Posts tagged with: middle east

In The Wall Street Journal, Michael J. Totten reviews Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity (Hoover Institution, 236 pages, $19.95) by Samuel Tadros. Totten says the book offers a scholarly account of the ongoing exodus of Christians from Egypt, where the “most dramatic” decline of Christianity in the Middle East is now occuring. Since the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, Totten writes, “the rise of Islamists and mob attacks” have driven more than 100,000 Copts out of Egypt.

The Copts are indigenous inhabitants of the Nile delta, children of its ancient Pharaonic civilization. They have been Christians for as long as Christianity has existed. (Egypt is part of the greater Holy Land, and St. Mark, one of the disciples of Jesus, spread the gospel there and founded the Church of Alexandria, which today belongs to the Copts.) The Copts have their own Eastern Orthodox rite, their own pope and for hundreds of years they’ve made up roughly 15% of Egypt’s population.

Mr. Tadros, an Egyptian Copt who immigrated to the U.S. in 2009, makes it clear that the story of Egypt’s Christians isn’t one of relentless abuse. Copts have received both good and bad treatment at the hands of the region’s succession of reigning powers. But mostly it’s been bad. They were persecuted by the Roman and Byzantine empires long before the Islamic conquest in A.D. 639, after which they were cast as second-class citizens subject to additional regulations and taxes. Isolation from Christendom and survival in the face of adversity are etched into their soul. “Coptic history has been an endless story of decline and despair,” Mr. Tadros writes, “but it has also been a story of survival.”

Read the entire review here.

Writing for National Review Online, Andrew Doran looks at how Christians have become “convenient scapegoats” and targets of violence for Islamists in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. A consultant for UNESCO at the U.S. Department of State, Doran says that “had the Muslim Brothers not been stopped, they would have continued to radicalize and Islamicize Egypt, further isolating and persecuting their enemies — secularists, liberals, and religious minorities, especially Christians.” More:

The peaceful rising of the Egyptian people against the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi constitutes the first popular overthrow of an Islamist regime in the Middle East. Beyond revolution, it was a restoration of Egypt’s heritage of secular moderation. Had the Muslim Brothers not been stopped, they would have continued to radicalize and Islamicize Egypt, further isolating and persecuting their enemies — secularists, liberals, and religious minorities, especially Christians. Egypt is the largest nation-state in the Arab world, with strong traditions of secular governance and a Christian minority that constitutes approximately 10 percent of the population. That this was the site of the first revolution against an Islamist regime is of inestimable significance, not merely for Egypt but for the Arab world, whose moderates look to Egypt as the standard bearer. If moderation fails in Egypt, it bodes ill for moderates elsewhere.

As Joseph Kassab, a Chaldean Christian and human-rights advocate, has observed, Christians are vital to the Middle East because they are a bridge to the outside world. Without Christians and other minorities, the entire Middle East would soon come to resemble the uniform extremism of Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most brutal and oppressive regime in the world — a state sponsor of extremism, anti-Semitism, and arguably terror. According to Amnesty International, crucifixion still occurs in Saudi Arabia. The fact that such regimes do not advance American interests ought to be self-evident. Apparently it is not.

Read “In Solidarity with Egypt’s Christians” by Andrew Doran on NRO.

Blog author: sstanley
Monday, July 8, 2013
By

funeral

Iraqi Catholics carry the remains of those killed in the October 2010 massacre at the Baghdad cathedral.

Violence from Muslim extremists is causing Christians to flee the Middle East in staggering numbers. In the early nineties, there were 1.3 million Christians living in Iraq and today there are less than 200,000. Senior staff writer at Legatus Magazine, Sabrina Arena Ferrisi, addresses this in the latest Legatus Magazine.

The Middle East is experiencing a new kind of exodus. This time it’s Christians who are leaving the region in droves, driven out by Muslim fundamentalists. Christians make up less than 5% of the population today, down from 20% in the early 20th century, according to a 2010 BBC report. If the exodus is not stopped, it will empty the Middle East of the oldest Christian churches on the planet.

The Vatican reported in May that a staggering 100,000 Christians around the world are martyred annually for their faith, and human rights groups claim such anti-Christian violence is on the rise in Muslim-dominated countries like Iraq, Syria and Egypt.

(more…)

Over at Crisis Magazine, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg has an analysis of a recent, and little noticed, article that Pope Benedict XVI published on, among other things, “the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” Gregg writes:

This message isn’t likely to be well-received among those who think religious pluralism is somehow an end in itself. Their discomfort, however, doesn’t lessen the force of Benedict’s point.

The context of Benedict’s remarks was the 50th anniversary of Vatican II’s opening. In an article published in the Holy See’s semi-official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, Benedict reflected upon his own memories of the Council. Characteristically, however, he used the occasion to make subtle but pointed observations about particular challenges presently confronting the Church and orthodox Christianity more generally: difficulties that no amount of interfaith happy-talk and ecumenical handholding will make go away.

