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Lela

Can this really be happening in the modern world?

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The religious cleansing of Iraq’s Christians.
Iraqi

Mosul, Iraq/Saturday July 19: Terrified mothers and fathers carry their wailing babies and screaming toddlers, struggling to hold them close while rushing away from their houses as quickly as they can.

The handicapped and elderly – some of them very ill, others physically impaired – are ordered to get up from their beds and get out, leaving their indispensable medications behind. They are frantically pushed in wheelchairs – some by family members, some by total strangers – away from homes, hospices and hospitals.

Tear-stained children – their parents trying to quiet them and hurry them at the same time – hear no clear answers to their repeated questions: “Why did they make us leave? When can we go home? What about my friends?” Those who attempt to drive their cars out of town are abruptly halted at checkpoints that bristle with firearms. Terrorists summarily seize their vehicles and confiscate everything that is packed into them. Their orders to drivers and passengers alike are short and to the point: “Get out and walk.”

And so they press on, women, men and children, old and young, moving as hastily as possible towards some uncertain haven. They have left everything behind, with nothing to show for themselves but the clothes they are wearing.

Perhaps far worse, they have witnessed cruelties against friends, neighbors and acquaintances – torturous, terrible barbarism – that will never be erased from their memories.

The houses they’ve abandoned – where some of them have lived for generations – are marked in red paint with the Arabic letter nun: representing “Nazarene,” or Christian. In case that isn’t clear, the invaders have added further information: “Property of the Islamic State.”

This final, frantic activity started in earnest at midday on Friday, July 18.

Rumors had been circulating for weeks, and some families had left preemptively. But during those mid-July Friday prayers, the Islamic State (IS, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS) terror group announced in every local mosque that Christians must either convert to Islam, pay an exorbitant Muslim tax – the jizya, which amounts to protection money – or flee.

If the Christians didn’t conform to these demands by noon on Saturday, July 19, there would be “nothing for them but the sword.” And so it was that the nightmare scenario culminated that Saturday, when the Sunni terrorist group expelled the last Christians from Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Plain.

Those cities, towns and villages had been Christianity’s heartland for 2,000 years.

First the Jews… Assaults on Christians have ebbed and flowed in Iraq since 2003, and from 2011, they spread across Syria as well, leaving behind a bloodstained wake.

Clinging to the faint hope that “this too shall pass,” both Syrian and Iraqi Christians failed to read the proverbial writing on the wall. Only a few foresaw the danger. One was Baghdad’s Monsignor Pios Cacha.

In 2013, the monsignor made a grim prediction. He said that his Iraqi Christian community was experiencing the kind of religious cleansing that had eradicated the country’s once-thriving Jewish community half a century before.

His prophetic words made headlines in Lebanon’s Daily Star: “Iraqi Christians fear fate of departed Jews.”

Father Cacha’s comments were tragically prophetic. As he knew very well, Iraq had, for millennia, been the homeland of some 150,000 Jews. They had been influential, wealthy and well-connected.

But from 1948 through approximately 1970, much like today’s Christians, they lost everything – fleeing the country with nothing but the shirts on their backs.

Today, fewer than 10 Jews remain in Iraq.

For that memorable reason, it isn’t so difficult for today’s Israelis to envision the distress of entire communities being uprooted and expelled – virtually overnight – due to deadly pogroms.

For Jews, such horrors are usually understood to be manifestations of anti-Semitism, combined with other political and religious realities.

And such expulsion wasn’t solely the fate of Polish Jews, or those in other Nazi-infested European nations during World War II.

Very similar stories are woven into the family histories of 850,000-plus Arabic- speaking Jews, who were cast out of the Middle East’s Muslim lands in the mid- 20th century. Many now live in Israel.

Since then, Jews have kept a solemn vow to themselves and their children: Never forget; never again.

It is Western Christians – and particularly North Americans – who struggle to imagine such a brutal ordeal in today’s world. Again and again they ask, “Haven’t we learned to live in peace with other religions and races?” “Hasn’t civilization moved beyond such barbaric abuse?” “Can’t we all just get along?” In short, the answer is “No.”

Saturday people, Sunday people Why? We’ll set aside, for this discussion, the unspeakable treatment of Christians in Iran’s Shi’ite regime.

