Tag Archives: Religious Persecution

David Cameron on the Persecution of Christians

The persecution of Christians, slowly, is making its way onto the world’s agenda. In his annual Easter message, British Prime Minister David Cameron (above) urged churches in Britain to do more to draw attention to the suffering of Christians across the globe. Cameron also spoke, unusually, about his own Christian faith and the benefits Christianity “brings to Britain.” Skeptics might perceive an attempt to smooth relations with rank-and-file Conservatives, many of whom Cameron antagonized by supporting same-sex marriage. But politicians always have a variety of motives. Cameron deserves credit for raising the issue of persecution at a time when many in the West ignore it.

And why do so many in the West ignore the persecution of Christians? The always valuable John Allen explains:

Why isn’t this global war on Christians more of a cause célèbre?Fundamentally, the silence is the result of a bogus narrative about religion in the West. Most Americans and Europeans are in the habit of thinking about Christianity as a rich, powerful, socially dominant institution, which makes it hard to grasp that Christians can actually be victims of persecution.

I’ve made a similar point myself, here.

Two Updates on Syria’s Christians

Holy Mother of God Armenian Apostolic Church in Kessab, Syria

Two updates on last week’s post about the persecution of Christians in Syria, one hopeful, one much less so.

First the hopeful one. As I wrote last week, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting with Syrian opposition, has succeeded in capturing the town of Raqqa and imposing the classical dhimma on the town’s Christian inhabitants. The dhimma is a notional contract that Christians make with the Islamic community; it offers Christians protection and some autonomy in exchange for their agreement to pay a poll tax called the jizya and to accept restrictions on their dress, movement, construction of churches, etc. Although the historical origins are obscure, the dhimma was a standard concept in classical Islamic law. The Ottomans abandoned the concept only in the 19th century. Its revival now, even in this limited way, is a very worrying sign.

In a response to my post, a post at Andrew Sullivan’s blog points to comments condemning ISIL by a scholar at Egypt’s al-Azhar University, the leading center of Sunni Islamic learning. The scholar, Sheikh Abdul Zahir Shehata, maintains that Islamic law makes imposition of the dhimma illegal in these circumstances. ISIL’s collection of the jizya , he says, is “a form of theft that uses religion as a cover.”

It’s gratifying to see someone from al-Azhar making the point. But there is a certain ambiguity in Shehata’s remarks. If you read them closely, you see that he is not necessarily condemning the jizya as such, only its collection by a renegade group:

“ISIL contradicts itself,” Shehata said. “On the one hand they say they are implementing the provisions of Islamic sharia, including the ‘jizya’, however the Islamic state must be a full-fledged state and recognised by its citizens and subjects, which is not the case in the areas where ISIL is imposing its control by force and bloodshed.”

Maybe it’s a problem with the translation, or perhaps one has to read the whole interview to understand Shehata’s point. But it’s important to focus on the nuances. Perhaps Shehata’s real point is that only a true Islamic law state, not a band of rebels acting outside government authority, may impose the jizya–in which case, Syria’s Christians may find his rejection of ISIL’s actions less reassuring than first appears.

The less hopeful update: over the weekend, fighters with a different al-Qaeda offshoot in the opposition, a rival of ISIL known as the Nusra Front, captured the Armenian Christian town of Kessab. The fighters crossed the border from Turkey, where their bases are located, and attacked the town on Friday. By Sunday, it had fallen. Thousands of Kessab’s Christians–some of whom had sought refuge from Raqqa–have fled to the nearby city of Latakia, where they receiving assistance from the local community, the Red Cross, and Red Crescent. Eyewitnesses report that the Nusra Front has looted Christian homes and stores and desecrated churches in Kessab.

Many Armenian Christians in Kessab descend from refugees who fled the last great persecution of Christians in the region, the Armenian Genocide of 1915–itself a byproduct, in part, of a jihad the Ottoman Empire declared against Christians during World War I. The sad ironies will not escape any of the Christians in Syria today.

Too “Christian” to Excite the Left, Too “Foreign” to Excite the Right

Here’s a great piece by The Week’s Michael Brendan Dougherty on the persecution of Mideast Christians. Doughtery offers an explanation for why the human rights community in the West is largely ignoring the problem:

Western activists and media have focused considerable outrage at Russia’s laws against “homosexual propaganda” in the lead-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. It would only seem fitting that Westerners would also protest (or at the very least notice) laws that punish people with death for converting to Christianity.