One of Vatican II’s achievements, the pope argued, was the Declaration Nostra Aetate, which addressed the Church’s relationship with non-Christian religions. This document focused on the most theologically-important relationship—Judaism and Christianity—but also ventured remarks about Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Without watering down Christianity’s truth-claims, Benedict wrote, Nostra Aetate outlined how Catholics could engage in “respectful dialogue and collaboration with other religions.”

Then, however, Benedict made his move. With the passage of time, he noted, “a weakness” of Nostra Aetate has become apparent: “it speaks of religion solely in a positive way and it disregards the sick and distorted forms of religion.”

Read “Benedict XVI and the Pathologies of Religion” by Samuel Gregg on the website of Crisis Magazine.

On the National Catholic Register, Joan Frawley Desmond has a round up on the deepening crisis in Syria. She writes that Pope Benedict XVI, on his recent visit to Lebanon, “urged rival political, ethnic and religious groups to overcome their differences and find common ground for the sake of peace.”

The Vatican soon announced that it would send a papal delegation to Syria, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, was selected to join the group that was called to express “fraternal solidarity” with the Syrian people and foster efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The escalating violence in Syria resulted in a postponement of the delegation’s departure, and the USCCB has since confirmed that Cardinal Dolan will not join the group.

Nina Shea, the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, said Pope Benedict’s visit to Lebanon was important and that his strong statements underscored the danger that the Syrian conflict posed for the stability of the region and the survival of Christian minorities.

“The Pope drew attention to the fact that Christians are in peril. The West seems paralyzed and can’t speak up for them,” said Shea. “Syria is one of the four largest Christian-minority countries in the Middle East. But, after Iraq, there are fears for the survival of another Christian minority in the region. The smaller the minority gets, the more vulnerable it gets — and the more likely it will be eradicated.”

Read Ray Nothstine’s interview with Shea, titled “A Rare and Tenuous Freedom,” in Religion & Liberty.

Over at Patheos, Joel J. Miller’s “Prayers of the persecuted church” reminds us that “the lull in aggression toward the church since the fall of communism might have dulled Western memories to the horrific slaughter and repressions of the twentieth century, but the lull seems over, and the church around the world is experiencing intense persecution.” Miller goes into some detail on the horrific martyrdom of Fr. Fadi Haddad and cites the Acton Institute interview with Metropolitan Hilarion posted here yesterday.

Also see “The plight of Syria’s Christians: ‘We left Homs because they were trying to kill us,'” a report by the Independent, a UK newspaper.

Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on Oct. 16 after the session of the Synod of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church.

In an interview for Acton’s Religion & Liberty quarterly, the Russian Orthodox bishop in charge of external affairs for the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk, warned that that the situation for the Christian population of Syria has deteriorated to an alarming degree. Hilarion compared the situation today, after almost two years of fighting in Syria, as analogous to Iraq, which saw a virtual depopulation of Christians following the U.S. invasion in 2003.

The Russian Orthodox Church has been among the most active witnesses against Christian persecution around the world, particularly in the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East. In November 2011, Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, visited Syria and Lebanon. In a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Kirill said that he shared a concern with Assad about the “spread of religious radicalism that threatens the integrity of the Arab world.”

That sentiment has been expressed widely in Christian communities in Syria — some of them dating to apostolic times — as civil war has progressively taken a heavy toll. Now almost two years on, as many as 30,000 people may have perished. Despite having few illusions about the nature of Assad’s autocratic rule, many Christians feared that the Islamist groups, involved in what the West initially viewed as another “Arab Spring” uprising, would eventually turn on them. Indeed this is what has happened. Entire Christian villages have been depopulated, churches desecrated, and many brutal killings have taken place at the hands of the “Arab Spring” insurgents. Most recently, Fr. Fadi Haddad, an Orthodox priest, was found murdered with brutal marks of torture on his remains. Car bomb attacks are now being waged against Christian neighborhoods. (See these backgrounders on the Syrian crisis from the Congressional Research Service and the Council on Foreign Relations). (more…)

In an interview in Our Sunday Visitor, an official with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association said refugees from Syria into Lebanon are increasing “tremendously” because of the military conflict. Issam Bishara, vice president of the Pontifical Mission and regional director for Lebanon and Syria, told OSV about the “perilous situation in Syria and how the local and global Catholic Church is responding.”

OSV: What has life been like for local Christians in Syria?

Bishara: Christians or non-Christians, they are fleeing the shelling. The Christians would have an additional worry — they are not sure of the future. The experience of Christians in Iraq was horrible. If something similar happens to the Christians in Syria then they would be in a very difficult situation. Most of the Christians who fled Iraq went to Syria and Lebanon. The question is, what if the Christians in Syria were displaced? What we hear from them is that they worried about their future, about the form of the new regime and the new government — would there be a democratic regime, a fanatic Muslim regime? They’re not sure.

OSV: What is CNEWA doing to assist the refugees?

Bishara: We are assisting 2,000 families in the regions of Homs, the Christian Valley, Tartus and Damascus. We work through the infrastructure of the local church — the Greek Orthodox Church, which is the largest Christian community in Syria, and the Greek Catholics, the Melkites, and through the different sisters and the Jesuit fathers as well.