Instead, let’s consider the substantial number of radicalized Sunni Islamists in the Middle East who are intent on reviving the “golden age” of the Ottoman Empire’s caliphate.

They believe that Islam lost its glorious historical epoch because of impurity and sin; only cleansing will bring restoration.

Thus, their sacred lands must not be defiled by the presence of Jews, Christians or other infidels.

When the Jews were driven out of Iraq in the 20th century, they had been in Mesopotamia and the surrounding areas for more than 2,500 years.

Likewise, today’s Christians are hardly newcomers to the area.

In the first century, two of Jesus’ disciples, St. Thomas and St. Thaddeus (also known as St. Jude), preached the Christian Gospel in territory then known as Assyria – including today’s Iraq. Christian communities established at that time continued, preceding the birth of the Prophet Muhammad by 600 years.

The heartland of Iraq’s Christian community was always in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, and in recent years other Iraqi Christians have sought refuge there, after enduring escalating bouts of anti-Christian violence.

After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Islamist killers from various factions – sharing a common taste for bloodshed – carried out attacks on Iraq’s Christians. In fact, this reporter covered some of these assaults in the book Saturday People, Sunday People.

In January 2008, a set of choreographed bombings exploded within a few minutes of each other at four churches and three convents in Baghdad and Mosul.

In early March that same year, the archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was reported missing. It was soon revealed that he had been kidnapped, and a ransom was demanded to spare his life. A huge amount of money was required, but the cleric was later found, beheaded, on March 13.

In May 2010, nearly 160 Christians were wounded – some seriously – when three buses carrying Christian students from local villages to the University of Mosul were bombed. A local man was killed by a blast as he tried to help the wounded. The buses were supposedly protected by the Iraqi government.

On Sunday, October 31, 2010 – remembered today as “Black Sunday” – eight terrorists stormed into the Assyrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad just as Father Wassim Sabih finished the mass.

As the intruders started shooting, the priest fell to the floor, begging for the lives of his parishioners. His assailants silenced him with their guns, holding the rest of the congregation hostage.

A team of Iraqi security forces tried to intervene, but in response the killers threw grenades into the crowd and detonated explosive vests. The final death toll was 57, including two priests.

After these and similar episodes, Christian refugees from Basra and Baghdad crowded into the Nineveh region in search of protection. For a time, there was respite. But now – almost a decade later – they face an even more formidable foe.

On July 29, my Hudson Institute colleague Nina Shea wrote on Fox News: “Before casting out the Christians, Shi’ites and Yezidis, Caliph Ibrahim, as IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is now called, made certain to take all the possessions of the ‘unbelievers.’ “Cars, cellphones, money, wedding rings, even one man’s chicken sandwich, were all solemnly declared ‘property of the Islamic State’ and confiscated. A woman who gave over tens of thousands of dollars was also stripped of bus fare to Erbil.

“With temperatures in the area reaching a blazing 49°, the last of the exiles left on foot, carrying only small children and pushing grandparents in wheelchairs. Those who glanced back could see armed groups looting their homes and loading the booty onto trucks.”

So it was that a ragtag group of refugees, fleeing for their lives – robbed, raped and otherwise ravaged – were among Mosul’s last Christians. And at the time of this writing, no one can be sure how many other Christians remain today in the rest of Iraq.

What is IS? The IS fanatics who dispossessed Mosul’s Christians were acting under what they believed to be the divinely ordained leadership of Baghdadi, a.k.a. Caliph Ibrahim. A secretive, ruthless and strategy-minded jihadist, he rules over his self-described Islamic State with an iron fist.

Baghdadi has been described by David Ignatius of The Washington Post as the true heir to Osama bin Laden. Ignatius has noted that he is “more violent, more virulent, more anti-American” than Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s al-Qaida successor.

After a rocky start in attempting to fulfill his dream of a caliphate in Iraq, Baghdadi’s IS found a new venue. It gained success and stature in the Syrian Civil War, defying both Jabhat al-Nusra’s and al-Qaida’s radical factions by arrogantly displaying its bloodthirsty acts of religious cleansing, particularly against Christians.

