It’s Christmas Eve, and I’m about to get started with the Christmas cooking and festivities here. I have heard this morning from an Orthodox friend in Russia that the religious institution he works for suffered harassment and intimidation from the state. Much more serious is the situation for Christians in the Middle East, the land of Christ’s birth. From The Guardian:
By the beginning of the 20th century, Christians represented just over 10% of its total population. Even so, had the Middle East remained what it had been for the previous two-and-a-half millennia, a patchwork of different faiths ruled by distant emperors, they might well have clung on to their ancestral lands.
As it was, the replacement of the Ottoman empire by new and fissile nation states spelt long-term disaster for the Christians of the region. Ethnically cleansed completely from Turkey, they lacked what the Jews in due course managed to carve out for themselves: a defensible homeland. Over the course of the 20th century, a combination of political impotence and economic hardship led millions to emigrate. Then, in the early years of the third Christian millennium, came the coup de grace.
It is a bitter irony that the invasion of Iraq in 2003, launched under the aegis of two devoutly Christian leaders, George Bush and Tony Blair, should have heralded what threatens to be the final ruin of Christianity in the Middle East. It was Iraqi Christians, trapped between the militancy of their Muslim compatriots and the studied disinterest of their western co-religionists, who bore the initial brunt of the savagery. Extortion, kidnapping and murder became their daily fare.
The venerable churches of Mesopotamia, ancient even in the days of patriarch Timothy, have suffered a terrible reaping. Since 2003, so it has been estimated by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), almost a million Christians have left Iraq. Those few that remain face an ongoing martyrdom. The warning given in 2010 by an al-Qaida front group, that “the doors of destruction and rivers of blood will be opened upon them”, threatens to become all too real.
Meanwhile, Akbar Ahmed reports on the view from Pakistan. Ahmed is a Muslim who says he is grateful for the education that Pakistani Christians gave him. More:
The targeting of Christians comes amid a widespread breakdown of public order. The ordinary citizen — hearing stories of gangs breaking into homes and kidnapping people — thinks only of survival. Groups like the Pakistani Taliban have challenged government authority to the point where the rule of law barely exists in parts of the country like the tribal areas of the Northwest.
While militant groups are frequently the culprits in attacks on Christians, a general anger against the United States has caused large numbers of people to target Christians, whom they associate with America, as scapegoats.
Christians have been especially vulnerable in cases concerning the blasphemy laws, which easily convert into a tool of oppression against them. Cases like that of the 11-year-old Christian girl arrested last year after being accused of burning pages of the Quran in Islamabad gain nationwide publicity — easy causes célèbres for those who are opposed to United States foreign policy in Pakistan or who believe that Islam is under siege from the West.
This, in turn, makes it very difficult for public officials to intervene, even if they are inclined to do so. Government promises to reconstruct the homes of Christians destroyed by mobs and distribute aid are rarely carried out.
Those Pakistanis who do speak up for Christians have themselves become targets of violence. In 2011, a governor of Punjab Province who criticized the blasphemy laws was killed by his own bodyguard, who was then hailed as a hero. Senior politicians and the Pakistani elite have been complicit in the sectarian hostility because they fear that any of them could meet the same fate.
Tonight, Christians, when you celebrate in peace and freedom, remember your brothers and sisters who suffer for their faith around the world.