byFaith | 1.27.14
By Alan Dowd
It’s called “The Holy Land”—that amorphous swath of the
Middle East where our faith was born. Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve’s
garden paradise was somewhere between the Euphrates and the Tigris—the heart of
modern-day Iraq. Abraham migrated from Ur, also in today’s Iraq. Moses wandered
the Sinai, in Egypt. The Promised Land he searched for is modern-day Israel. Solomon’s
kingdom stretched almost as far north as Aleppo, in modern-day Syria. Esther
was queen of Persia, known today as Iran. Jesus was born in Bethlehem (now
administered by the Palestinian National Authority), moved to Egypt, lived all across
modern-day Israel, and traveled to Tyre (in Lebanon) and Gadara (in Jordan). Paul
met the risen Lord on the road to Damascus (the capital of Syria). But the
bitter irony is that the Holy Land of 2014 is being emptied of Christians.
Between Christ’s birth and
1914, Christianity grew from a tiny, offshoot sect of Judaism into a sizeable
30 percent of the Middle East’s population. Today, Christians account for just 3 percent of the region’s population.
Those who remain are
persecuted for the name of Jesus, living the prophecy He knew would come to pass:
“People will hate you…exclude you and insult you and reject your name as
evil because of the Son of Man” (Luke 6).
The persecution is widespread and worsening—and is leading to what Reza Aslan of the Council on Foreign
Relations calls “a regional religious cleansing.” Her word choice purposely
evokes the “ethnic cleansing” that occurred in places like Bosnia, Croatia,
Kosovo and Rwanda in the 1990s. Put another way, the persecution of Christians is
intended to expunge Christians from the Holy Land.
Iranian Christians, for example, are literally scourged for drinking communion wine—80
lashes was the common punishment in 2013. Indeed, the regime in Iran is in the
midst of a multi-year crackdown on Christians in what the U.S. Commission on
International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) describes as “ongoing and egregious
violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture and
executions.” Iranian authorities “raid church services, harass and threaten church
members, and arrest, convict and imprison worshippers and church leaders,”
according to USCIRF’s annual report. “Christians, particularly Evangelical and
other Protestants, are subject to harassment, arrests, close surveillance and imprisonment.”
The situation is arguably
worse in neighboring Iraq. Half of Iraq’s Christian population has fled in the past 10 years—and understandably so
given waves of anti-Christian violence and anti-Christian government policies.
Iraqi Christians can convert to Islam or pay a special tax for non-Muslims or
risk death. As columnist Michael Gerson recently observed, “37 people were
killed in bomb attacks in Christian districts of Baghdad” on Christmas Day. The
result of such targeted attacks: 500,000 Christians have left Iraq since 2003.
But the assaults are not
always marked by violence. A Baptist church in Bethlehem is being targeted by
the nascent Palestinian government in the courts. Christians
once comprised 80 percent of Bethlehem’s population; today, they
represent 20 percent.
Christians are fleeing war-torn
Syria for the relative safety of Turkey. Some Syrian Christians are pulling for
dictator Bashar Assad in Syria’s brutal civil war, given that among the forces
arrayed against him are jihadist groups that vow to expunge non-Muslims from
the region. But this enemy-of-my-enemy approach is very much like making a deal
with the devil. Despite the propaganda spread by the handful of pro-Assad Christians, Assad’s
Syria is a cellar dweller when it comes to religious liberty. Indeed, if the Assad dynasty is truly a
friend of Christians, one is left to wonder why Christians
accounted for 30 percent of Syria’s population 80 years ago but only 10 percent
today. The Assads have been in control of Syria for the past 43 years.
In Egypt, 42 churches were
attacked after the coup that toppled Mohamed Morsi in July. According to USCIRF, Egypt’s Christians
face “official and societal discrimination.” At least 100,000 Christians fled Egypt in 2011 alone.
This is a snapshot of what
Aslan poignantly and aptly calls “the Christian exodus.” It’s apt not
only because Christians are fleeing the Holy Land, but also because this exodus
and the first are rooted in religious liberty.