In February 2014, the Syrian Christian community of Raqqa was confronted by IS with demands much like those recently faced by Mosul’s Christians.

Rather than flee, Raqqa’s Christians chose to sign a document subjecting themselves to dhimmitude (subordinate status as non-Muslims in an Islamic state) under IS rule, and surrendering to demands that they observe strict Shari’a, as dictated by their overlords.

The subjugation of Christians and Jews to dhimmitude has a long history in the Middle East, and throughout the greater Muslim world. Although it officially ended after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, its humiliating and unequivocal demands have never been erased from communities that suffered under it. And, in various ways, it is still enforced de facto in some modern Muslim states.

Meanwhile, the sadistic behavior of these invaders has defied every known human norm – rapes of entire families; multiple beheadings; mass executions; even crucifixions. More than enough of this has been captured on video and widely disseminated to friends and foes alike.

If terror was their intention, they have certainly achieved it.

When IS warriors swept across a large swathe of Iraq in mid-June 2014, they experienced little resistance from the Iraqi army. In fact, it was widely reported that the army simply melted away. Not only does IS have a reputation for gruesome atrocities, which was no doubt intimidating, the Iraqi military is also disorganized and unmotivated.

IS seems increasingly invincible. Heroic warriors, helping hands Clearly, the Christians that fled from Mosul and Nineveh had few options.

With no money, no vehicles, no passports and no cellphones, they understood that their best hope was to get themselves to Kurdistan, an autonomous region of Iraq that has its own government and practices exemplary tolerance for Christians.

Kurdistan also fields a notoriously ferocious military force called the Peshmerga.

According to Business Insider, “IS fighters stopped when they reached the borders of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.

They were facing an opponent that wasn’t going to back off from a fight: the Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi Kurdistan’s own highly trained and battle-hardened paramilitary force.”

Thanks to the Peshmerga, which may include as many as 190,000 fighters, many of the Christians who were driven out of Mosul and Nineveh were given safe passage into the Kurdish region. They have found provisional refuge there.

At the same time, Christian organizations with access to Iraqi communities also rushed to lend helping hands – documenting cases, providing emergency assistance and speaking out on behalf of the traumatized refugees.

One well-respected international organization, Open Doors, reported on its website that local churches “… responded rapidly as Christians fled Mosul.”

Raja (not her real name), herself a refugee from Mosul, was able to reach out to the others. She writes: “Shortly after the occupation of Mosul, refugees started coming to our church. When it was time to distribute the relief packages, the families quickly gathered around us. It was overwhelming.

I saw the desperate faces of the old men and the mothers that came to collect their food, and I felt so sorry for them.”

Open Doors’ blog goes on to quote Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of Interfaith Affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

“Too many of us thought that forced conversions and expulsions of entire religious communities were part of a distant, medieval past. There was little that we could do to stop this horrible episode. It is not too late to realize that many others – Christians today, but certainly Jews, Baha’i, Hindus, Muslims and others – are mortally endangered by a potent religious fanaticism that threatens tens of millions, and which can still be resisted.”

Efforts to religiously cleanse the Middle East have been going on sporadically since the seventh century.

Today, the jihadi slogan, “On Saturday we kill the Jews, on Sunday we kill the Christians,” is being increasingly executed, not only in Iraq, but in Syria, Egypt, Gaza and in several Muslim majority states far beyond – places where few, if any, Jews remain and Christians are, quite literally, under the gun.

Since 2011, thanks to the chaotic upheaval of the so-called Arab Spring, religious cleansing in the lands of the Bible – and particularly the cradle of Christianity – has been implemented with ever-increasing success.

Apart from the Kurdish Peshmerga, there is little resistance and no intervention. World leaders intone “strongly worded” pronouncements, then fall silent. Religious leaders sign declarations; their laymen sign petitions.

And the rest of the world watches and waits, and wonders if anybody cares.

Why is there no opposition? Where will the brutality end? And who will stop it?

The writer is author of Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner and co-author of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians. She is also author of the newly released novel The Levine Affair: Angel’s Flight. A fellow at the Hudson Institute, she lives in Jerusalem.

For more, visit: www.lelagilbert.com.

Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, @ lela

The Tragedy of Syria’s Besieged Christians.

