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Natural Allies in a Dangerous World

Lela Gilbert

When I arrived here as a Christian visitor, I came with the conviction that an assault upon Jews is an implicit assault upon Christians, since it strikes at the root of the same ancient tree. In that light, I wanted to see for myself the predicament of Israeli Jewish communities under attack by Islamic militants. On a hot and dusty afternoon in August 2006, that’s exactly what I did.

Just to the left of where I stood, IDF artillery fired over the security barrier toward some target. One shell followed another, sending up clouds of smoke and dust. Away in the distance, Gaza City stretched out in a monochromatic sprawl, broken up by random antennas, assorted minarets and scattered scraggly trees. Somewhere, hidden among its buildings, automatic weapons answered each other in bursts of fire.

My introduction to Israel’s struggle to defend itself was a close-up look at a broader armed conflict. Today’s asymmetrical and protracted global jihad, described by both Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a religious war, has not been declared only against “the West” as a geopolitical monolith. The targets are explicitly religious: “Crusaders,” meaning Christians; “the descendants of apes and pigs,” meaning Jews; and, of course, the State of Israel. Meanwhile, thanks to jihadist media manipulation and resurgent anti-Semitism, world opinion habitually frowns upon Israel, no matter who fires the first volley.

In July 2006, responding to attack from north and south, Israel was accused in the world press of human rights violations and wantonly killing civilians. Never mind that thousands of rockets were being launched from Lebanon and Gaza at its civilian population centers. On my fourth day here, I read Victor Davis Hanson’s disquieting words: “Our present generation… is on the brink of moral insanity. That has never been more evident than in the last three weeks, as the West has proven utterly unable to distinguish between an attacked democracy that seeks to strike back at terrorist combatants, and terrorist aggressors who seek to kill civilians… In short, if we wish to learn what was going on in Europe in 1938, just look around.”

Clearly, Hanson was right. And it was my intention to express solidarity with Israel during this 21st-century “1938.” I also hoped to become better acquainted with the Jerusalem community. Tisha Be’av, when Jews lament the destruction of the First and Second Temples, fell on my first day in the city. I was moved to see a nation gathered at the Western Wall in mourning, beseeching heaven for help. Thousands of Jews representing every race and color and attire stood as one—Middle Eastern, African, Eastern European, American—weeping, singing and praying.

I soon discovered, however, that the Jews aren’t the only believers seeking heaven’s help. In the weeks that followed, I saw that Jerusalem is also a crossroads for Christians of every creed and confession, a kaleidoscope of pilgrims and sojourners. And more than a few of the Christian communities represented in the Holy City suffer persecution under Muslim regimes.

Mostly the victims themselves don’t appear in Israel (although Sudanese refugees have recently arrived by the thousands, battered witnesses of Khartoum’s jihadist tyranny). It is those who know and love them who come and go, often bearing horrific news. Although I had come here to better understand the Jews, soon I was learning more and more about Christians who suffer merely for being Christians.

During a single visit to a Jerusalem church, I heard three appalling 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 terrorists in Yemen. A fleeing couple spoke of the tiny and impoverished group of Gaza Evangelicals they had been forced to leave behind.

Meanwhile, two writing assignments I’d taken with me focused my attention more intently on the persecution of Christians. One book project, Baroness Cox: Eyewitness to a Broken World included Cox’s personal interviews with victims. I was struck by the similarity of Islamist attacks in country after country, evident not only in body counts but in kidnappings and enslavement, rape, mutilation and torture. At the same time, I wrote numerous country reports for Religious Freedom in the World, a survey by the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute. Once again, Islamists’ bloody fingerprints were exposed. Neither project cited abuses of Jews. Why? Because, with notable exceptions, the Muslim world’s Jewish communities have been slaughtered, expelled or have fled for their lives. Many of the survivors live in Israel.

In June 2007 I attended a conference in Istanbul where, in sessions or private conversations, journalists from the Middle East as well as far-flung places like Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, the Philippines and Pakistan described their Christian communities’ life-and-death struggles. Several concerned Muslims attended too, expressing their dismay and desire to see their religion moderated. After I returned to Jerusalem, one thing was clear. Although I hadn’t intended to research or write about Islamist anti-Christian persecution, the story needed to be told.

