This article first appeared in the February 2011 edition of 'The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition' published in partnership with the ICEJ. David Parsons serves as ICEJ Media Director in Jerusalem
By David Parsons
The ancient Christian communities of the Middle East are now considered ‘low hanging fruit’ for the global jihadists linked to al-Qaida. That is the apparent message being sent by the recent spate of brutal massacres at churches in Iraq and Egypt, as radical Islamists seek easily accessible targets in order to score ready ‘victories’ and bolster their ranks.
Given the usual tepid response of Arab governments to such Muslim atrocities, many of the region’s indigenous Christians are hastily joining the exodus from the region, which has been on the rise for decades. But the shocking assaults on churches in Baghdad in late October and in Alexandria on New Year’s Day may prove to be a tipping point. World concern over the issue has finally awakened, and Arab rulers are having to take action, lest they appear indifferent to – if not in league with – the cruel Wahabbist agenda.
The most recent outrage occurred in Alexandria, as a Coptic congregation in the sprawling port city on the Nile delta was targeted by a suicide bomber on New Year’s Day. Twenty-five parishioners were killed and nearly 100 wounded in a powerful blast after members of the Saints Church were finishing midnight Mass. Survivors recalled a joyous church service suddenly interrupted by a thunderous blast which sent congregants flying over pews, some in pieces.
The attack was followed by several days of unrest as enraged members of the Coptic Christian community, a significant eight percent slice of Egypt’s 80 million citizens, took to the streets to protest and demand government protection. Insisting that “this act of terrorism… hurt the hearts of Muslim and Coptic Egyptians,” Egypt’s ageing president Hosni Mubarak instantly pinned the attack on “foreign fingers.” But police authorities soon acknowledged local Egyptian extremists were also undoubtedly involved. Though no group claimed responsibility, clues were likely to be found in the shocking assault on a church in Baghdad two months earlier.
In that blood-soaked episode, an al-Qaida terror cell stormed into a Baghdad cathedral and held dozens of people hostage while issuing a litany of far-ranging demands. These included the release of two Egyptian women married to Coptic priests who allegedly had converted to Islam and were supposedly being held against their will by order of the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda. In an ensuing shoot-out with Iraqi police, the gunmen slaughtered 44 Christian worshipers, two priests and seven security personnel.
This act of carnage was followed by a series of ongoing Islamist attacks targeting Baghdad’s Christian neighborhoods, including a string of 13 coordinated bombings two weeks later that claimed another six lives, sowing panic among the dwindling members of this two millennia-old Christian community, many of whom openly spoke of fleeing.
In actuality, Iraq’s Christian community has been under brutal assault by radical Islamic elements for several years now, an easy prey in the chaotic aftermath of the US-led invasion. While achieving its objective of toppling the despotic regime of Saddam Hussein, that conflict was deliberately prolonged by global jihadists who decided to make Iraq the central battleground of their embittered campaign against the free, democratic world. Native Iraqi Christians, in their minds, were nothing more than traitorous allies of the “Crusader” West.
Thus five churches were bombed in Baghdad on one Sunday alone in 2004. Christians have been regularly kidnapped and held for ransom, Christian shops torched, priests beheaded and Christian women beaten for “un-Islamic” dress. Iraqi Christians have even been targeted for perceived offenses against Islam committed thousands of miles away, as in the case of the Danish cartoon riots in 2005 and the pope’s remarks on Islam in September 2006.
While all segments of Iraqi society have suffered in this violence-plagued period, the Christians’ suffering has been disproportionate, as has been their emigration abroad, according to reports by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In under a decade, the Chaldean, Assyrian, Syriac, Armenian and Protestant flocks have declined from an estimated 1.4 million to less than half that number. The Christian presence in Baghdad is now one-third of its former strength.
Canon Andrew White, who has spearheaded the Anglican Church’s reconciliation work with the Muslim world over recent decades, decided to set up base in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003. He served as chaplain to British and American forces inside the “Green Zone” in Baghdad, and held services in one of Saddam’s ornate palaces. He also established a church of native Iraqis that grew to nearly 4,000 congregants but has seen their ranks decimated in recent years.