We sometimes forget that Moses’
interaction with Pharaoh was primarily about religious freedom. Speaking as
God’s ambassador, Moses declared, “Let my people go so that they may hold a
festival to me in the desert” (Exodus 5). Pharaoh refused, and he drew God’s
Religious liberty is the proverbial canary in the coalmine
of a society’s health and character. It doesn’t tell us everything about a
government or a nation, but it tells us enough.
Religious liberty also can be an indicator of a society’s threat
to the security and interests of others. “Including World War
II, every major war the United States has fought over the
past 70 years has been against an enemy that also severely violated
religious freedom,” University of Texas professor William Inboden observes. “Such was the case with Nazi Germany,
North Korea, North Vietnam and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This characterized other
conflicts as well. The Cold War standoff with Soviet communism featured an
opponent that engaged in systemic religious persecution. Numerous smaller-scale
military interventions, such as Lebanon in 1983, Libya
in 1986 and 2011, Somalia in 1993, Bosnia in 1995, and
Kosovo in 1999, were also targeted against actors that embraced religious
intolerance.” We could add to that list Afghanistan under the Taliban—a brutal,
backward regime that made common cause with al Qaeda and crushed any deviation
from their poisoned perversion of Islam.
This is not to suggest that we should press our government
to go to war against Christianity’s persecutors. However, we should challenge
policymakers to shine a light on these enemies of freedom. Although the White
House issued a statement last Christmas affirming “the commitment of the United
States to work for the protection of Christians and other people of faith in
Egypt and around the world,” the world needs to hear more from the White House—and more often—about the
persecution of Christians in the Holy Land.
For inspiration, Washington should look to London. Prince Charles has spoken passionately on
the subject. “I have for some time now been deeply troubled by the growing
difficulties faced by Christian communities in various parts of the Middle East,”
he recently declared. “We cannot ignore the fact that Christians in the Middle
East are, increasingly, being deliberately targeted by fundamentalist Islamist
militants…we must not forget our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters in Christ.
Their church communities link us straight back to the early Church.”
The future king notes that Jordan is providing “a most heartening
and courageous witness to the fruitful tolerance and respect between faith
communities.” He challenges all people of goodwill, especially followers of
Christ fortunate to be living in peace and safety, to “express outrage at what
tears us asunder.” And he calls on us “to pray earnestly for fellow-believers
in the Middle East.”
Prayer is essential and important. However, Christ’s
admonition that “from the one who has been
entrusted with much, much more will be asked” challenges Christians in
America to do more than simply pray about the crisis facing Christians in the
As alluded to above, we can urge our government
to play a more active role in this crisis. Policymakers should draw
attention—repeatedly and relentlessly—to this assault on religious liberty and
human rights. As President Reagan once argued, pointing to the Soviet tyranny,
“A little less détente…and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth
a lot of armored divisions.” In other words, now is probably not the time to cut
deals with the tyrants in Tehran or disengage from the nascent democracy in
Baghdad. Washington should provide a platform to Christian exiles, help willing
governments back on a pathway to respecting human rights and shame unwilling
regimes for their actions.
Washington should use its purse strings to
bolster those regimes that respect religious liberty (Jordan and Israel) and threaten
penalties for those that don’t (Egypt and Iraq). It pays to recall that
Jordan’s king says, “The protection of the rights
of Christians is a duty rather than a favor,” and that the vicar of Iraq’s Anglican congregation calls Israel “the only place in
the Middle East Christians are really safe.” At the other end of the spectrum,
it pays to recall that Egypt received $1.3 billion in U.S. aid in 2013, Iraq received $4.8
billion and yet Christians are under threat in these countries—both of them
American churches, charities and agencies may
need to open America’s arms wider to the Christian exodus. That’s what America
did for European Jews in the early 1900s, Hungarians in the 1950s, Cubans in
the 1960s, Vietnamese in the 1970s.
“If nothing is done to
reverse the situation,” Aslan warns, “the hope for peace and prosperity in the
Middle East may vanish along with the region’s Christian population.”
Dowd writes a monthly column exploring the crossroads of faith and public policy for byFaith.