And yet the Western world is largely ignorant of or untroubled by programmatic violence against Christians. Ed West, citing the French philosopher Regis Debray, distils the problem thusly: “The victims are ‘too Christian’ to excite the Left, and ‘too foreign’ to excite the Right.”

That really says it quite well.

Samuel Tadros to Discuss “Motherland Lost” at Georgetown (Jan 30)

The Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros will be discussing his important book, Motherland Lost:The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity, at Georgetown University on January 30. Details are here. I interviewed Sam about this book at CLR Forum last fall.

The Massacre of the Innocents

Photo from The Guardian

From the New York Times this Christmas morning:

At least 26 people were killed and 38 others wounded on Wednesday when a car bomb exploded in a parking lot near St. John’s Catholic Church in Dura, south of Baghdad, according to the police and medical sources.

The bomb detonated at the end of Christmas prayers as worshipers were leaving the church, the officials said.

The victims, most of them Christians, included women and children, as well as number police officers posted as guards.

A few minutes before the church bombing, and barely a half-mile away, a series of three other bombings in a market in an Assyrian Christian neighborhood left 11 people dead and 22 wounded.

What can be said?

Prince Charles Draws Attention to Persecution of Mideast Christians

Photo from the BBC

This year has been a dreadful one for Mideast Christians. In Egypt, Islamists frustrated at the fall of the Morsi government have singled out Copts for vengeance. By some accounts, Copts are suffering the worst persecution they have experienced in 700 years. In Syria, Islamist rebels are targeting Christians, whom they accuse of siding with the Assad regime.  In Iraq, Islamist gangs demand exorbitant protection money from the few Christians who remain–unless the Christians agree to convert to Islam. Across the region, Christians are being kidnapped, driven from their homes, killed. Their churches are being burned, their schools bombed. Christianity faces an existential threat in the place where it was born.

Mostly, the persecution of Mideast Christians has failed to attract attention in the West–although the media seems to be catching on. Mideast Christians lack strong lobbies in Western capitals, and the Western human rights community has a hard time seeing any Christians as victims rather than oppressors. So praise goes to Britain’s Prince Charles, who last week met with representatives of Mideast Christians in London to draw attention to the ongoing persecution:

“It seems to me that we cannot ignore the fact that Christians in the Middle East are, increasingly, being deliberately targeted by fundamentalist Islamist militants,” he said. Noting Christianity’s roots in the region, the Prince observed that today the Middle East and North Africa have the lowest concentration of Christians in the world—just 4 percent—and that this has “dropped dramatically over the last century and is falling still further.” He said that the effect of this was that “we all lose something immensely and irreplaceably precious when such a rich tradition dating back 2,000 years begins to disappear.”

The BBC’s report of the Prince’s meeting is here.

House Subcommittee Hearing on Human Rights Abuses in Egypt (Oct. 1)

As readers of this site know, the situation for Copts and other Christians in Egypt is truly dire. On October 1, the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations will hold a hearing on the situation. Speakers include Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Church, author Samuel Tadros, and Rutgers Professor Morad Abou-Sabe. The hearing will be webcast live. Details are here.

Tadros, “Motherland Lost”

In his important new book, Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity, the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros explores the crisis facing the Coptic Orthodox Church today. The Copts are the indigenous Christians of Egypt and one of the oldest Christian communions, dating back millennia. St. Anthony, the founder of monasticism, was a Copt, as was St. Athanasius, the great champion of Nicene Christianity. Coptic history is marked, in Tadros’s words, by a dual legacy of “decline and survival.” Persecuted by Byzantine Christians and Arab Muslims, Copts have endured tremendous hardship down the centuries. Periodically, their very existence has seemed in doubt. That, Tadros maintains, is the case today.

Tadros shows how the liberal nationalist movement in twentieth-century Egypt betrayed Coptic hopes. By encouraging Copts to seek legal equality and government attention to their grievances, the movement actually exposed Copts to a vicious backlash. (Much the same pattern occurred with respect to Armenian Christians in Ottoman Turkey, a matter I have discussed elsewhere). Demands for equality were interpreted as a threat to Muslim superiority and an attempt to embarrass the country abroad. In the name of national unity, Coptic demands for justice were ignored and the Coptic Church suppressed. The situation improved a bit under Nasser, but deteriorated under Sadat, who attempted to placate Islamist opposition by making life difficult for Copts–it didn’t work. Nonetheless, Tadros shows that the Church experienced a spiritual rebirth during the twentieth century, largely as a result of the lay-inspired Sunday School Movement. Monasteries were revived and Christian education improved. The Church has expanded abroad in recent decades–there is an increasing presence in the US–and has had missionary success in Africa, where, unlike other Christian communions, it is not weighed down by the legacy of colonialism.

