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The Salafi War on Christians and U.S. Indifference

Nina Shea

In recent years, we’ve begun to brace ourselves for news of bombings, burnings, and other attacks on churches full of Christian worshipers on religious holy days for example, in Nigeria, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Ethiopia. This violence comes out of the growing community of Salafi Muslims, adherents of the radical brand of Islam that is Saudi Arabia’s official doctrine and which Saudi Arabia exports throughout the Sunni world. We’ve also come to expect the willful blindness of the Obama administration about the religious implications of these horrific events. Last weekend’s Easter Sunday was no exception. 

On Easter morning, a Protestant church in Kaduna, Nigeria, was targeted by a suicide car bombing that killed 39 and wounded dozens, apparently the handiwork of Boko Haram, the Salafi network whose stated aim is to turn Africa’s largest country into a sharia state. Last Christmas, Boko Haram had bombed St. Theresa’s Catholic Church outside the capital Abuja killing 44 worshipers, as well as attacked various Christian churches in the towns of Jos, Kano, Gadaka, and Damaturu.

Four days have now passed and there has been no official comment from the Obama administration about this most recent monstrous example of anti-Christian persecution. However, on April 8, that is, Easter, Secretary Clinton did manage to issue one press release. It announced that “today we celebrate the history, impact and culture of Romani people” (formerly called “gypsies”), and inveighed against Europe, demanding that it become “more inclusive.” But for the northern Nigerian Christians savagely attacked on one of their most important religious days, there has not been a word of condolence.

Even worse, the day after the Nigeria church bombing, at a forum on U.S. policy toward Nigeria held at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson overlooking Boko Haram’s self-proclaimed identity, pattern of behavior, statements and very name, which means “Western education is a sin” publicly denied that Boko Haram has religious motives. He went out of his way to stress: “Religion is not driving extremist violence in . . . northern Nigeria.”

Carson is articulating official U.S. policy. Its theory is that Boko Haram is “exploiting religious differences” to “create chaos” to protest “poor government service delivery,” poverty, and a variety of good-governance concerns. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (on which I served as a commissioner until last month) finds that Boko Haram’s violence is indeed “religiously motivated.” Even Nigeria’s Committee of Imams of the Federal Capital Territory has acknowledged that the church bombings are done in the name of Islam and condemned them as “deviant.”

Elsewhere, too, the Obama administration has demonstrated a persistent refusal to acknowledge the pattern of Salafi persecution of Christians. On November 1, 2010, Salafis blew up Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church during a Sunday Mass, killing or wounding virtually all of the congregation, including three priests. This is what the White House said:

The United States strongly condemns this senseless act of hostage taking and violence by terrorists linked to Al-Qaeda in Iraq that occurred Sunday in Baghdad killing so many innocent Iraqis. Our hearts go out to the people of Iraq who have suffered so much from these attacks. We offer sincerest condolences to the families of the victims and to all the people of Iraq who are targeted by these cowardly acts of terrorism.

There was no acknowledgement that the “innocent Iraqis” targeted in this catastrophic attack were all Christians, that the massacre took place in a church, and that it occurred during Sunday worship. It mistakenly describes as “senseless” what was all too sensibly a deliberate and horrific act of religious cleansing against Christians targeted for their faith. That church bombing one of 70 in Iraq since 2004 was the watershed moment for Iraqi Christians: Many then concluded that there would be no future for them in Iraq, and en masse abandoned their ancient homeland.

And in Egypt, in October 2011, when the Arab Spring had long since turned into the Coptic Christian Winter, Egyptian government forces massacred two-dozen Copts as they were staging a peaceful street protest in Cairo’s Maspero area. They were demonstrating precisely to demand religious freedom in the face of Salafi religious violence against Coptic churches and the failure of the Egyptian security forces to protect them from it. After the Maspero massacre, the White House stated: “Now is a time for restraint on all sides so that Egyptians can move forward together to forge a strong and united Egypt.

The statement made no mention of the identity of those who were killed. Nor did it acknowledge that they were attacked while demonstrating against church bombings and burnings in that country on Christmas, New Year’s Day, and many other occasions. And, it drew a moral equivalency between the victims and their aggressors. My Hudson colleague and Coptic expert Samuel Tadros ironically commented: “Perhaps I ought to join the president in his concern and call for restraint: I call upon the security forces to refrain from killing Christians, and upon Christians to refrain from dying.”

It is not as though the administration is reticent in cases involving other religions. On October 4, 2011, and on January 11, 2012, when two mosques were vandalized though no one was hurt in Israel, the State Department issued two statements. They were quite specific about the identity of the victims and impassioned in moralizing against the attacks:

The United States strongly condemns the dangerous and provocative attacks on a mosque in the northern Israeli town of Tuba-Zangariyye, which took place on October 3. Such hateful sectarian actions are never justified.

And:

The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms today’s most recent vandalizing of a mosque, as well as the burning of three cars, in the West Bank village of Deir Istiya. Hateful, dangerous, and provocative actions such as these are never justified.

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia the fountain head of Salafi thought and our “strategic ally“ King Abdullah retains in his distinguished cabinet as Grand Mufti, Salafi Sheikh Abdulaziz ibn Abdullah Aal al-Sheikh, who recently issued a fatwa declaring it “necessary to destroy all the churches in the region,” including those outside of Saudi Arabia, itself (which, of course, does not have any churches to blow up). The Kingdom will not be hearing from the Obama administration about the need for “inclusiveness” though here, again, it has fallen silent.

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