Middle Eastern Christians are fleeing their homelands at an accelerated rate and in ever-increasing numbers. Some communities are at risk of extinction. In the words of scholar Hillel Fradkin, Hudson Institute’s expert on Islam, democracy and the future of the Muslim world, the dwindling Christian populations in the Middle East and North Africa represent the decline and perhaps the end of the most ancient of Christian communities. This is often not appreciated, inasmuch as many people are used to thinking of the Middle East and North Africa as Muslim from time immemorial, and the present-day Christians as recent “colonial” implants—the result of 19th- and 20th-century missionary activity.

But this is not the case. Prior to the Muslim conquests of the mid-seventh century, the large majority of inhabitants of the area now divided into the countries of Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco were Christians, including many Arab Christians. Even Arabia had substantial Christian communities in such places as present day Bahrain, Yemen and the Najran area of western Arabia south of Mecca. This area also boasted Christianity’s major theological centers—Constantinople of course, but also Antioch and Alexandria—and its leading theologians—above all Augustine, a native of North Africa.

At the time of the conquests, the Christian community was already divided into numerous sects from which many of the present day churches—Eastern Orthodox, Nestorian, Assyrian, Coptic, etc.—in Muslim lands descend. These churches and their numbers declined very slowly. In some cases hundreds of years passed before the majority of the population became Muslim. The most noteworthy case is Egypt, where even today the Coptic Church represents some 10-15% of the population. Modern Turkey lost its very large Christian community only at the end of World War I, when its large numbers of Turkish-speaking Christians were exchanged for Greek-speaking Muslims of the Balkans.

Discrimination and persecution of Christians in Muslim lands are not limited to the Middle East. In Africa, Asia and the Indian subcontinent, Islamist aggression is also spreading and intensifying. Those who suffer rarely speak out for fear of inciting further bloodshed among family, friends, churches or villages. A few outsiders manage to visit and report; now and then the persecuted find a way to flee, and, even at risk of honor killings in their families, they may feel compelled to speak out. Those who cannot escape cling to lives of relentless anxiety, danger and necessary silence. Major international media outlets rarely mention the abuse or the victims. A dearth of detailed information makes it nearly impossible to calculate deaths and casualties or to provide more than glimpses of what life is like in restricted countries. Here is but a brief overview.

IRAQ

Iraq’s venerable Christian community has dwindled in recent years from an estimated 1.4 million to about half that number. It is made up of Chaldeans (Eastern rite Catholics who comprise about two-thirds of the Christians), Assyrians, Syriacs, Armenians and Protestants. According to a May 2007 report from the Assyrian National News Agency, although Christians make up only about 8% of Iraq’s population, they comprise 40%-50% of the refugees who have fled into Jordan, Syria and Kurdistan. As many as half of Iraq’s Assyrian Christians may have fled the country since the liberation of Iraq by the US, and particularly after the bombing of the Shi’ite Golden Mosque and subsequent Shi’ite-Sunni violence.

For Christians who remain in Iraq, tragedies abound. For example, in Baghdad, Fouad Salim, who worked at a police station in Razaliyah, was attacked as he left work. A Christian who refused to convert to Islam, he was murdered by Shi’ite militants on June 17, 2007. Two weeks before, terrorists had gunned down a Chaldean Catholic priest and three of his deacons, dragging them out of a car and shooting them repeatedly. On Saturday, April 14, a Baghdad emir issued a convert-or-die fatwa against six Christian families, who immediately fled to the homes of friends in other parts of the city. In October 2006, Father Boulos Iskander, 59, a Syrian Orthodox priest, was beheaded in a town near Mosul. His kidnappers had demanded $40,000 and that the priest’s church publicly repudiate Pope Benedict XVI’s recent remarks about Islam. Iskander did not comply and it cost him his life.

According to Nina Shea, director of Hudson’s Center for Religious Freedom, “We should view Iraq’s Christian Chaldo-Assyrians and small religious minorities as we once did Soviet Jews. The persecution these non-Muslims face stands out against even the backdrop of horrific violence now wracking the rest of the population.”

TURKEY

The Christian population of roughly 70,000 is torn between radical Islam and Kemalist secular nationalism. Five Christians have been murdered in Turkey over the past year. On April 18, 2007, three employees of a publishing house that distributes Bibles were killed. The three victims—a German and two Turkish citizens—were found with their hands and legs bound and their throats slit at the Zirve publishing house in the central city of Malatya; it has been widely reported that the three were tortured and mutilated. In February 2006, a Turkish teenager gunned down a Catholic priest as he celebrated mass; two other Catholic priests were also attacked that year. Earlier in 2007, a nationalist killed Armenian Christian editor Hrant Dink.