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An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post Christian Edition.

The present bloodshed in Syria began in 2010, during the early days of the so-called Arab Spring. At first, the anti-regime protests appeared to be another series of “peaceful” demonstrations defying yet another despotic regime. The “rebels” – first identified as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and claiming to be mostly secular and pro-democracy, seemed to be offering a positive alternative to President Bashar Assad’s iron-fisted, pro-Iran regime.

But today, more than three years later, that early protest has exploded into a ferocious civil war. Sunni warriors, many of them affiliated with al-Qaeda, have swept across the Syria-Turkey border, overpowering more moderate forces. Today they are waging jihad against Assad’s army, which is in turn heavily supported by Iran’s Lebanon-based Shiite proxy, Hezbollah.

News reports have become more and more appalling: Chemical weapons have killed thousands. “Barrel bombs,” designed both to murder and to mutilate, have left hundreds of civilians dead or surviving minus limbs, or blinded and disfigured. Children are being both starved and targeting by gunmen.

Recent reports from Israeli doctors – who have quietly and heroically treated more than 1,000 wounded Syrians – claim that snipers are intentionally striking children in the spinal cord, aiming to cripple, and shooting pregnant women in the abdomen, intentionally murdering their unborn babies. The U.N. has stopped trying to accurately update the civil war’s death toll, which is estimated at more than 150,000.

At the outset of the conflict, Syria’s ancient Christian community appeared only to be caught in the crossfire. For decades, they had been protected by Assad’s regime as a minority, and thus were assumed to be aligned with his forces. But more recently, Christians have been specifically targeted – not only identified as Assad supporters, but looked upon by radical jihadis as “infidels.”

Untold numbers have fled, and many are struggling to survive in primitive refugee camps. The most fortunate have made their way into nearby countries or, when possible, the West.

Meanwhile thousands of Syrian Christians are barricaded in life-and-death circumstances. And faced with ever-increasing violence, those believers remaining in Syria’s ancient and historical Christian community are gradually being decimated.

One Christian village, Ma’alula, has become emblematic of the abuses suffered by Syria’s Christians. Ma’alula has received special attention in the West (where very little has been reported about the Syrian Christians’ struggles) because the scenic community — a popular tourist site — is on a list of candidates for UNESCO World Heritage site designation. The Christian population still speaks Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

In September 2013, a source inside Syria reported to Nina Shea at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom about the dire circumstances in Ma’alula:

“More than 30 Christians are missing, 6 have been killed, we have the names of 3 of them. The Mor Serkis monastery has been bombed, but we don’t know about the damage. Most of the residents fled to Damascus, those who have not been able to get out of their houses because of ongoing fights between opposition groups and Syrian military, remained in Ma’alula. The Jabhat al Nusra, Free Syrian Army and the Syrian army occupied Ma’alula.”

That same month, AFP reported a heartbreaking story: a young Ma’alula woman could not find her fiancé after a rebel attack on her village. She tried calling his cellphone.

“Good morning, Rashrush,” a voice answered, using her nickname. “We are from the Free Syrian Army. Do you know your fiancé was a member of the shabiha [pro-regime militia]? We have slit his throat.”

The woman was told that her fiancé, Atef, had been given the option of converting to Islam with a knife to his throat. He had refused.

“Jesus didn’t come to save him,” the killer told her, mocking the couple’s Christian faith.

The village of Ma’alula changed hands periodically that fall. Then on December 2013, the Guardian reported,
Opposition fighters have abducted 12 nuns…Febronia Nabhan, Mother Superior at Saidnaya Convent, said that the nuns and three other women had been seized from another convent in the predominantly Christian village of Ma’alula and taken to the nearby town of Yabroud on Monday.

On the same day, Syrian rebels had captured large parts of Ma’alula, around 40 miles north-east of the capital, after three days of fighting.

Naturally, there was great fear for the safety of the nuns, particularly because stories of Christian massacres were being reported in other parts of Syria, and allegedly, beheadings of Christians had appeared on YouTube.

Why were Christians being targeted for such cruel abuse? In my book Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner, I describe the expulsion of 850,000 Jews who fled or were forced to leave nearly a dozen Muslim countries in the mid 20th century. Now there are less than 5000 Jews in most of those countries combined.

