At a recent conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, I was shocked to hear a Nigerian church leader declare that Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world today. On my way home afterwards, the deaths of 12 Christians, attacked in their church in Nigeria, was announced on the radio.
A quick Google search revealed the true scale of this onslaught against Christians, so it didn’t take me long to find further confirmation of this assertion. In November 2012, none other than German Chancellor Angela Merkel made the same claim, in very nearly the same words.
The Open Doors website lists the countries responsible for persecuting Christians, with the worst perpetrators in sequence being: North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Maldives, Mali, Iran, Yemen, Eritrea, Syria, Sudan and Nigeria.
“For the eleventh year running, North Korea is the most difficult place on earth to be a Christian. One of the remaining Communist states, it is vehemently opposed to religion of any kind. Christians are classified as hostile and face arrest, detention, torture, even public execution.”
Shared in common by the next 12 states that practice “extreme persecution” is a majority Muslim population. In some, like Saudi Arabia, there is no provision for religious freedom in the constitution, which stipulates that “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 almost all Islamic countries, missionary activity and the distribution of Christian material, even the Bible, is illegal. Muslims who convert to Christianity risk honor killings, and accusations of blasphemy are an ever-present reality, punishable in many cases by mob violence.
Civitas, The Institute for the study of Civil Society, published a review of Rupert Short’s recent book Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack, which confirms the Nigerian preacher’s claim that Christianity is in peril like no other religion: “Christians are targeted more than any other body of believers” and “200 million Christians [10 percent of the global total] are socially disadvantaged, harassed or actively oppressed for their beliefs.”
Rupert Short highlights the fact that Christianity is facing elimination in its biblical homeland. Between a half and two-thirds of Christians in the Middle East have emigrated or been killed over the past century. Over 600,000 Copts have fled Egypt since 1980, as a result constant intimidation, including the the burning of churches.
In Egypt on February 7, 2013, Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II, who became pope in November 2012, spoke against the nation’s Islamist leadership and the growing Islamist power in Egypt. He criticized the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi’s constitution, which is based upon sharia law.
In the West Bank, which has been under the administration of the Palestinian Authority since 1995, there are about 50,000 Christians; less than 3% of the Palestinian population.
Bethlehem’s 22,000 Christians make up only a third of its residents, down from 75% a few decades ago.
The exact number of Christians remaining in Iraq is not known, but it has fallen sharply from as many as 1.4 million before the US-led invasion nearly a decade ago to about 500,000 today. After a brutal attack on Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Church in October 2010, that killed more than 50 worshipers, and after several other attacks, Iraqi Christians have been forced to take extreme security measures at all communal gatherings.
In Syria, where Christians previously enjoyed a respected status, this 2,000-year-old community, which at over 2 million adherents was the largest church in the Middle East after Egypt’s Copts, now faces extinction. During the chaos of the civil war, the Christians, lacking militias of their own, are easy prey for Islamists and criminals alike. Archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana of the Assyrian Church of the East wrote: “We are witnessing another Arab country losing its Christian Assyrian minority. When it happened in Iraq nobody believed Syria’s turn would come. Christian Assyrians are fleeing [en masse] from threats, kidnappings, rapes and murders. Behind the daily reporting about bombs there is an ethno-religious cleansing taking place, and soon Syria [could] be emptied of its Christians.”
Rupert Short attributes the intolerance and violence toward Christians, ignored or even sanctioned by governments, to the rising Islamification of Middle Eastern countries.
The Christian response has been muted and restrained as one would expect from a religion which propounds “turning the other cheek.”
Speaking during his traditional Christmas message from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Benedict XVI called for an “end to the bloodshed” in Syria and denounced the “savage acts of terrorism [which] continue to reap victims, particularly among Christians.”
He was referring specifically to Africa, even as gunmen on Christmas attacked a church in the northern Nigerian state of Yobe, killing six people, including the pastor, before setting the building ablaze.
So why should I as a Jew care about the fate of Christians? Firstly, having been victims for thousands of years it is our obligation to care and reach out to victims of discrimination, religious intolerance and extremism. Secondly, it is our responsibility to stand up for religious freedom and specially for those moderate and tolerant values promoted by most of these Christian minority groups. Moreover, Christians are rediscovering their Hebraic roots and are strong supporters of Israel, as they see its rebirth as the actualization of the biblical prophesies and of their divine mission to assist with the return of Jews to their promised land.
It is incumbent on my people to ensure that at least in the area where there is Jewish suzerainty, discrimination against Christians does not occur, and I have satisfied myself that of all the countries in the Middle East, only in Israel is the Christian population growing and flourishing.
The writer is the chairman of the South African Zionist Foundation (SAZF, Cape Council).