The death of churches in the Islam world
Christians throughout the Islamic world are under attack. Unlike Muslim attacks on Christians, which are regularly confused with a myriad of social factors, the ongoing attacks on Christian churches in the Muslim world are perhaps the most visible expression of Christian persecution under Islam. In churches, Christians throughout the Islamic world are simply being Christians—peacefully and apolitically worshipping their God. And yet modern day Muslim governments try to prevent them, Muslim mobs attack them, and Muslim jihadis massacre them.
To understand the nature of this perennial hostility, one must first examine Muslim doctrines concerning Christian churches; then look at how these teachings have manifested themselves in reality over the course of centuries; and finally look at how modern day attacks on Christian churches mirror the attacks of history, often in identical patterns. The continuity is undeniable.
Because tracing and documenting the treatment of churches across the thousands of miles of formerly Christian lands conquered by Islam is well beyond the purview of this study, a paradigm is needed. Accordingly, an examination of the treatment of Christian churches in Egypt suffices as a model for understanding the fate of churches under Islamic dominion. Indeed, as one of the oldest and largest Muslim nations, with one of the oldest and largest Christian populations, Egypt is the ultimate paragon for understanding all aspects of Christianity under Islam, both past and present.
[For a complete survey of the fate of Christians and their churches throughout the entire Muslim world, both past and present, see author’s new book, Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians, which became available today for purchase on Amazon and elsewhere.]
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Muslim Doctrine Concerning Churches
Sharia law is draconian if not hostile to Christian worship. Consider the words of some of Islam’s most authoritative and classic jurists, the same ones revered today by Egypt’s Salafis. According to Ibn Qayyim author of the multivolume Rules for the Dhimmis, it is “obligatory” to destroy or convert into a mosque “every church” both old and new that exists on lands that were taken by Muslims through force, for they “breed corruption.” Even if Muslims are not sure whether one of “these things [churches] is old [pre-conquest] or new, it is better to err on the side of caution, treat it as new, and demolition it.”
Likewise, Ibn Taymiyya confirms that “the ulema of the Muslims from all four schools of law—Hanafi, Shafi‘i, Maliki, Hanbali, and others, including al-Thawri, al-Layth, all the way back to the companions and the followers—are all agreed that if the imam destroys every church in lands taken by force, such as Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Syria … this would not be deemed unjust of him,” adding that, if Christians resist, “they forfeit their covenant, their lives, and their possessions.” Elsewhere he writes, “Wherever Muslims live and have mosques, it is impermissible for any sign of infidelity to be present, churches or otherwise.”
Echoing the words of the jurists that the church is “worse than bars and brothels” and “houses of torment and fire,” in August 2009, Dar al-Ifta, an Al Azhar affiliate, issued a fatwa likening the building of a church to “a nightclub, a gambling casino, or building a barn for rearing pigs, cats or dogs.” In July 2012, Dr. Yassir al-Burhami, a prominent figure in Egypt’s Salafi movement, issued a fatwa forbidding Muslim taxi-drivers and bus-drivers from transporting Coptic Christian priests to their churches, which he depicted as “more forbidden than taking someone to a liquor bar.”
Regardless, one need only examine the Conditions of Omar—an influential document Muslims attribute to 7th century Caliph Omar, purportedly ratified with a conquered Christian community—to appreciate the plight of the church under Islam. Among other things, conquered Christians had to agree:
Not to build a church in our city… and not to repair those that fall in ruins or are in Muslim quarters;….Not to clang our cymbals except lightly and from the innermost recesses of our churches; Not to display a cross on them [churches], nor raise our voices during prayer or readings in our churches anywhere near Muslims; Not to produce a cross or [Christian] book in the markets of the Muslims;…. [I]f we change or contradict these conditions imposed upon ourselves . . . we forfeit our dhimma [covenant], and we become liable to the same treatment you inflict upon the people who resist and cause sedition.