Today, it is the Christians’ turn to suffer the same fate. In September 2013’s National Review Online, I wrote,

The Islamist motto, “On Saturday we kill the Jews, on Sunday we kill the Christians” — or, more tactfully, “First the Saturday People, then the Sunday People” — isn’t just a slogan. It’s a formula for religious cleansing, pronounced by radical leaders and enacted by jihadi warriors.

Today, nearly all the Saturday people are gone from the countries that were their homelands for centuries, even millennia.

And, today, the Christians — the Sunday people — are paying a terrible price for their faith. Particularly in Egypt and in Syria, where virtually no Jews remain, stories of assaults on Christian homes and businesses; wanton destruction of churches; the disappearance, rape, and murder of women; mob-driven atrocities against women, men, and children; and the murder of priests and pastors are reported nearly every day.”

At first it was reported that much of the abuse of Christians was imposed by al-Qaeda affiliated jihadis who stormed into Syria in hopes of overthrowing Assad. However, it was later rumored that some of the attacks were at the hand of the more moderate rebel forces. Were they, too, killing or otherwise forcing Christians off their property and seizing it for their own use? It also was reported that some factions were attacking children in order to drive the parents away. Meanwhile, in the town of Sadad, north of Damascus, some 40 Christians were massacred, allegedly by Al-Qaeda.

Syriac Orthodox archbishop Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh’s appeal was poignant: “We have shouted to the world but no one has listened to us. Where is the Christian conscience? Where is human consciousness? Where are my brothers? I think of all those who are suffering today in mourning and discomfort: We ask everyone to pray for us.”

It is puzzling that western voices, and particularly Christian ones, are so silent in the face of such horrifying circumstances. Is it because the Christian churches in the East – Assyriac, Coptic, Eastern Orthodox, Maronite – are unfamiliar to Western Evangelicals, and difficult to understand or identify with? Possibly so, but it is also true that much of the scattered reporting on these issues fails to reach the mainstream media outlets in the US and Canada. Only Fox News seems to have actively pursued stories of Christian persecution.

And perhaps the impotence of western nations also contributes to the media’s seeming disinterest. Zvi Bar’el wrote in Haaretz, “Western countries are not capable of doing much to protect Christian minorities in Iraq or Syria because the degree of their influence on those countries is very limited….in Syria, protection of Christians – in areas controlled by the Syrian army – is a low priority.”

The situation for Christians has far from improved in early 2014. If anything it has worsened. In late February, a terrorist group known as ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – besieged the Christian community in Raqqa, a city in Northern Syria. The assailants offered the Christians three options: Convert. Submit to Islam. Or face the sword.

The Christians chose to spare their temporal lives, protect their eternal lives, and sign an agreement on February 27. As I reported on Fox News, “Faced with losing their lives or denying their Christian faith, the community opted for dhimmi status – suppression as a ‘protected’ minority – which requires them to submit to an array of demands, including the notorious jizya tax, which can be compared to Mafiosi protection money: purchasing their safety, but under strictly enforced regulations.”

So today, Raqqa’s Christians are subject to an extreme version of Islamic Sharia law, which among other things forbids them to repair their battered churches, ring church bells, or wear crosses or other symbols of their faith. Women must wear the veil, and cigarette smoking is forbidden. Nina Shea writes, “They are forbidden from reading scripture indoors loud enough for Muslims outside to hear, and the practice of their faith must be confined within the walls of their remaining churches, not exercised publicly (at, for example, funeral or wedding processions),” She characterized the requirements as returning to rules attributed to the 7th Century caliphate.

In fact, subjection of Christians and Jews to dhimmitude has a long and humiliating history in the Middle East and throughout the greater Muslim world. Although it officially ended after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, dhimmitude’s harsh, unequivocal demands and imposed inferiority remain intact even now in the behavior patterns of communities that suffered under it. Even when free from formal enforcement, Christians and Jews sometimes still respond with fear and acquiescence to Muslim intimidation; in various ways dhimmitude is still enforced de facto in some modern Muslim states.