OSV: How has the Church responded?

Bishara: The Church has responded in a very good way. We are trying to utilize their social workers and priests and the sisters and try to raise funds and pass it through them. They are purchasing all of the commodities that we agree on and putting it in boxes and taking care of distribution. They are extremely accountable and very strict in terms of who gets what. We’re very happy with the way they are presenting their reports. We are in almost daily contact with them.

In an Aug. 2 report, the director of programs for International Orthodox Christian Charities affirmed this dire picture. “There is a palpable sense of urgency and people are worried about the growing violence throughout the country,” said Mark Ohanian. IOCC is working closely with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all The East and Syrian relief partner, Al Nada Association, in an effort to reach as many people as it can and to determine what the most immediate needs are for the growing number of displaced and vulnerable families. (more…)

A roundup at Notes on Arab Orthodoxy paints a grim picture for Christians — and clashing Islamic sects — in Syria. It’s a gut-wrenching account of kidnappings, torture and beheadings. One report begins with this line: “Over 40 young men (including a couple of doctors) from the Wadi area, were killed by the bearded men who are eager to give us democracy.”

The article also links to a report in Agenzia Fides, which interviewed a Greek-Catholic bishop:

The picture for us – he continues – is utter desolation: the church of Mar Elian is half destroyed and that of Our Lady of Peace is still occupied by the rebels. Christian homes are severely damaged due to the fighting and completely emptied of their inhabitants, who fled without taking anything. The area of Hamidieh is still shelter to armed groups independent of each other, heavily armed and bankrolled by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. All Christians (138,000) have fled to Damascus and Lebanon, while others took refuge in the surrounding countryside. A priest was killed and another was wounded by three bullets.

Read “Things Get Worse in Syria” on the Notes on Arab Orthodoxy site.

Despite the rise of globalization and democracy, violent persecution of Christians, Jews, and other religious minorities is still shockingly common in many parts of the world. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has released its latest survey of religious freedom and as Doug Bandow reports, it makes for grim reading:

(more…)

Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg tackles the question of religious liberty in Islamic states this morning, over at The American Spectator. In a piece titled “The Arab Spring’s Forgotten Freedom,” Gregg describes the tensions between Christians seeking religious freedom in the Middle East and the Islamic states they inhabit, and then looks hopefully to the source of a resolution.

For at least one group of Middle-Easterners, the Arab Spring is turning out to be a decidedly wintery affair. And if confirmation was ever needed, just consider the escalation of naked violence against Christians throughout the region. The recent instance of Egyptian army vehicles crushing and killing Coptic Christians protesting against a church burning was merely one of numerous incidents that must make Middle-Eastern Christians wonder about their future under the emerging new regimes.

These trends appear to confirm that despite all the current freedom-and-democracy talk, much of the Islamic world continues to suffer from one particularly severe blind spot when it comes to human liberty. And that concerns the acceptance and protection of authentic religious freedom.

Gregg points out that the Christian population of the Middle East has plummeted since 1900 (when it was about 20 percent) for ethnic and for political reasons.

Islam confronts two specific dilemmas that raise questions about its ability to accept a robust conception of religious liberty.

First, from its very beginning, Islam was intimately associated with political power. That’s one reason why there is no church-state distinction in Islam that limits (at least theoretically) the state’s capacity to coerce religious belief or unreasonably inhibit religious-shaped choices.

Second, since approximately the 13th century, the dominant theological understanding of God’s nature within Islam has been one of Voluntas (Divine Will) rather than Logos (Divine Reason). And this matters because if you believe in a God that can, on a mere whim, act unreasonably, then it isn’t so problematic for such a Divinity’s adherents to engage in plainly unreasonable practices such as killing apostates.

If, however, God is Logos, the case for religious liberty is much easier to make insofar as a reasonable God would never demand compulsion in religion. Why? Because as St. Augustine wrote long ago, “If there is no assent, there is no faith, for without assent one does not really believe.”

Gregg sees hope, however, in thinkers like Turkish journalist and devout Muslim Mustafa Akyol, whose recent book Islam Without Extremes makes the Islamic case for religious freedom. Though most Western religious thinkers do little to plead the cause of persecuted Middle Eastern Christians, Gregg thinks the central cause of the persecution, and thus the ultimate solution, is to be found in Islamic thought.

In the end, non-Muslims can’t resolve Islam’s religious liberty challenge. Only theologically educated, historically informed and believing Muslims can do that. In the meantime, those reading the Arab Spring as a uniformly-positive event might like to consider that it appears to be doing little to secure the freedom, if not the very existence, of ancient Christian churches, many of which were founded by people who in all likelihood knew Christ or his first disciples. The loss of such a civilizational and religious heritage would be immeasurable — and not just for Christianity, but for the future of liberty within the Islamic world itself.

Mustafa Akyol happens to be speaking today at a luncheon hosted by the Cato Institute. Acton’s executive director Kris Mauren will be providing commentary. If you are in Washington, D.C., you won’t want to miss it!