When it comes to churches, Islamic history is a testimony to Islamic doctrine: under Muslim rule, from the 7th century to the present, tens of thousands of churches that were once spread across thousands of miles of formerly Christian lands, were attacked, plundered, ransacked, destroyed and/or converted into mosques. Such a large number is consistent with the fact that, at the time of the Muslim conquests, half of the world’s entire Christian population lived in those lands invaded and subjugated by Islam.
According to one medieval Muslim historian, over the two-year-course of a particularly ruthless Christian persecution campaign, some 30,000 churches were burned or pillaged in Egypt and Syria alone. Major church attacks during Abbasid rule include when “the Muslims in Jerusalem made a rising [in 936] and burnt down the Church of the Resurrection [believed to be built atop the tomb of Christ] which they plundered, and destroyed all they could of it.” Nearly a century later, Caliph Hakim bi-Amr Allah (r. 996-1021) ordered that the already ravaged Church of the Resurrection be torn down “to its very foundations, apart from what could not be destroyed or pulled up, and they also destroyed the Golgotha and the Church of Saint Constantine and all that they contained, as well as all the sacred gravestones. They even tried to dig up the graves and wipe out all traces of their existence.”
A Coptic Paradigm
The history, or plight, of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church is well preserved. The History of the Patriarchate of the Egyptian Church, for instance, a multivolume chronicle begun under Coptic Bishop Severus ibn al-Muqaffa in the 10th century, records innumerable massacres and persecutions over the centuries, from destroyed churches, to crucified Christians, to raped and murdered nuns.
However, to bypass the objection that Christian writers may have been biased against their persecutors, let us content ourselves with the famous history of Taqi al-Din al-Maqrizi (1364 – 1442), the most authoritative Muslim scholar of Egyptian history in the Middle Ages. His account appears especially objective when one considers that the pious Muslim Maqriz was no friend to the Christians. For example, after recounting centuries of persecution and church destruction at the hands of Muslims, Maqrizi concludes by sounding like a modern-day Salafi, blaming Christians for their own persecution: “For from the traces they left, will then be seen how shamefully they intrigued against Islamism and the followers of it, as any one may know who looks into the lowness of their origin, and the old hated of their ancestors towards our religion and the doings thereof.”
In Maqrizi’s account, things appear relatively quiet during the first century of Islam’s occupation of Egypt (circa 641-741), no doubt due to the fact that Christians still numerically overwhelmed their Muslim conquerors. By 767, however, after decades of Coptic uprisings in face of abuses, “heavier hardships than ever fell upon the Christians, who were obliged to eat the[ir] dead; while their new churches in Egypt were destroyed. The church of Mary anent [alongside] that of Abu Senuda in Egypt was also pulled down, as well as that in the ward of Constantine, which the Christians entreated Suliman bin Ali, Emir of Egypt, to spare for fifty thousand dinars; but he would not.” By 845, al-Mutawakal ordered Christian churches to be pulled down. In 912, “the great church in Alexandria, known as that of the Resurrection, was burnt down.” In 939, “the Muslims made another rising in the city of Askalon, where they demolished the Greek Church of Mary, and plundered what was in it.”