There has been one item of good news in recent weeks. Israel’s Ynet announced on March 11 that the 12 nuns and three other women kidnapped four months before in Ma’alula had been released to the Syrian government. The women appeared to be in good health and claimed that they had been treated well – although one of their number was too weak to walk to the vehicle that transported them.

But it would seem that any religious or ideological motive for their abduction paled into insignificance upon the news that they had been ransomed by the Syrian government for $4 million. Nonetheless, in the spirit of Assad’s generosity, even Hezbollah offered jubilant congratulations, saying “On this happy occasion Hezbollah congratulates the released nuns, the Orthodox Church, the Syrian leadership, and the Syrian and Lebanese people.”

A more sober assessment was made in Al-Arabiya, whose general manager Abdulrahman al-Rashed deplored the applause and described the entire operation as nothing short of a crime.

“They… broke into the building at night and kidnapped the head nun and a number of nuns who were working at the monastery and an associated orphanage. After several Syrian factions denounced the crime, the al-Nusra Front and pro-Nusra media outlets claimed that the fighters took the women in order to protect them. But from whom? No one answered and the news of the nuns disappeared as many went on wondering. In recent days, it became clear that it was a blackmail for money operation that has nothing to do with the regime or with the revolution.”

The nuns’ story – despite its more or less happy ending – embodies the dangerously volatile layers of politics, religion, violence, crime and deceit that engulf the Syrian civil war and all the innocent people – including innumerable Christians – who are caught in its inhumane violence.

Meanwhile, in mid-March, the Armenian Christian town of Kessab in Northern Syria was attacked by al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists and 2500+ residents had to flee for their lives. Turkish forces were accused of turning a blind eye to the attackers as the jihadis swarmed across the nearby border. Kessab’s three churches were desecrated; much of the town was damaged or destroyed.

It is difficult to know how to help Syria’s Christians since it is virtually impossible to travel there in hopes of providing any kind of assistance. Pressuring western governments for their protection is worthwhile in principle, as is providing aid for the Christian refugees who are living in limbo along Syria’s borders. Our prayers certainly need to continue.

Meanwhile, our eyes need to remain open to the realities of our troubled world. We should be alert to the explosive and deadly scenarios that continue to threaten our Israeli allies. And we need to keep ourselves particularly informed about injustices that endanger the lives of our Christian brothers and sisters in today’s broken Middle East.

Kidnapped Nigerian girls: We must act fast against Boko Haram terrorists

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Young girls who hope to improve their lives through education sometimes risk attracting the evil eye of radical Muslim terrorists.

One early lesson about Islamism and female schooling was taught to us by a remarkably courageous teenager, Malala Yousafzai. At 15 she was already an activist for education, encouraging young Pakistani girls to attend school and better themselves.

The Taliban shot her in the head.

In many ways Boko Haram mirrors the Taliban’s fierce intentions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Malala is recovering from her injury, and undeterred by continuing death threats, she tirelessly pursues her mission.

Meanwhile, world attention has been turned to different group of young female students and another brutal scenario.

On April 14, the terrorist group Boko Haram abducted more than 230 Nigerian girls at gunpoint from their Chibok boarding school. Their heavily-armed kidnappers shot two armed guards, herded the terrified girls into buses, vans and trucks and drove them off into the night. Only a few escaped.

The girls’ devastated parents haven’t seen them since. They are beside themselves, desperate to rescue their daughters.

Recent reports have made the bad news worse, indicating that the girls are to be sold as wives to jihadis – for about $12 each. Or, perhaps, marketed by sex traffickers.

The story of the missing Nigerian schoolgirls first appeared in scattershot Western reports. But it failed to gain much traction, even after the kidnapped girls had been missing for more than two weeks.

Hannah Strange put it well in the Telegraph, “…such an event would be a major departure from the norm on our shores, but in the grim litany of almost weekly bomb attacks and killings that have come to characterize Nigeria’s five-year Islamist uprising, which has claimed an estimated 1,500 lives this year alone, it is, tragically, not quite as extraordinary.”

Initially, the Nigerian story was circulated almost entirely by social media, where it was increasingly Liked, Shared and Tweeted. Before long, the hashtag #bringbackourgirls appealed globally for help.

And now at last, major news agencies have begun to write about it. But why did it take so long?

