This Christmas let us spare a thought and say a prayer for countless Christian victims of Muslim brutality, over the centuries and in our own time.
An explosion ripped through a Catholic church during Christmas Mass near Nigeria’s capital Abuja on Sunday morning, killing at least 25 people. A radical Muslim group, Boko Haram, claimed responsibility for the attack and another bombing in the city of Jos, as explosions also struck the nation’s predominantly Muslim northeast. The Christmas Day attacks show the growing national ambition of Boko Haram, was responsible for some 500 murders this year alone. The assaults come a year after a series of Christmas Eve bombings in Jos claimed by the militants left at least 32 dead and 74 wounded.
Egypt’s dwindling Copts have seen their position deteriorate over the past year from precarious to perilous. Already facing discrimination and harassment from Mubarak’s secular regime, they now see that things could get a lot worse under the Islamists who are poised to take power. Their annus horribilis started on New Year’s Day 2011, when a powerful car bomb targeted a Coptic church in Alexandria, killing 25 parishioners and wounding nearly 100 just as they were finishing midnight Mass. The next turning point was the Maspero massacre on October 9, when 27 unarmed Christian protesters were killed and hundreds more injured, not by some shadowy Islamic extremists but by the military. An official commission—established by the Army—has unsurprisingly absolved the Army of all responsibility for the killings.
The country’s eventual transition to what passes for democracy in the Muslim world is going to make matters far worse for the Copts, who are fearful the army and courts will no longer be able to shield them from ever-greater discrimination and harassment. The writing is on the wall. The Freedom and Justice Party, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Muslim Brotherhood, won the second round of the three-stage parliamentary elections last Wednesday and Thursday, taking 38 of the 59 seats contested; an even more radical group, the Salafist Nour Party, won 13 seats. The adherents of political Islam, in other words, have captured 86 percent of all seats contested. Their spiritual leader is Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, who in a recent video reminded the faithful that Christians are kuffar, or infidels. After quoting Quran 5:17 (“Infidels are those who declare God is Jesus, son of Mary”) he went on to declare that any association between a human and God (shirk) is the greatest sin: “Whoever thinks Christ is God, or the Son of God, not symbolically—for we are all sons of God—but attributively, has rejected the faith which God requires for salvation.”
The Sheikh’s position is eminently mainstream in the Muslim world, which may explain the fact that he is still hailed in the West as a moderate. Three years ago, in a U.S. News article titled “Finding the Voices of Moderate Islam,” Lawrence Wright described him as “a highly promoted champion of moderate Islam”: “He is the kind of cleric the West longs for, because of his assurances that there is no conflict with democratic rule and no need for theocracy.” His assurances, indeed… On this form watch out for the Coptic Exodus of 2012, on par with that of the Christians in Iraq since the “liberation” of 2003.
Iraq’s dwindling Christian population marked Christmas on Sunday with religious leaders calling for peace, days after attacks across Baghdad killed dozens. A week after US forces completed their withdrawal from the country, a senior bishop noted that little was being done to prevent a continuing Christian exodus from Iraq. As worshippers gathered for Sunday morning Christmas services, their churches were guarded by armored security vehicles, heavily-armed soldiers and policemen patrolling the surrounding streets and guarding rooftops. “Our faithful are like everyone in Iraq—they have fear,” Chaldean Bishop Shlemon Warduni told AFP. “They feel there is no peace, no security, so they go where they can live in peace. We don’t agree, we don’t want them (to go), but they say, ‘If we don’t go, can you ensure my life, can you ensure my job, can you ensure the future?’ … The government cannot ensure their lives, how can we ensure their lives?”
The Christian community in Iraq was some two million strong before the US-led invasion of 2003. Up to four-fifths are estimated to have left the country in recent years following a series of attacks by Muslim extremists. On October 31, 2010, an Al-Qaeda assault on a Baghdad church left 44 worshippers, two priests and seven security force members dead. “We have concerns about the US withdrawal, despite the security forces saying it will be safe,” says Louis Sako, Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk. “There has been a failure to ensure the safety of Christians—the security forces are not sufficiently prepared to ensure the protection of Christians. Even though we have repeatedly asked to raise the level of security, the results are not encouraging.” According to Sako, 57 churches and houses of worship in Iraq have been attacked since the invasion, with more than 900 Christians killed and more than 6 000 wounded.
