As we look ahead to Easter—Christianity’s greatest feast day, and the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead—there is much to pray for. We pray for those affected by economic strife, and those harmed by natural disasters and war. But let’s not forget the Christians suffering around the world for their beliefs.
In Ethiopia last month, Muslim extremists torched dozens of Christian churches and homes, displacing thousands, in retaliation for two Christians who were accused of desecrating a Koran.
A Muslim mob attacked a Christian church in Hyderabad, Pakistan, killing two Christians and burning copies of the Bible in retaliation for Florida pastor Terry Jones’s threats to burn the Koran.
Just before Lent, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s sole Christian government minister, was gunned down for opposing Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy law, which outlaws criticism of Islam. Bhatti became the second Pakistani politician in two months killed over the law.
In Saudi Arabia, two Indian nationals have been languishing in prison since January for praying publicly. The two Christians were reportedly beaten while in police custody and pressed to convert to Islam.
These incidents are hardly exceptional. In 2009, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found, in a first of its kind survey, that 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries that severely restrict religious freedom.
This is especially true in much of the Middle East, where many of the countries are among the world’s most egregious violators of basic human rights, including religious freedom, free speech, and judicial accountability. In this region, converts from Islam, and speech against that religion, frequently face death or incarceration. And state-sponsored extremist ideology is pervasive in the education systems of many of these countries.
Many Westerners remain scandalously uninformed of what’s happening. The Western media often couch anti-Christian violence as sectarian strife between Christians and Muslims.
The Obama administration has neglected Christian persecution, choosing instead to pursue a “partnership” and “broader engagement based upon mutual interest and mutual respect” with what the president and much of the media often refer to as the “Muslim world.”
But that term – “Muslim world” – is a misnomer. It serves only to reinforce the idea that Christians do not belong in the Middle East. As we know from the Bible, however, Christianity was born in the Middle East and predates Islam there by 700 years.
Christians flourished in the Middle East as recently as a century ago, when they made up close to 20 percent of the population. Today, they comprise less than five percent of the region – a share that’s seemingly ever decreasing.
Half of the Christians in Iraq (where Noah built his ark, Daniel entered the lion’s den and the wise men set out on their journey to pay homage to a newborn King) have fled over the last decade.
In Jordan (where Christ was baptized), Christians have dropped from 30 percent of the population in the 1950s to less than two percent today. Christian representation in Lebanon (mentioned 71 times in the Old Testament) has plummeted from 60 percent to 25 percent over a generation. Though some have left for economic reasons, most departing Christians have fled because they fear for their lives.
Some world leaders have assessed the situation with chilling candor. France’s Nicolas Sarkozy has labeled Middle East Christians victims of “religious cleansing.” In 2009, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Baghdad said, “I fear the extinction of Christianity in Iraq and the Middle East.” Pope Benedict XVI has said that the region’s Christians are experiencing an “authentic martyrdom.”
Lent is a time of prayer, almsgiving, repentance, abstinence, and fasting. It is a time when Christians are invited to suffer as Christ suffered during His 40 days in the wilderness and the events of His passion.
For many of the world’s more than two billion Christians, Lenten suffering entails abstaining from meat on Fridays or some other small privation. But for Christians across much of the Middle East and North Africa, this Lent coincides with a level of suffering unseen since the early days of the Church.
Gary Bauer, a former presidential candidate, is president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.