Would the abduction have been more compelling to Western readers if 200 blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls had been abducted? Wouldn’t there have been myriad heartrending stories about their families, their photos, their hopes and dreams?

In fact, a group of bright, young African students may well be sold into sexual slavery or worse. And that’s only part of a larger nightmare scenario in their homeland

Thousands of Nigerian Christians have been slaughtered in recent years by Boko Haram, and thousands more have fled. Victims have been burned alive in their churches, murdered in their homes and massacred in the streets of the villages.

It has become a gruesomely familiar story.

The name Boko Haram is shorthand in the Hausa language for “Western education is sinful,” and its followers observe a Koranic declaration: “Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors.”

In their view, any form of education that contradicts the group’s radical Islamist views — including teaching Christianity in schools and churches — is subject to ferocious violence and mass murder.

The education of girls is entirely forbidden. And the captivity, rape, forced marriage and sexual slavery of young women embodies Boko Haram’s low view of females. It also provides a menacing look at the Caliphate the group hopes to establish in Nigeria and the surrounding territories.

In many ways Boko Haram mirrors the Taliban’s fierce intentions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Which brings us back to Malala.

Tuesday, on her website, she held a sign saying “#Bringbackourgirls.” She and the Malala Fund are pleading with Nigeria and the international community for urgent action.

“These abducted schoolgirls are my sisters,” Malala told the New York Times, “and I call on the international community and the government of Nigeria to take action and save my sisters….It should be our duty to speak up for our brothers and sisters in Nigeria who are in a very difficult situation.”

And last there is a tiny glimmer of hope. Fox News is now reporting that the White House plans to send a team to Nigeria that would include U.S. military and law enforcement personnel. Stressing that the kidnappings happened 22 days ago, spokesman Jay Carney pointed out,

“Time is of the essence. Appropriate action must be taken to locate and to free these young women before they are trafficked or killed.”

As the saying goes, better late than never.

Link to original story on FoxNews.com

What Can We Do To Help Persecuted Christians?

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Earlier this year I published an article about the persecution of Christians that ended with the statement, “Pray as if everything depended on God, and act as if everything depended on you.”

A couple of days later I received a very touching letter from a 20-something young woman, who lives in a university town in which such concerns are rarely raised. She wrote,

“I came across your ‘Silence is deafening’ article on during my work shift Friday afternoon. Needless to say, by the end of the article I was in tears, nauseous, and overwhelmed by a sense of impending doom. You concluded the article with the words ‘…Act as everything depends on you.’ These resonating words have seemingly found a permanent place in my mind.

As I sit here, I feel absolutely powerless…How do I help? Is there any way of helping? What do I do? I need to do something after reading your article, and I’m praying you might have an idea or some sort of guidance for me.”

Needless to say, I was very touched. I wrote back to her and offered some thoughts. Then it occurred to me that others also might be interested in concrete suggestions. So here are a few ideas.

Be as informed as possible. The western media gives scant attention to these issues. But you can start with www.persecutionreport.org. This is published by Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, where I’m an adjunct fellow. I know that this information is as close to accurate as we can get. From there, seek out other news outlets that publish these stories.

Support organizations that reach out to the persecuted. Not only do groups like Open Doors, Christian Solidarity International and Voice of the Martyrs (Google them to find their websites) publicize the plight of Christians, but they also are able at times to work behind the scenes – and with great courage. Sometimes they even make it possible to write to prisoners or others who need emotional support. Various Christian denominations also have outreaches to help persecuted Christians or refugees; ask your church office. Financial gifts to all these organizations are of great help.

Pass the word via email and social media. Social media is a huge weapon in the battle against persecution because it exposes the abuses. Post news stories (try to make sure they are from reliable sources) and write your own comments. Use Facebook, Twitter and Linked-In. Build up your readership and also “follow” people who care about the same things you do. Even though these are “virtual relationships,” they help us realize that we aren’t altogether alone in our concerns.

Try to form a network. Start a conversation with believers within your faith community. Ask your pastor, priest or rabbi to inform his/her congregation about abuses and to pray for the persecuted.

Put it in writing. If you are able, try to publish an article on the subject occasionally in a local or school newspaper. Write a letter to the editor of a newspaper when a persecution story doesn’t appear and ask why. Write to magazines. And post comments on websites (sane, reasonable comments, please!).

