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Christians in the Crosshairs
Sister Ann-Elisabeth prays in the Grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, December 20, 2001. (David Silverman/Getty Images)

Christians in the Crosshairs

Lela Gilbert

July 21. I arrived in Israel in 2006, eager to explore a land that had always fascinated me, as an American Christian, writer and news commentator. My father had taught me about the “miraculous re-gathering” of the Jewish people in their ancient homeland and I had heard wonderful reports of the country’s amazing accomplishments.

I wanted to see Israel for myself, so I rented a Jerusalem apartment for four months to get acquainted with the country in a deeper, more personal way. I fell in love with Israel and its people during those early days and, eight years later, I am still in Jerusalem.

Focused on my new surroundings, initially, I did not give much thought to the ongoing Christian persecution in the region, a subject about which I had written a great deal in the past. But I have since learned that Israel is the only country in the Middle East in which the Christian population is safe and thriving: There is authentic religious freedom in Israel. In other countries across the Middle East—the cradle of Christianity—brutal assaults against those who belong to ancient churches are constant.

Christians in Gaza, under Hamas, are in dire straits. Forced to live under sharia law, they are repeatedly warned to conform to Islam’s strict demands or suffer the consequences. In 2007, Rami Ayyad, who operated a Christian bookstore, was shot dead; hundreds of Christians have fled.

In the Palestinian territories, Christians are often oppressed, forced to pay protection money and young women are at risk of being abducted or raped. There has been a steady decline in the Christian population. Bethlehem serves as an example. In 1948, Christians comprised an estimated 85 percent of Bethlehem’s population. Today, although demographics are hard to verify, that population has shrunk to about 12 percent.

In 2011, I learned about Habib (not his real name), who lives in a village near Bethlehem. His sister came home one day weeping and terrified. A Christian, she did not dress according to Muslim tradition and had been threatened with rape because of her “immodest” attire. A group of local Muslims tried to pull her into their car, touching her inappropriately. She managed to escape.

Enraged, Habib confronted one of the assailants. Soon he found himself being followed, and in a deserted hiking area, a few weeks after the initial incident, he was attacked by a dozen men who stabbed him repeatedly and left him for dead. He survived, but is disabled and needs further surgeries, which his family cannot afford.

In 2012, Christian Broadcast Network reporter Julie Stahl interviewed Pastor Steven Khoury, who ministers to Arab Christians in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and reported that he “has seen church members attacked…. Several believers under his ministry have been martyred, including his own uncle. The church in Bethlehem has been firebombed 14 times. [Steven’s father,] Dr. Naim Khoury, has been shot at several times in the last 10 years.”

My understanding of the dire straits that Christians live under first solidified on a Saturday morning in 2006 during a visit to the Narkis Street Congregation in Jerusalem. There, I heard three horrendous accounts: A pastor described the brutal murder and mutilation of three Christians in Turkey—he had attended their funeral just days before; a Finnish woman recalled the gruesome death of her best friend, a Christian physician whose throat had been slit by a Muslim terrorist in Yemen; and a middle-aged couple fleeing Gaza spoke of the tiny, impoverished group of Evangelicals they had been forced to leave behind.

In the weeks that followed, I began to see that attacks on Jews by Muslims are often a prelude to attacks on Christians. Graffiti in radicalized Arab neighborhoods, such as Bethlehem, include the spray-painted slogan: “On Saturday we kill the Jews, on Sunday we kill the Christians.”

When I learned that more than 850,000 Jews had been driven out of 11 Muslim-majority nations between 1948 and 1972—and no more than a handful of Jews remain in most of those countries—I understood that Christians now stood in the crosshairs. Their plight has been dramatically worsened by the so-called Arab Spring, which has removed or weakened iron-fisted dictators who kept radical elements at bay.

The persecution of Christians, wrote Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in the June 23 Weekly Standard, “is occurring on a massive scale, it is underreported, and in many parts of the world it is rapidly growing.”

Religious cleansing is taking place in Iraq at an astonishing rate—now accelerated by the brutal ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) attacks on the Christian heartland in the Nineveh Plain. On July 19, The New York Times reported that ISIS had banished the last Christian inhabitants of Mosul, their homeland for 1,700 years, and painted on their homes: “Property of the Islamic State of Iraq.” Christians were told, “Convert, pay the jizya tax or die.” ISIS replaced the cross from St. Ephren’s Cathedral with their own black flag.

