CNS file photos shows Christian mother and child from Baghdad in a refugee center in Amman, Jordan in 2010.
By George Marlin
For many months now there have been plenty of headlines devoted to the unrest in the Middle East, notably in Egypt and Syria. What has been missing, however, is any significant media coverage of the ongoing anti-Christian persecutions in those two countries. The world was just deliberating at the UN — silence. Where is the outrage?
The media seems indifferent or fearful of criticizing the criminal and terrorist activities of Muslim extremists — or journalists get the story plain wrong. Glaring case in point: a recent BBC report, covering the rebel attack on the ancient Syrian Christian village of Maaloula, claimed that “the fighting in Maaloula is the first such attack on a notable Christian community since the start of the uprising. Residents of many Christian villages around Homs and Hama have been fleeing the violence along with members of other communities, but had not up until now been attacked themselves.”
Yet, young Christian girls are being raped and murdered, while Christian churches, monasteries, homes, and workplaces are being systematically destroyed. Syrian Catholic bishops have warned that their country is becoming a “second Iraq” owing to similar patterns of Church attacks and forced expulsion and kidnapping of Christians. During Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror, Iraq’s Christian population plummeted from 1.4 million to fewer than 300,000. Many of those Christian refugees settled in Syria, which was considered, at that time, a more tolerant country.
According to Church sources, the major industrial city of Homs, home to Syria’s largest Christian population, has borne the brunt of violence. Attacks on Christian churches, schools, convents, as well as homes and businesses, have caused a mass exodus. It is estimated that 50,000 Christians, about 90 percent of the Christian population of Homs, have fled to the mountains or have sought refuge in Lebanon. Those left behind cannot find work and earn money to support their families. Food has been scarce and unaffordable. Before the start of the fighting in Syria, the Christian community accounted for some 10 percent of the Syrian population of 22 million.
Charitable organizations such as Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, and others have been providing food and shelter for the Christian victims of Syria’s civil war, both within Syria and in refugee camps in Lebanon.
One hundred miles south of Homs, in Damascus, Christians are suffering a similar fate. The Greek Catholic Archbishop there has reported that 40,000 Christians from the Syrian capital have fled or have been displaced. Church attendance has declined by 60 percent since 2011 and there were only 30 baptisms in 2012. More than 40 churches have been destroyed; priests and deacons have been murdered.
Sister Joseph-Marie Chanaa of the Sisters of Charity, who has been helping war-battered families, recently told representatives of Aid to the Church in Need that: “what is happening here is inhuman. Young people are abducted. Dead bodies are chopped up, the arms and legs are cut off and then cut into pieces.”
In April 2013, two Orthodox archbishops were kidnapped near the city of Aleppo. The prelates were returning from the Turkish border, having negotiated the release of two priests who had been taken as hostages. Their car was ambushed and the driver, a deacon, was murdered. The fate of the two Syrian archbishops has remained unknown to this day. There is no doubt that the lawlessness caused by the civil war in Syria has given radicals the opportunity to single out and to terrorize Christians.
Christians in Egypt are suffering a similar fate. Taking advantage of the chaos since President Mohamed Morsi was forced out of office and put under arrest, the Muslim Brotherhood has looted and destroyed more than 80 churches, scores of religious facilities, and untold numbers of Christian-run stores.
Many Christians have been abducted so extremists can extort ransom money. Complaints by Christians to the police about Islamist attacks and abuse have gone unheeded. To give the faithful some protection, the Coptic Patriarch wants to build walls around the cathedral in Alexandria and all ecclesiastical facilities in Korby El Korba.
Coptic-Catholic Bishop Kyrillos William Samaan of Assiut explained that “the [Muslim Brotherhood] thinks that the Christians were the cause of Morsi being ousted. But the Christians are not alone: there were 35 million people who took to the streets in protest against Morsi. But Christians are being punished. We have been scapegoated.” Egyptian Christians make up 10 percent of the total population of 85 million.
Bishop Samaan, who expressed hope that a new constitution will guarantee “the equality of all Egyptians—Christian as well as Muslims—before the law,” is saddened by what he has called the indifference of the Western governments: “[They] are speaking about human rights, [but] do not see the reality of what is going on here. A group of terrorists have used arms against us. Western governments should not be supporting this.”
Many young Christians have mobilized to defend their churches. In 12-hour-shifts they are stationed outside their churches to prevent attacks. A Spanish Comboni missionary, Sister Expedita Perez who has helped organize some of these watch groups, said that “Christians want to stand their ground and defend themselves from the terrorists. [Young Christians] are surrounding the churches alongside their other brothers in faith, both Orthodox and Protestant. We are all united.”
Sadly, their brothers and sisters in the West — their governments and major media remaining pretty much mum — are largely unaware that ancient Christian communities are being dismantled and destroyed.
There is one new development. The US Senate is due to vote on a bill that would create at the State Department a new special envoy whose mandate is to speak out on behalf of vulnerable religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia. The bill, introduced by Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.), was passed by the US House of Representatives in a lopsided vote, 402-22, Sept. 19.
But the State Department already commented that such a move would be “unnecessary, duplicative, and likely counterproductive.” Two years ago the same bill was blocked from ever coming to a vote. The stakes are enormous, as Congressman Wolf made clear when, in making the case for the bill, he quoted German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died because of his opposition to the Nazi regime: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
George Marlin is Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org