White has had 93 members of his church killed in Islamist terror attacks over the past year alone. He told The Christian Edition about the dreadful experience of baptizing 13 adults on one particular Sunday, only to have 11 of them killed over the ensuing week. White has lost more body guards than he cares to remember. Some 500 members of his church have fled in the last three months of violence.
“It’s difficult to describe in words how awful the reality is of what has happened to the Christians of Iraq, one of the oldest churches in the world,” said Rev. White. “I have lived in other parts of the Middle East. I’ve even lived in Gaza. And the situation there was nothing compared to the tragedy of Iraq.”
White notes that Iraqi Christianity traces its origins all the way back to the prophet Jonah’s arrival in Nineveh and later to the preaching of Doubting Thomas. With such deep roots, he believes those who have stayed behind will now persevere.
“We’re not giving up!” insisted White in a Skype transmission. “Everybody who can leave has already left. Those still here believe they have to stay… The Iraqi government is trying to protect us and most in authority are not against us. The government has tried to secure so many churches but they cannot secure every Christian home. It’s their homes which are now under attack.”
White arranged a critical summit in Denmark last month between Chaldean Christian leaders and senior Muslim clerics from Iraq which aimed to elicit a joint Sunni/Shi’ite declaration denouncing killing in the name of Allah. He was pinning a lot of hope on its outcome.
Other Christian minorities throughout the Middle East have experienced similar Islamist campaigns of violence and attrition rates over recent decades, be it the Egyptian Coptics, Lebanese Maronites or the Greek Orthodox faithful in Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian areas (Israel’s growing Christian population is the lone exception in the region).
This has resulted in an unprecedented Christian exodus from Arab lands that has become a serious cause for concern among Western church hierarchies, and was slated to be a major topic of discussion at the Vatican’s historic synod of Catholic bishops from the Middle East back in October. In fact, a groundbreaking document compiled ahead of that gathering identified “political Islam” – for the first time – as the prevailing reason for the Christian flight.
Yet by the time the Middle East bishops concluded their two-week summit in Rome, anti-Israel agitators among them had somehow swayed the entire lot to blame all their problems on the Jews. The synod’s concluding “Message” barely mentioned the main problems plaguing their congregations, such as the rise of radical Islam, political repressions, and official as well as societal constraints on religious freedom. Instead, it issued a plea for the international community to work “to put an end to the occupation” of Palestinian territories, thus spotlighting Israel as the main source of torment.
The absurdity of this clerical charade was laid bare by the Baghdad cathedral massacre just a few days later, as it would have been incredibly hard to blame that tragedy on Israel. And yet during a visit to Indonesia that same week, even US President Barack Obama seemed undeterred from his consoling message that “Islam is a religion of peace...The United States will never be at war with Islam.”
The dwindling Christian flocks of the Middle East are increasingly paralyzed by fear and a sense of abandonment, as their shepherds often refuse to name the real menace to their congregants and Western leaders have neglected their desperate cries. Meanwhile, radical Muslims have apparently concluded that Christians are no longer entitled to a place in the Middle East.
The day before the Alexandria church bombing, a jihadi website posted a fatwa (religious ruling) by prominent Salafi cleric Abu Mundhir Al-Shinqiti which permitted the targeting of Christians for breaking their ancient ‘contract’ with Islam. This decree maintained that Christians living in Muslim lands today should no longer enjoy protected minority status under Islamic law, since they have ceased to pay the jizya, the infamous poll tax which Christians and other minorities were customarily forced to pay for protection by Islamic authorities.
Prof. Raphael Israeli, a lecturer in Islamic studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explains that this traditionally involved a shameful public ceremony repeated for centuries whenever Christians and Jews came to pay the head tax, as the Muslim rulers would always beat them across the neck with poles to remind them that the followers of Muhammad could have killed them but decided to spare their lives.
Israeli is currently authoring a book which places today’s assaults on Christians within the context of what he refers to as the “three invasions of Islam.”