EGYPT

Most of Egypt’s Christians belong to the venerable Coptic Church which endures enormous social pressure, intimidation and threats of violence. Although eyewitness reports are difficult to obtain and confirm, in private conversation with a Coptic cleric who must remain unnamed, I heard off-the-record accounts about dozens of torched houses, deadly automobile “accidents” in which Christian leaders have been injured or killed and relentless discrimination.

Days later on June 27, 2007, Coptic-American physician Dr. Manir Dawoud confirmed in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin much of what I’d been told about the assault on the Copts: “In the village of Bemha al-Ayaat in the Giza area, Muslim mobs, incited by a fanatically anti-Christian and anti-Jewish sermon by the local imam, ran through the streets chanting abusive slogans and hurling rocks and incendiary devices into area churches and homes of Christian villagers because of alleged intentions to build another church. The picture appears even bleaker considering the shameful role played by the security apparatus and the local authorities.”

On March 23, 2004, Pope Shenouda publicly condemned the kidnapping and forced conversion of Christian girls, particularly focusing on their abduction from supermarkets. Muslim-background Christians are regularly arrested, imprisoned, interrogated and tortured. In November 2003, one such convert died in police custody. In October, 2005, a play performed at St. George’s Church in Alexandria was rumored to “insult Islam.” In ensuing riots, four died and 90 were injured.

In its new survey, Religious Freedom in the World, Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom reports that in early 2005, Gaseer Mohamed Mahmoud, who had converted to Christianity two years earlier, was tortured by police who, among other things, pulled out his toenails, and then he was confined in a Cairo mental hospital after his adoptive parents discovered his conversion. After more torture his case received international publicity and he was released on June 9, 2005 but was forced into hiding.

On April 6, 2005, Baha al-Aqqad, a recent convert to Christianity from Islam, was arrested on the grounds that he had “defamed Islam” and held in Doqqi prison. After 45 days he was transferred to Tora prison in Cairo, typically a prison for political prisoners. He was released on April 28, 2007 and was still being monitored by security officials. Converts also fear attacks and even murder by Muslim radicals, and such incidents often go unreported.

At the time of this writing, kidnappings, rapes and murders continue to be reported by the Coptic community.

IRAN

The Christian community, which amounts to .05% of the total population of nearly 70,000,000, is facing intensified crackdowns. In recent months, intending to intimidate and pressure them, hard-line authorities have detained, interrogated and eventually released Christians from several denominations and communities across various regions of Iran. The measures include attacks on private homes where Christians gather for worship.

In one instance, in December 2006, secret police raided Christian fellowships in Karaj, Teheran, Rasht and Bandar-i Anzali. They confiscated computers, literature and Bibles, and arrested 15 Christians whom they accused of evangelism and actions against the national security. Save one, all have been released, but only after forfeiting money, job permits and even house deeds as bail.

SUDAN

Although a peace accord between the Islamist Khartoum government and southern Sudan was signed in 2005, the well-being of more than 9,000,000 Christians remains precarious. The Khartoum regime’s attacks against the mostly Christian-animist south began in 1989, and since then it is estimated that more than 2,000,000 have died—many of them Christians. Some 4,000,000 people have been displaced.

The present Darfur atrocities have only increased the nation’s suffering. On several occasions, Baroness Cox and I have discussed Sudan, her innumerable visits and distressing experiences there. In January, 2006 she summarized South Sudan’s battle with Islamization in testimony before the House of Lords: “… There are real fears that the government in Khartoum, having destroyed the way of life of the people of Darfur and left destroyed communities and structures everywhere, will do everything possible to prevent the development of a peaceful, stable, prosperous and democratic south. Therefore, the challenges confronting the south, such as the provision of adequate resources to rebuild devastated lands and lives, need to be addressed urgently if the peace, which was won at such a price, is not going to be lost in another war or exploited to fulfill an Islamist agenda that could spread not only through Sudan, but far beyond in Africa.”

NIGERIA

The country’s 65,500,000 Christians—nearly half the population—are bruised and bloodied. Referring to the instruction of Jesus to “turn the other cheek,” a weary Nigerian journalist told me in Istanbul that his Christian community has “no more cheeks to turn.” There is a massive push among Islamists to apply Shari’a law to the entire populace, Christian and Muslim alike. Twelve Nigerian states already enacted Shari’a; three more are moving toward it.

