As we celebrate Christmas this year and listen to the beautiful readings and songs that bring to mind the many different sites in the Middle East that are mentioned in the long story of redemption, my thoughts turn to the plight of Christians in these lands.
This past March, Secretary of State John Kerry officially declared the extermination of Christians and other minority religious groups in the Middle East a genocide. A truly ecumenical gathering of voices over the past 10 years, including the Philos Project, the American Mesopotamian Organization, Open Doors, Knights of Columbus, In Defense of Christians, the Assyrian Aid Society of America, the Iraqi Christian Relief Council and many other Christian voices, have called for action. They presented evidence to the State Department that proved genocide and ethnic cleansing was taking place against Christians in the Middle East.
Just last Sunday at least 25 people were killed in a Coptic Christian Church in Cairo after a suicide bomber blew himself up in the church. The evil forces of ISIS have targeted Christians in the Middle East for torture, forced conversion and death in a brutal manner. A reporter from Christianity Today, Jayson Casper, reported that, “Egypt always tends to rally around Christians at moments like this. But over time ISIS is trying to hammer and hammer and hammer the Christians in Egypt and put so much pressure on the internal government that it itself may collapse.”
Other attacks have taken place recently, such as the bombing of a church in Alexandria that killed 25 people. ISIS, who has claimed responsibility for the latest attack, also beheaded 21 Coptic Christians in Libya.
Daily, we watch the growing suffering of the people in Syria from what seems like an endless war. And let us not forget the underreported suffering of their neighbors in Lebanon. With the rise of Islamic extremist movements, such as ISIS, Christians throughout the Middle East have either fled many of the countries where they have lived since the time of the Apostles or faced discrimination, harassment or death. This reign of terror has been unfolding for the past 10 years. Christians in the Middle East in many ways represent the West to various extremist groups, even though they are as Middle Eastern as are the attackers. In Iraq alone since the U.S. invasion, Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda explained that, “since 2003, we’ve lost priests, bishops and more than 60 churches were bombed.”
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Christians fled Iraq for their lives, and the Christian population shrank to less than 500,000 today from as many as 1.5 million in 2003. And this is happening to a greater or lesser degree to Christians in most of the Middle Eastern countries.
In the place of the birth of Christianity the future of Christians is uncertain. “How much longer can we flee before we and other minorities become a story in a history book?” said Nuri Kino, a journalist and founder of the advocacy group Demand for Action.
According to a recent Pew study, Christians face religious persecution in more countries than any other religious group. “ISIL has put a spotlight on the issue,” says Anna Eshoo, a California U.S. House of Representative, whose parents are from the region and who advocates on behalf of Eastern Christians.
Leading Patriarchs of the Middle East have cried out for help to the Christian world. At a recent summit convened in Damascus, the heads of five major Eastern Christian Churches of Antioch said the ideological foundations of radical Islamism must be countered with “a culture of openness, peace and freedom of belief.”
“We call on everyone who claims to have an interest in our fate to help us to remain,” they said in an appeal to the international community.
Yes, it is hard to believe that the decedents of the shepherds in fields, the three kings, those who lived in the land of Egypt — where the Holy Family fled, and all those ancient cites mentioned in the prophetic great gathering — are slowly being snuffed out in the Middle East. We Christians here in the Western Hemisphere must come to their aid. Let us pray for them in a special way this Christmas, as we hear the story of our redemption.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.