First the Saturday People, then the Sunday People. Such graffiti can sometimes be found in Muslim neighborhoods in the Middle East. The “Saturday People” are, of course, Jews, today nearly gone from Muslim lands. Now the Sunday people”—Christians— are in the crosshairs, and they, too, are fleeing at an alarming rate. Both religions are unwelcome in many Muslim-majority lands for reasons of Islamist ideology—the declaration of jihad, or holy war, against infidels.
Recent terrorist attacks against Christians in Iraq have spotlighted their desperate circumstances in the Middle East, characterized by threats of terror and bloodshed, and culminating in a silent exodus from their ancient homelands—an exodus that mirrors that of the Jews half a century before. Murders, rapes, beatings, extortions, the burning and desecration of houses of worship and mob violence are abuses are all too familiar to surviving Jews who remember their own perilous journeys. Meanwhile, global anti-Christian violence calls into question the conclusions reached at the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops which took place in Vatican City last month.
Despite the violent realities on the ground, where radical Islamic terrorists call the shots, the Synod’s bishops chose to focus their attention on the “Israeli occupation” of the Palestinian territories. To the consternation of Israelis, the greater Jewish community as well as many Christian groups and organizations, the Synod neglected to name the actual perpetrators of ongoing violence against Christians. As Jesuit priest Raymond J. de Souza commented: “Radical Islam is the elephant in the sacristy at the synod. Arab Christians are reluctant to speak critically of their fellow Arabs, and there is intense pressure in the Islamic world to put the blame on Israel, Jews and the Christian West. Christians in that milieu fear being considered traitors should they too loudly insist upon their rights.”
Before October ended, al Qaeda had “responded” to the Catholic Bishops’ message with a message of their own. On Sunday, October 31, eight terrorists stormed into the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad. just as Fr. Wassim Sabih finished the mass. As the intruders started shooting, the priest fell to the floor, begging for the lives of his parishioners. His assailants silenced him with their guns. They held the rest of the congregation hostage, demanding the release of two Muslim women, supposedly held by Egyptian Coptic Christians. A team of Iraqi security forces tried to intervene, but in response the killers threw grenades into the crowd and detonated explosive vests. The total death count was 57, including two priests.
Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia later issued a bulletin: “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets.” In the days that followed, there were continuing accusations from the terrorists against the Egyptian Copts—Christians who comprise around 10 percent of Egypt’s population and are under escalating pressure. There was no mention of Israel.
As Jamsheed Choksy argues in Foreign Policy, “the massacre in Baghdad is only the most spectacular example of mounting discrimination and persecution of the native Christian communities of Iraq and Iran, which are now in the middle of a massive exodus unprecedented in modern times as they confront a rising tide of Islamic militancy and religious chauvinism sweeping the region.” In Iran, two Protestant pastors, arrested in post-presidential election crackdowns, face the death penalty. An Assyrian pastor was also arrested and tortured in February 2010 and faces trial.
Further underscoring the absurdity of the Synod’s declaration is the fact that attacks by Muslims on Christians extend well beyond the Middle East. On November 12, BBC South Asia reported that a Pakistani court had sentenced to death by hanging Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian mother of five. Her crime was blasphemy. It is reported that after she offered water to some Muslim co-workers, they rejected it as unclean, and a dispute ensued during which she was said to have insulted the prophet.
Asia Bibi’s case is reportedly the first conviction and death sentencing of a woman in Pakistan, under laws that declare blasphemy against Islam, the Koran or the Prophet Mohammed a capital crime. Nearly 30 people, at least a fourth of them Christians, have died because of blasphemy accusations since the laws went into effect in 1980. And vigilantes often take action while the state turns a blind eye. In July 2010, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that two Christian brothers accused of writing a blasphemous pamphlet critical of the Prophet Muhammad were shot dead outside a court in Punjab.
In 2010, Christians have been killed for their faith by Muslim terrorists in Nigeria, Pakistan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Philippines and Bangladesh. The threats against Christians in these countries continue to multiply. Al Shabab in Somalia, for example, has threatened to kill every Christian in the country. The number of Christians fleeing these nations and other Muslim lands is impossible to calculate. Many if not most such refugees leave in secret to protect their families and co-believers. Christians continue to flee from the Palestinian territories, where persecution persists, and the proximity to Israel leads to accusations of collaboration with “Zionists,” particularly in Hamas-controlled Gaza.
In fact, the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population is increasing is Israel.
The Catholic Bishops’ focus on Israel, rather than on radical Islam, as the root cause of abuses against Christians is both disingenuous and counterproductive. Without a clear and honest analysis that addresses radical Islam, there can be no effective policy enabling besieged Christians to live in peace and safety in their historic homelands.
Lela Gilbert is an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute and has authored and co-authored numerous books, including the award-winning Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion (Oxford University Press, 2008).