A few examples: In February 2006, violence was triggered when a girl student insisted on reading the Koran so loudly during an English lesson that it was impossible for the teacher to continue. Although the teacher repeatedly asked the girl to stop, she refused to obey. Finally, the teacher took the Koran away from the student. Almost at once, a riot ensued. A group of young men outside, apparently awaiting this turn of events, mobbed the school amid cries that the teacher had committed blasphemy and that the Koran had been defiled. Violence intensified, resulting in bloodshed and destruction of buildings. The teacher, Christianah Oluwatoyin Oluwasesin, was clubbed to death and her body was burned.

In July 2006, a woman in Izom was murdered for “street evangelism.” Witnesses said she had been talking quietly to some young men about Christianity when a group viciously attacked her. The police intervened and took her to their headquarters. They were interrogating her when the police station was assaulted by armed rioters. The officers fled and left the woman at the mercy of the assailants, who beat her to death.

On February 22, 2004, 41 Christians were burnt alive in a Yelwa church; 38 more were murdered outside. It was reported that portraits of Osama bin Laden were on display in the community.

INDONESIA

The scenic archipelago continues to be the setting for unspeakable atrocities. The Christian community, comprising around 13% of the population of 221,900,000, has traditionally lived in harmony with its majority Muslim neighbors. But since the late 1990s there has been an escalation in Islamist activities. There are widespread reports of jihadis arriving from the Middle East to establish training camps. All this has lead to extraordinarily shocking abuses and thousands of deaths—only a few of which were reported internationally.

The Associated Press reported the beheadings of the three Christian teenagers on October 29, 2005. Six men attacked four girls—Theresia Morangke, 15, Alfita Poliwo, 17, Yarni Sambue, 15, and Noviana Malewa, 15—early in the morning as they walked to a Christian school in Poso district. The first three girls were beheaded; Malewa received severe injuries to her face and neck but survived the attack. The girls’ heads were wrapped in black plastic bags. One was found on the steps of a Kasiguncu village church. The other two were left at a nearby police station. One of the bags contained a note, including the words: “We will murder 100 more Christian teenagers and their heads will be presented as presents.”

Weeks later, two more schoolgirls—Siti Nuraini and her friend Ivon Maganti, both 17—were shot in the face. Nuraini died from her wounds; Maganti survived the attack.

In recent years hundreds of Christian villages have been burned and thousands have died, some of them burned alive in their churches.

WEST BANK AND GAZA

As in the rest of the Middle East, the Christian population in the Palestinian territories continues to decline because of discrimination and persecution, particularly since Hamas’s rise to power. Justus Weiner at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs reports that Christians made up around 20% of the population of the West Bank and Gaza after World War II; today they comprise only 1.7%. Tens of thousands of Christians have abandoned their homes and fled.

Although there are claims that the dwindling of Christian populations in PA-controlled territories is a result of the Israeli security fence and checkpoints, the exodus of Christians began during the first intifada. It became more severe during the second intifada’s epidemic of suicide bombings and the security precautions that followed. Weiner, along with other observers, reports that the flight of Christians is primarily due to “social, economic and religious discrimination and persecution within Palestinian society in the West Bank and Gaza.”

Since its violent coup in Gaza, Hamas has called for a crackdown on Christians. “I expect our Christian neighbors to understand the new Hamas rule means real changes. They must be ready for Islamic rule if they want to live in peace in Gaza,” said Sheikh abu Saqir, leader of Jihadia Salfiya, an Islamic outreach movement. Islamic rule includes a ban on alcohol and on women appearing publicly without proper head coverings. Those who engage in missionary activity are warned that they will be “dealt with harshly.”

AFGHANISTAN

On July 19, 2007, Taliban forces in Ghazni province kidnapped 23 Christian humanitarian workers from Sammul Presbyterian Church in Bundang, South Korea. The workers were traveling by bus from Kabul to Kandahar. On July 25, the bullet-riddled body of 42-year-old Pastor Bae Hyung-kyu was found. A Taliban representative explained, “Since Kabul’s administration did not listen to our demand and did not free our prisoners, the Taliban shot dead a male Korean hostage.” A second hostage, Shim Sung-Min, was murdered days later, after refusing to convert to Islam. The remaining hostages were eventually released, reportedly amid promises from South Korea to withdraw troops and forbid further missionary travel to Afghanistan.