Syria has the largest Christian community in the region, some 2.5 million strong. Most of them are supporting President Bashar Al Assad amidst ongoing protests in the country. A Syrian Christian explained that they prefer “a brutal dictator who guarantees the rights of religious minorities to the uncertain future that Assad’s departure might bring.” It is not to be doubted that if the Obama Administration is successful in its stated objective of bringing Assad down, the Christians in Syria will follow their Iraqi brethren into exile.
Two thousand miles further east, Asia Bibi, a mother of five children, is one of a dozen Christians in the province of Punjab currently awaiting appeal or execution under Pakistan’s scandalous blasphemy laws. On Christmas Day, after a year in jail, she will not be able to say prayers or to see her children and husband. She is being held in isolation, has not been allowed to bathe for over two months, and cannot stand unsupported. It is worthy of note that Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated last January and Federal Minorities Minister Shahbaz_Bhatti was killed in March for defending Asia Bibi and criticizing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
Pakistan has a constitution that guarantees religious freedom, but murders, discrimination, and violent harassment of its small Christian minority are persistent. Any dispute with a Muslim—most commonly over land—can become a religious confrontation. Christians are routinely accused of “blasphemy against Islam,” an offense that carries the death penalty. Charges of blasphemy can be made on the flimsiest of evidence—one man’s word against another, and since it is invariably a Muslim’s word against that of a Christian, the outcome is preordained. The ease with which blasphemy charges can be made to stick has led to a spate of malicious complaints motivated by personal enmity and greed, especially for the Christians’ land. On many occasions Christians charged with blasphemy have been murdered before their cases reached the courts.
The scene is the same in Alexandria, Aceh, Istanbul, Prishtina, Karachi, Nazareth… Heavily armed police guard churches as hostile crowds look on. Wherever Muslim numbers dominate, Christians have reason to fear for their safety. The majority know Sheikh Ali Goma is right. The refusal of the People of the Book to acknowledge him, Muhammad, as the messenger of God doomed them to unbelief and eternal suffering after death (Kuran 5:72-73). Christians are mortal sinners and their condemnation is irrevocable: “God will forbid him the garden and the fire will be his abode… They blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a trinity; for there is no god except One Allah. Christ the son of Mary was no more than an apostle; many were the apostles that passed away before him.” (5:75)
As he progressed from a moral teacher to the secular ruler of Medina and master of people’s destinies, Muhammad made the final break with the Jews and Christians, who are fiercely denounced. The Muslims must be merciless to the unbelievers but kind to each other. (48:29) “Whoso of you makes them his friends is one of them.” (5:55) The punishment for resistance is execution or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides. (5:33) Muhammad was no longer trying to convert; Allah is a repetitive polemicist rejoicing in infidel suffering.
Thirteen centuries of Islam have effectively eliminated Christianity from the land of its birth. The terminal decline of the Christian remnant in the Middle East has been accompanied by the indifference of the post-Christian West to its impending demise. Once-thriving Christian communities are now tiny minorities, and in most countries of the region their percentages have been reduced to single digits. Whether they disappear will partly depend on Western leaders belatedly expressing their outrage at Christian persecution. According to David Parsons, media director for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, there is clear historic precedent for such outside intervention in the Arab/Muslim world to protect Christian communities:
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 imperiled 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… 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 benevolent influx also came advances for all peoples of the region. Some locals are sure to object to any renewed Western intervention on behalf of Middle East Christians as a form of neo-colonialism. But no one has territorial designs here anymore.
It is just a matter of plain human decency, Parsons concludes: “No coddling of Islamist regimes! Sanctions if necessary! Someone has to do something to help stop the endless bleeding of Eastern Christianity.”
It is a near-certainty, however, that that “someone” will not be the U.S. Administration of President Barack Obama.
If the Jewish or Muslim population of America or Western Europe were to start declining at the rate at which Christian communities are disappearing in the Middle East, there would be an outcry from their coreligionists all over the world. There would be government-funded programs to establish the causes and provide remedies. The endangered minority would be awarded instant victim status and would be celebrated as such by the media and the academy. By contrast, when the President of the United States visited Jerusalem in October 1994, he was steps away from the most sacred Christian shrines but did not visit any of them. He did not meet a single representative of the Christian community, which remained invisible to him. A decade later, as busloads of American evangelicals stare at the Western Wall dreaming of a rebuilt temple that will provide an eschatological shortcut through history, the remnant of that community is on the verge of extinction—unseen and unlamented.
The one crucial difference between the Gospels and the Kuran is God’s love and His desire to redeem sinners by way of sacrifice. Without sacrifice there is no forgiveness, no atonement and no reconciliation that gives meaning to life and creation. Without it there is no salvation, which is why no true Muslim can ever be saved.