The Vanishing Little Star of Bethlehem

News coming out of the Middle-East in the last few months has focused on two principal areas: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the so-called “Arab Spring”. The headlines have been restricted to these two topics. Buried deep within the bodies of such prestigious papers as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, if covered at all, are stories of the on-going destruction and persecution of millennia-old Christian communities within the cradle of Christianity: the Middle-East. The phenomenon is not exactly new; it’s been going on for decades if not centuries, but the growth and spread of Islamic fundamentalism within the last decade and the overthrow of Western-oriented Arab dictatorships has set in motion a rising tide of anti-Christian behavior that threatens to wipe out Christianity in the Middle-East in what amounts to a repetition of what has occurred to Jewish communities throughout Islamic nations within the past six decades since the creation of the Jewish State of Israel.

Five nations that demonstrate the ongoing obliteration of Christianity in the region will serve to illustrate the point: Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iran.

We start with Egypt, a nation of eighty million with a 10 % minority population of eight million Coptic Christians. The Coptic Church is one of the world’s oldest, and its appearance in Egypt precedes Islam by at least half a millennium. Earlier this past month, Copts throughout Egypt organized demonstrations to protest the fire-bombing of a church in upper Egypt the prior week, as well as one  back in mid-March, and the on-going campaign of harassment by Islamists in the region. At the October 9, 2011 demonstration in front of the Maspero district headquarters of the national television network, attended by a reported figure of 10,000 Copts,  the Egyptian army opened fire with live ammunition, killing Copts indiscriminately. Then armored military vehicles appeared driving into the crowds randomly, causing widespread mayhem. Final tally: 24 dead and over 300 wounded. The on-going Islamist attacks against the Copts are causing many to consider seeking refuge in the West.

Let’s move on to Iraq. Twenty years ago, Iraq’s Christian community numbered over a million members. A decade ago, out of a total population of almost 24 million, 850,000 identified as Christians. Today, with a population of 30.7 million, the Christian population appears to be less than 335,000. What has happened? Although the new Iraqi constitution guarantees freedom of religion, there is no provision in the Iraqi system for those that wish to convert, especially if it is from Islam to Christianity. And radical Islam has been launching attacks on Christian Iraqis ever since Saddam Hussein’s ouster. This past year has seen the level of violence increase, starting with last year’s al-Qaeda attack on Our Lady of Deliverance Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad which left 52 dead. Anti-Christian persecution continues, unabated.

In Afghanistan, along with the country being virtually “Judenfrei” or “Judenrein”, it is now free of any overt symbol of Christianity with the destruction of the last remaining church in March 2010. The U.S. State Department’s recently released report on religious freedom indicates that the small native Christian population feels tremendous pressure to remain out of sight, and the case of the Moslem who converted to Christianity and was nearly executed under Afghanistan’s Sharia law for Islamic apostasy demonstrates that freedom of conscience does not exist in present day Afghanistan despite the presence of American and NATO forces in that country for a decade.

When we turn to the Palestinian Territories, we are looking at the birthplace of Christianity. To see this two millennia community threatened with disappearance must be gut-wrenching for devout Christians. But like it or not, the Christian Arab population of the Holy Land faces the threat of extinction. The causes are many, but explosive Muslim birth rates compared with bare replacement rates among Arab Christians have caused the Christian percentage of the Palestinian Territories to diminish sharply. In actuality, the Palestinian Christian population has increased in the past forty-four years from 42,494 in 1967 to slightly more than 50,000 today. However, because of the changing percentage ratios of Christians to Muslims in the greater Bethlehem area—a region traditionally associated with very high percentages of Christian populations (70-95%)—the decreases to 28-60% appear as precipitous declines.

Along with the huge Muslim population explosion in the West Bank and Gaza there is now a phenomenon that does not bode well for the Christian Arab populations of these two areas. The radicalization of Islam, especially in Gaza where HAMAS controls the government, has resulted in pressure on the Christian community. But even in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, such as Bethlehem, Christian Arabs feel persecuted by the Moslem majority. Whether or not the persecution is officially sanctioned by the PA and/or HAMAS in their respective regions of control, it is clear that neither is doing enough to root out anti-Christian vigilantism.

The final country that we examine in this brief survey is Iran. Although the Islamic Republic of Iran enshrines freedom of religion in its constitution and has seats each for a Jewish and Armenian Christian representative in the national legislature (Majlis), because of Islamic (Sharia) law, conversion from Islam to Christianity is considered apostasy and as such is a capital crime. The result is that both converts to Christianity, and those Christians that aid them, find themselves under severe persecution, imprisonment, and occasionally, threat of execution. The current case of Pastor Yusef Nadarkhani is a perfect example. Nadarkhani is currently scheduled for execution for apostasy from Islam. Over 250 Christians were arrested in the last year for their religious beliefs and more than one has been release from prison only to disappear until his or her body parts show up in different locations.

In conclusion, it was revealed recently that some 105,000 Christians are killed annually because of their religious convictions, the vast majority at the hands of radical Muslims. At the end of his article, Elwood McQuaid makes a poignant statement, raising several pertinent questions that deserve repetition here: “In America, Muslims are protected, much more so than evangelical Christians. Protecting Muslim citizens is an honorable pursuit that raises America’s standards far above those in so many other parts of the world. Yet why are the same leaders who so passionately protect Muslim rights in America doing nothing for Christians who are dying in record numbers? Why do so many of our leaders hold their tongues as the world turns a blind eye? And there is another question—one we must all ask ourselves: Why has the church been virtually silent about the suffering of our brethren?” Why, indeed?