Since 2003, more than half of Iraq’s Christian population of 800,000 fled the country. Only one horrific church bombing, which took place on October 31, 2010, killing 58, made the news. But there were many more bombings. As International human rights lawyer Nina Shea noted in testimony before a United States congressional hearing in September 2013:

On a single day in July 2009, seven churches were bombed in Baghdad…. The archbishop of Mosul was….killed in early 2008. A bus convoy of Christian students [was] violently assaulted. Christians…have been raped, tortured, kidnapped, beheaded and evicted from their homes….

In Egypt, since late 2010, the Coptic Christian community—eight million strong—has been under assault; tens of thousands have fled to the United States, Canada or wherever they can find asylum or permanent residency. In recent months, Christians have been blamed for the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood’s regime.

In the span of just three days in 2013—between August 14 and 16—38 churches were destroyed, 23 were vandalized and 58 Coptic homes were burned and looted. Eighty-five Coptic-owned shops, 16 pharmacies and 3 hotels were demolished. More than 500 Coptic girls have been kidnapped and remain missing. Their families have received little or no assistance from police.

Similarly, hundreds of thousands of Syrian Christians have fled their country since the beginning of the civil war in January 2011. Others are often targeted by Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels, who demand that they convert to Islam or die.

Attacks on Christians are hardly limited to Iraq, Egypt and Syria. In Iran, Evangelical Christians—particularly converts from Islam—are arrested, imprisoned and tortured. Today, an American citizen, Pastor Saeed Abedini, 33, who has a wife and two children in Idaho, is serving an eight-year sentence in Iran’s notorious Rajai Shahr Prison for “endangering national security”—a charge he incurred while working on the construction of an orphanage.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is listed as No. 2 on Open Doors International’s 2013 World Watch List (www.worldwatchlist.us)—an annual report of the 50 worst persecutors of Christians (North Korea is No. 1). The report sums up the threat there as follows:

There is no provision for religious freedom in the constitution of this Islamic kingdom. All citizens must adhere to Islam and conversion to another religion is punishable by death. Public Christian worship is forbidden; worshipers risk imprisonment, lashing, deportation and torture.

In Turkey, the Christian population of about 70,000 is threatened by escalating Islamism. On April 18, 2007, three employees of a publishing house in Malatya that distributes Bibles were executed. The victims—one German and two Turkish citizens—were found with their hands and legs bound and their throats slit.

Further afield, in Nigeria in 2013, Boko Haram Islamists killed over 900 Christians and destroyed scores of churches and Christian villages. In April 2014, the world was shocked when more than 200 girls were kidnapped from their school and have not been recovered.

A year ago in Pakistan, on September 22, 85 people were killed and 140 wounded in a jihadi bombing at All Saints Church in Peshawar—the worst attack on Christians in Pakistan’s history. The Taliban took responsibility for the bombings, claiming they would continue to target non-Muslims until the United States stopped drone attacks in the remote tribal region.

Many are bewildered by the lack of response—by both the world and fellow believers—to the persecution of Christians. In a column in The Telegraph in August 2013, Britain’s former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted:

This is a story that is crying out for a public voice, and I have not heard an adequate public voice…. I think sometimes Jews feel very puzzled that Christians do not protest this more vociferously.

One problem is a lack of information: Western media rarely report on Christian persecution. Another lies in feelings of powerlessness—what difference can I make? Yet a third is denominational differences. Others simply do not accept persecution as their problem, stating, for example, that America is not the world’s policeman and should steer clear of such conflicts. There are myriad other excuses; the most egregious and dishonest is one put forward by politically left Christian organizations and denominations—including elements in the Roman Catholic Church—that Christian persecution is due to “the Israeli occupation.” This is a preposterous claim in light of Islamist history and ideology.

Marshall advises Christians in the West:

…to keep telling the world to pay attention. Circumstances are changing. Driven by the increasing atrocities in Nigeria, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, it is heartening to see that French, German, British, Italian, Russian leaders have been raising the issue. It is the United States that lags. But there is finally positive news: The Senate recently passed long-stalled legislation to appoint a special envoy for Middle East minorities.

My Israeli friends share the concern of Sacks about the persecution of Christians. By becoming informed, speaking out, networking and writing to the government and media and posting on social media, little by little the story is being reported.

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