The first invasion lasted over 500 years from the birth of Islam until Muslim forces were finally pushed out of the Balkan and Iberian peninsulas. In those early centuries, the Muslim armies nearly eliminated Christianity from its cradle in the Middle East and North Africa. Until then, most of the region had been Christianized for centuries. But the invaders from Arabia imposed a new religion, language and culture. Most Christians were forced to convert to Islam. Those who refused were eventually given a special dhimmi (second-class) status allowing them to retain their faith so long as they paid the protection tax and accepted Muslim dominance.
As a result, many of the 12 to 15 million Christians left in the region today deeply resent even being called Arabs. The Maronites of Lebanon identify themselves as proud descendants of the Phoenicians. The Copts trace their ethnic origins back to the ancient pharaohs of Egypt. Assyrian Christians in Iraq and Syria still speak the Aramaic language of their ancestors – and of Jesus. They simply refused to let the initial Arab/Muslim conquest swallow them whole.
The second invasion identified by Israeli was the Ottoman Turk advances into Eastern Europe, which were finally turned back at the gates of Vienna. In the meantime, the Ottomans managed to purge the historic Greek Orthodox presence from the former capital of Eastern Christianity in Constantinople.
Israeli assesses there is now a “third invasion of Islam against the Christian West, which has two facets. One aspect is the silent and smooth cultural and economic invasion of Europe characterized by the planting of Muslim colonies in the heart of Europe’s largest cities. The second phase is an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Christian remnant in the Middle East. The radical Muslims want to overwhelm the remaining Christians and drive them out,” said Israeli.
“The Christians are easy prey,” he added. “The Muslims feel they are not just a superior faith. They are the only faith and Christianity and Judaism are false and distorted religions. Islam wants to eliminate them, and this justifies even the use of violence.”
Door to the West
Another factor in the exodus of Middle East Christians is their greater upward mobility due to increased engagement with Western Christianity over recent centuries.
As Ottoman rule over the Middle East began to wane, the Great Powers moved into the region, each concluding deals with the Sultanate in Istanbul to provide protection to various Christian denominations. British envoys arrived to safeguard Protestant interests, France the Lebanese Christians, Russia the Orthodox folds. The Vatican also stepped in to aid certain sects, producing the unique hybrids of the Maronite and Greek Melkite churches which are loyal to the papacy but retain some Eastern Orthodox beliefs and practices.
These Western interlocutors all brought with them schools, hospitals and other modern institutions, thus vastly improving the education, health and job opportunities of the local Christians. With this came increased mobility and higher ambitions in life, and many began to acclimate towards more Western, urbanized settings.
This emigration trend has now accelerated over the past century under pressure from regional conflicts and resurgent brands of Islam, such as the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt since the 1930s and the spread of Wahabbism by the oil-rich Saudi regime, which has spawned al-Qaida and similar jihadist movements.
According to Lebanese scholar Malik C. Habib, the resulting displacement has produced growing Coptic and Armenian communities in the greater Los Angeles area, a sizable Assyrian community of Iraqi Christians with their own patriarch in Chicago, and hundreds of thousands of Lebanese Christians in Montreal, São Paulo, Paris, and Sydney.
Demographers estimate, for instance, that roughly 60% of all native-born Lebanese and Palestinian Christians now live abroad.
There are, nonetheless, some encouraging indications that Christianity is growing once again in some parts of the Middle East. Writing in the wake of the Alexandria church bombing, Ramez Atallah, director of the Bible Society of Egypt, noted that Christian businessmen now own an estimated 30% of Egypt’s wealth, while “many churches in Egypt are flourishing with plans to expand their facilities to accommodate the growing number of weekly worshippers.”
“So what’s the true picture of Christians in Egypt: ‘a persecuted minority’ or a ‘thriving community’? Both of these statements are true,” he penned in an email report to friends and supporters.
Still, it is hard not to despair over the plight of Middle East Christians when even police authorities are turning their guns on them.
In but the latest incident of its kind, an Egyptian policeman went hunting for Coptic Christians while on board a train near Cairo, looking for the tell-tale green crosses many Copts have traditionally tattooed onto their wrists. Finding several, he shot one Christian dead and seriously wounded five others.
It remains to be seen whether any amount of Western intervention can do something to help stop this endless bleeding of Eastern Christianity.
David Parsons serves as ICEJ Media Director in Jerusalem