PAKISTAN and SAUDI ARABIA

Two of America’s close allies in the war against terror are so repressive that it is nearly impossible to assess the realities of religious persecution within their borders.

Pakistan’s 3,000,000 Christians are far from a prosperous or powerful community. Many are descendants of converts from lower Hindu castes. They are predominately rural, illiterate and landless. Those who migrate to the cities are employed as street sweepers or brick kiln workers, or in semiliterate middle-class jobs. Today they face increasing threats of violence and death.

In the case of one village, for example, in early summer 2007, Pakistani Christian families fled Chak, in Punjab province. Anonymous written threats had arrived a week after an armed mob had assaulted a group of Protestants as they prepared for an evangelistic meeting. Seven Christians were injured when around 40 Muslim men, armed with guns, axes and wooden sticks, attacked Chak’s Salvation Army church after the Christians refused to cancel the meeting. The mob destroyed the church’s books, and seven Christians suffered fractured bones and gashes. Several had been felled by blows from an ax.

In Hyderabad, a rumor that pages of the Koran had been burned by a Christian inflamed mob violence in February 2006. Two churches were torched by hundreds of rioters hurling firebombs. The 120-year-old St. Mary’s Catholic Church was burned to the ground with only the walls left standing; St. Savior church was also burned, and two Christian schools were attacked.

In Saudi Arabia, truly an apartheid kingdom, mosques and school curriculums continue to call for violence against infidels—specifically Jews and Christians. Of the predicament of Christians there, in our book Their Blood Cries Out: The Worldwide Tragedy of Modern Christians Who Are Dying for Their Faith, Paul Marshall and I wrote: “It is illegal to wear a cross or to utter a Christian prayer. Christians cannot even worship privately in their own homes. Worship is allowed occasionally on foreign company sites or in embassies or consulates, but even this is not secure… expatriates from less influential countries such as India, Egypt, Korea and the Philippines bear the brunt of the restrictions… as harsh as life can be for expatriate Christians, the worst adversity falls upon Saudi nationals who are Christians… A Christian Saudi citizen is assumed to be apostate from Islam, and therefore is automatically subject to death… To be a Saudi is to be a Muslim, with no exceptions.”

Today there is only one country in the Middle East in which the Christian population is not declining but continues to increase: Israel. Home to nearly 6 million Jews, Israel also hosts a multitude of Christian creeds, confessions and cultures. For the most part, these Jews and Christians live in safety.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, however, repeatedly calls for the destruction of Israel. And in 2004 Osama bin Laden condemned “control exerted by the Zionists and the Cross worshipers” and described the global conflict he inspires as “a struggle between two camps. One camp is headed by America, and it represents the global Kufr [infidels], accompanied by all apostates. The other camp represents the Islamic Umma [nation] headed by its Mujahideen Brigades.” Whether bin Laden lives or dies, whether Ahmadinejad’s power waxes or wanes, their bloodthirsty disciples continue to infect the world.

Quarrels and divisions have torn the fabric of Christian unity since the days of the early church. Likewise, for millennia, Jews have famously quarreled among themselves. Meanwhile, from the first century until now, Jews and Christians have hotly disputed religious disparities: messianic hopes, means of salvation, historical abuses and atrocities and cherished political persuasions. Above all else, bloodshed suffered by Jews at the hands of Christians over centuries is a matter of historical record; it is no wonder that bitter mistrust continues to this day.

Yet whether we live in Israel, or are scattered among the nations of the world, to radical Islamists we Jews and Christians look astonishingly alike. In the eyes of those who hate us, whatever our differences, we stand together as one. In fact, it is precisely ancient truths—long predating Islam—that make us natural allies against their enmity.

On Tisha Be’av, I was grateful still to be in Jerusalem. I made my way to the Western Wall, reflecting on its timeless presence, the strength it represents and the One who never slumbers nor sleeps. Any Christian or Jew who prays for the peace of Jerusalem during these years of global jihad faces sobering realities. The sword of Islam, forged in hatred’s flames, is wielded by devotees of death. We who have chosen life must do more than pray. We must fight for our children, our nations, our faith, our future, our very existence. Thankfully, with entwined roots planted in common ground, neither Christians nor Jews need fight the battle alone.

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