The Arab Spring has been a disaster for Copts. Under the Muslim Brotherhood, violence against Copts increased dramatically. Tadros’s book predates the July 2013 revolution, but a reader can readily understand why the Church has taken a strong position in favor of the generals. History, Tadros writes, has taught Copts “the eternal lesson of survival.” A “persecuting dictator” is “always preferable to the mob,” since the dictator can “be bought off or persuaded to back off, or constrained by foreign powers.” With the mob, by contrast, one has “no chance.”

Tadros ends his book on a sad note. The prospects for Copts in Egypt, he says, are bleak: domination by a Muslim Brotherhood that seeks to return them to the status of dhimmis or a military dictatorship that could sacrifice them at any moment. The only option, for many, is escape to the West–an option that may end a Christian presence that has endured in Egypt since St. Mark the Evangelist arrived 2000 years ago. “The feeling of sadness and distress is impossible to overcome as I watch the faces of the new immigrants,” Tadros writes, describing his Coptic parish in Virginia. “A church that has withstood diverse and tremendous challenges is now threatened in its very existence.”

Coptic Pope Cancels Weekly Bible Study; Fears for Congregation’s Safety

The BBC reports that Pope Tawadros of the Coptic Orthodox Church (below) has cancelled his weekly public Bible study because he fears for the safety of his audience. At these weekly gatherings, Tawadros takes questions on Bible passages from a congregation gathered inside St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo. Since the fall of the Morsi government, however, threats have increased against Copts throughout Egypt. In one incident recently, someone raised an al-Qaeda flag outside a Coptic church while people worshipped inside. A large public gathering at Cairo’s main cathedral might provide too tempting a target.

Things have been bad for Copts for some time. Even under Mubarak, Copts complained that the state failed to protect them from sectarian violence. The situation has worsened, however, in the weeks following the fall of the Morsi government. Several Copts have been murdered and scores injured.  “We had never experienced the kind of persecution we suffer now,” one Copt from the south of Egypt, a pharmacist and mother of two, recently told the AP. “We are insulted every day.”

Traditionally, Copts avoided Egyptian politics. That changed during the Arab Spring. Copts were prominent in the protests that led to the overthrow of Mubarak and vocal in protesting their treatment under the Muslim Brotherhood. Then, Pope Tawadros appeared in that famous TV broadcast announcing the overthrow of the Morsi regime–along with the leader of Al-Azhar, it should be pointed out–to voice his support for the military. His appearance seems to have exposed Copts to even more danger than usual. Pointing to the broadcast, Islamists now allege that the overthrow of Morsi was a Christian-orchestrated plot against Islam.

I’ve written before about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and the lack of interest among American elites, even in the human rights community. But the situation for Copts has become truly dire, and Americans are beginning to take notice. There isn’t too much the US can do to help, unfortunately. Expressions of support for Mideast Christians can easily backfire. As Nina Shea has argued, however, America can do more to ensure that humanitarian assistance actually reaches Mideast Christians–in Syria, for example. And the US can fast-track asylum applications from Copts and other Mideast Christians in order to provide a haven for those who wish to leave. This last option isn’t a great solution, as it would only accelerate the depopulation of Christian communities in the Middle East. But leaving these Christians to their fate shouldn’t be an option, either.

The Economist on Christian Sorrows

Photo from The Economist

The Economist has a couple of interesting stories this week on the continuing plight of Christians in the Middle East. First, from the magazine’s valuable religion blog, Erasmus, is this story about the continued disappearance of two bishops in Syria. One hundred days ago, Islamists in the Syrian opposition kidnapped the two clerics, one from the Greek Orthodox and the other from the Syriac Orthodox Church. Their whereabouts have not been revealed; some reports say they have already been murdered, though that is very unclear.  A Jesuit priest from Italy, who has been working in Syria for 20 years, has also gone missing recently. Meanwhile, the magazine reports that a court in Trabzon, Turkey, has agreed with Turkey’s ruling AKP party that the Byzantine Church of the Holy Wisdom (above) in that city should be reconverted to a mosque. The church had been converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in the 15th Century; in the 20th Century, under the Kemalist regime, it became a museum. Turkey’s tiny Greek Orthodox population worries that another Byzantine church by the same name, Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia, may be next.