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Embrace concern for persecuted Christians

Special to the Justice

Published: Monday, March 19, 2012

Updated: Monday, March 19, 2012 23:03

The term “Middle East” generally conjures up images of the war in Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iranian nuclear threat and the recent Arab Spring.

Rarely does one think of Christianity as a minority religion that has been persecuted, its holy sites vandalized and its worshippers abused and murdered throughout the Middle East.

Michael Oren, the United States ambassador to Israel, recently wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal, in which he stated that the Middle East was 20 percent Christian at the start of the previous century and just 5 percent Christian today.

Two hundred thousand Coptic Christians were forced to flee their homes in Egypt within the past year.

The Coptic Christians have lived in Egypt since the first century of the Common Era and were the dominant religion in Egypt until the emergence of Islam. The Copts currently consist of 10 percent of Egypt’s population and used to live peacefully next to their Muslim neighbors.

However, this recently changed when they were attacked by violent mobs of Salafi Islamists, shot at by the Egyptian army, had their churches burned and their priests beaten.

Last October, between 20 and 35 Coptic Christians were murdered by Egyptian security officers while protesting the government’s failure to protect Egyptian churches. Egyptian media called upon citizens to defend the army and attack the Copts. Where is the uproar about the treatment of the Copts?

Christians are also being persecuted by their neighbors in Lebanon.

After the Israeli army withdrew from Southern Lebanon in 2000, the Hezbollah terrorist organization slowly took over the area.

There used to be a stable Christian population in Southern Lebanon.

Now, many of them have been forced to flee, while those who remain live in constant fear.

Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza, many Gazan Christians have fled into Israel, as conditions in Gaza have become awful for the local Christians.

It is illegal to publicly display Christian symbols in Gaza, and people have been shot for simply carrying crucifixes or for being accused of trying to spread Christianity. Oren mentioned an incident that took place a few years ago, in which Rami Ayad, the only Christian bookstore owner in Gaza, was tortured and shot in his store and a YMCA was bombed. The culprits in both cases were never arrested.

Moreover, Christians face serious discrimination in Palestinian-controlled territories in the West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority recently declared the First Baptist Church in Bethlehem, a site that was victim to many bombings in the First Intifada, “illegitimate.”

The First Baptist Church, founded 30 years ago, has over 400 member families and is host to a Bible college.

Now, however, any official business conducted in the church, such as marriages, is no longer considered legal. Bethlehem pastor Naim Khoury suggested that the church’s activism for a peaceful solution to the conflict, without bias toward either side, may have played a role in the decision to declare the church illegitimate.

In 2007, the Iranian parliament passed a law with an overwhelming majority punishing with death any male who leaves Islam.

This law has been used to execute at least four people so far as well as to imprison several more. Most recently, Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity, as noted by Oren in his article.

Where is the uproar?

When American soldiers in Afghanistan burned Qurans that were being used to pass messages among prisoners detained by the U.S. Army, mass riots ensued.

American soldiers were murdered in retaliation by radicals who were angered by the desecration of the Quran. The response to the Quran burning was seen even far away, as Muslims all over the world voiced their anger about the Quran desecration. In Libya, Islamists desecrated the graves of British servicemen who died in North Africa during the Second World War, as well as those of Jews and Christians.

The wide extent of the reaction to the Quran burning shows how Muslims around the world exhibited support for their fellow Muslims. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t react when Christians are persecuted, let alone respond the way it does when the Islamic holy book is burned.

The problem may stem from the fact that Christianity is the largest religion in the Western world. For Europeans and Americans, it is hard to imagine Christianity as a persecuted religion.

Therefore, we tend to view the many occurrences of persecution against Middle Eastern Christians as isolated instances rather than as a general pattern that is growing more and more worrisome.

This attitude needs to change if there is any hope for the future of Christianity in the Middle East.

The world must speak up now. Why do we react every time offensive material is published about Islam, but we don’t react when Christians are also being persecuted?

The right for one to practice Christianity without fearing for one’s life must be protected just as much as the right to practice Islam without others publicly desecrating your religion.

Christians are being persecuted in many countries throughout the Middle East, in places were they have lived safely for thousands of years.

Unfortunately, the only country in the Middle East where they can live safely now is Israel. We must change that.

Editor’s note: Michael Kosowsky ’14 is a Brandeis University Campus Fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.

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