Then comes the era of the aforementioned Caliph Hakim bi-Amr Allah, who decimated the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. In the words of al-Maqrizi:
And in his [al-Hakim’s] time, hardships such as one never saw befell the Christians…. He then laid his hands on all endowments of the churches and of the monasteries, which he confiscated to the public treasury, and wrote to that effect to all his provinces. He then burnt the wood of a great many crosses, and forbade the Christians to buy men or maid servants [which were often set free]; he pulled down the churches that were in the street Rashida, outside the city of Misr [Old Cairo]. He then laid in ruins the churches of al-Maqs outside Cairo, and made over their contents to the people, who plundered them of more goods than can be told. He threw down the convent of al-Qosseir, and gave it to the people to sack….He then set about demolishing all churches, and made over to the people, as prey and forfeit, all that was in them, and all that was settled on them. They were then all demolished, all their furniture and chattels were plundered, their endowments were forfeited to others, and mosques were built in their place. He allowed the call to prayer from the church of Senuda in Misr; and built a wall around the church of Mo’allaqa [the Hanging Church], in Qasr esh-Sema. Then many people [Muslims] sent up letters to request to be allowed to search the churches and monasteries in provinces of Egypt. But their request was hardly delivered [at headquarters], when a favourable answer was returned to the request; so they took the vessels and chattel of the churches and of the monasteries, and sold them in the market places of Egypt, together with what they found in those churches of gold and silver vessels, and things of the kind; and bartered their endowments. The emir also wrote to the intendants of the provinces to support the Muslims in their destruction of the churches and of monasteries. And the work of demolition in Egypt was so general in the year 1012, that according to statements on which one can rely, as to what was demolished at the end of the year 1014, both in Egypt and in Syria and the provinces thereof, of temples built by the Greeks—it amounted to more than 3,000 churches [the original Arabic says 30,000]. All the gold and silver vessels in them were plundered, their endowments were forfeited; and those endowments were splendid and bestowed on wonderful edifices.
Finally, after describing different forms of persecutions against Christians during Hakim’s reign, Maqrizi, the Muslim historian, makes an interesting observation: “Under these circumstances a great many Christians became Muslims.” In another place, after recounting how “the greater number of the churches of the Sa‘id [Upper Egypt] had been pulled down, and mosques built in their stead,” the historian notes again the typical consequence: “more than four hundred and fifty Christians became Muslims in one day.”
It bears repeating that the Muslim Maqrizi had no great love for Egypt’s Christians, and made disparaging observations concerning them in his volumes—thereby making his account of persecution all the more trustworthy.
Because Hakim’s persecution was so terrible and far-reaching, most modern Western historians acknowledge it, even as they portray it as an aberration of a madman, implying that Christians suffered only under his rule. Yet there is no dearth of Muslim leaders throughout the whole of Islamic history that did not at one time or another persecute Christians and their churches.
If Hakim is remembered as a terrible and insane tyrant, consider Caliph Harun al-Rashid, who in the West is depicted as a colorful and fun-loving prankster in the Arabian Nights. Though renowned for his secular pursuits—including riotous living, strong drink and harems of concubines, to the point that a modern day female Kuwaiti activist referred to him as a model to justify the institution of sex-slavery—Harun al-Rashid was still pious enough “to force Christians to distinguish themselves by dress, to expel them from their positions, and to destroy their churches through the use of fatwas by the imams.” Similarly, Saladin (Salah ad-Din)—another Muslim ruler who is habitually portrayed in the West as magnanimous and tolerant—commanded that all crucifixes on Coptic church domes be destroyed, and that “whoever saw that the outside of a church was white, to cover it with black dirt,” as a sign of degradation.
Indeed, in 1354, well after the “mad caliph” Hakim was gone, churches were still under attack, including by Muslim mobs, who, according to Maqrizi, “demolished a church anent the Bridge of Lions, and a church in the street el-Asra in Misr, and the Church of Fahhadin within the precincts of Cairo; also the Convent of Nehya in Djizah, and a church in the neighborhood of Bataq al-Tokruni; they plundered the wealth of the churches they demolished, which was great; and carried away even the woodwork and slabs of alabaster. They rushed upon the churches of Misr and Cairo…”
Such was the state of affairs of churches under Islam, explaining how, over the course of nearly 14 centuries, former centers of Christianity like Egypt, were reduced to sporadic enclaves that came to resemble dilapidated strongholds of Christianity surrounded by a sea of Muslim hostility.
And such is the state of affairs of Christian churches throughout much of the Muslim world at this very moment as the past returns to the present.
Raymond Ibrahim is author of Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians. He is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and an Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum.