nabil Labib had a tattoo of the cross on his wrist. And like 17-year-old men everywhere, he could be assertive about his identity. But in 2011, after Egypt’s revolution, that kind of assertiveness could mean trouble. Ayman’s Arabic-language teacher told him to cover his tattoo in class. Instead of complying, the young man defiantly pulled out the cross that hung around his neck, making it visible.
His teacher flew into a rage and began choking him, goading the young man’s Muslim classmates by saying, “What are you going to do with him?” Ayman’s classmates then beat him to death. False statements were given to police, and two boys were taken into custody only after Ayman’s terror-stricken family spoke out. Ayman’s suffering is not an isolated case in Egypt or the region.
The Arab Spring, and to a lesser extent the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, were touted as the catalysts for a major historic shift in the region. From Egypt to Syria to Iraq, the Middle East’s dictatorships would be succeeded by liberal, democratic regimes. Years later, however, there is very little liberality or democracy to show. Indeed, what these upheavals have bequeathed to history is a baleful, and barely noticed legacy: The near-annihilation of the world’s most ancient communities of Christians.
The persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East, as well as the silence with which it has been met in the West, are the subject of journalist Ed West’s Kindle Single “The Silence of Our Friends.” The booklet is a brisk and chilling litany of horrors: Discriminatory laws, mass graves, unofficial pogroms, and exile. The persecuted are not just Coptic and Nestorian Christians who have relatively few co-communicants in the West, but Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants as well.
Throughout the Middle East the pattern is the same. Christians are murdered in mob violence or by militant groups. Their churches are bombed, their shops destroyed, and their homes looted. Laws are passed making them second-class citizens, and the majority of them eventually leave.
In Egypt, a rumor that a Muslim girl was dating a Christian boy led to the burning of multiple churches, and the imposition of a curfew on a local Christian population. Illiterate children were held in police custody for urinating in a trash heap, because an imam claimed that pages quoting the Koran were in the pile and had been desecrated. Again, the persecution resulted in Christian families leaving their homes behind.
In Syria, the situation is even worse. In June 2013, a cluster of Christian villages was totally destroyed. Friar Pierbattista Pizzaballa reported that “of the 4,000 inhabitants of the village of Ghassanieh… no more than 10 people remain.” Two Syrian bishops have been kidnapped by rebel groups. Militants expelled 90 percent of the Christians in the city of Homs. Patriarch Gregorios III of Antioch says that out of a population of 1.75 million, 450,000 Syrian Christians have simply fled their homes in fear.
In Iraq, the story is the same but more dramatic. According to West, between 2004 and 2011 the population of Chaldo-Assyrian Christians fell from over a million to as few as 150,000. In 2006, Isoh Majeed, who advocated the creation of a safe haven for Christians around Nineveh, was murdered in his home. The number of churches in Iraq has declined to just 57, from 300 before the invasion. The decline of Iraq’s Christian population since the first Gulf War is roughly 90 percent, with most of the drop occurring since the 2003 invasion.
The U.S. and the U.K. bear some responsibility in this catastrophe, since they oversaw the creation of Iraq’s postwar government and did little to protect minority faiths.
West’s book touches on the clueless and callous behavior of Western governments in these episodes. U.S. reconstruction aid to Iraq is distributed according to Iraqi laws that discriminate against Christian Iraqis. The U.S. pours billions of foreign aid into Egypt, and yet the Christians in that country are not allowed to build churches (or even so much as repair toilets in them) without explicit permission from the head of state, almost never granted. Last September, the U.S and Britain attempted to make their support of Syrian rebel groups explicit and overt, but at the same time some of these militias were executing a pogrom against Christians.
A Christian shopkeeper in Ma’loula summed it up in a quote to the BBC: “Tell the EU and the Americans that we sent you Saint Paul 2,000 years ago to take you from the darkness, and you sent us terrorists to kill us.”
These are the lands in which Jesus’ apostles and their disciples made some of the first Christian converts. In an interview, West pointed out that these communities “were Christian when our ancestors were worshipping trees and stones.” Now they are in danger of imminent extinction.