Work the system. If you’re an American, you probably realize that this is not the most responsive American administration we’ve ever had in relation to Judeo-Christian persecution. But we do have a Congress, and you can write to your congressmen and to the White House to make your voice heard about the abuses of Christians.

If you’re not American, but live in a democracy, you can take similar action in your country by making your voice heard by your parliamentary representatives.

In short…

Spread the word. Push the powerful. And yes, pray as if everything depended on God.

Passover & Holy Week in Jerusalem: Remembering miracles

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During the sacred week of Easter and Passover, Jerusalem’s streets are swept, sun-washed and graced by flowers of every color and fragrance, and celebrations embrace both Jewish and Christian traditions, marking a season of miracles.

Ancient stories are told and retold, putting smiles on the faces of children and grownups alike, recounting freedom from enslavement, the triumph of life over death, and God’s intervention into a world of trouble.

These are days when exuberant hope carries the whole city along in its excitement.
These are days when exuberant hope carries the whole city along in its excitement.

Palm Sunday saw the pathway from the Mount of Olives to the Old City teeming with joyous Christian pilgrims from all around the world, singing, chanting and waving palm fronds in remembrance of Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem.

At the same time, Jewish families and friends were arriving in Jerusalem from near and far by the tens of thousands. And at sundown on Monday, they congregated for the Seder – the deeply symbolic Passover meal that recounts the Israelites’ ancient flight from Egyptian slavery. The sounds of singing, storytelling and Bible recitation wafted from neighborhood windows.

The Passover story culminates, of course, in the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. And lest they forget the drama that led up to it, Jews continue to eat unleavened bread – matzo – for the rest of the week, recalling their hasty flight.

Meanwhile, Christians enter Holy Week reflecting on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Rituals of sorrow, repentance and loss represent myriad Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant traditions.

Then every imaginable Christian custom converges into Easter, when the miracle of the Resurrection – the cosmic triumph of life over death – is spoken and sung and shouted inside sanctuaries and echoed in the ringing of church bells across the Holy Land.

For an entire week, both Jews and Christians remember, rejoice and return to the foundations of their faiths, both of which are deeply rooted in the miraculous.

But this year, the radiance of the holidays has been darkened by violence. On Sunday, the eve of Passover, a Kansas City Jewish Center and Jewish retirement home were attacked, allegedly by a former KKK “Grand Wizard,” and three people were killed. Ironically, all of the victims were Christians. The killer’s poisonous venom sickened both communities.

Also on Sunday, Nigeria’s infamous terrorist group Boko Haram murdered at least 200 Christians in attacks on several towns in Borno State.

And on Monday, just minutes after the Jerusalem siren heralded the Passover feast, a terrorist shot and killed an Israeli father near Hebron. The victim’s family also suffered gunshot injuries, and two were hospitalized.

Despite the millennia of their survival, Jews are never allowed to forget for long the anti-Semitic hatred that shadows them. And as the most persecuted religious group in the world, Christians also face unprecedented dangers.

The 20th century saw 850,000 Jews expelled from Arab lands between 1948 and 1970. Today, fewer than 5000 Jews remain in those Muslim countries, where Christians now face the same violence, pogroms, rapes and murders that drove out the Jews. As the jihadi saying goes, “First the Saturday People, then the Sunday People.”

Not many miles to the north of Jerusalem, Hezbollah’s spiritual leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has summed up his malignant worldview: “We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win because they love life and we love death.”

But we “People of the Book” share a happier alternative. In the words of Moses, “… I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” (Deut. 30:19)

It is true that Christians and Jews have significant religious disparities, and for the sake of mutual respect, we sometimes have to agree to disagree. Meanwhile, the tragic history of pogroms and anti-Semitic abuses, in the name of Christianity, has led to widespread mistrust.

But these days, we are learning to find common ground and to stand together on it. And it’s about time we did.

When Christians contemplate the oft-painted “Last Supper,” they don’t always recognize that it was a Seder, shared on the eve of Passover. Jesus broke the bread, blessed the wine, and at the end, as traditional Jews always do, he and his friends sang a hymn before they went out – to a Roman crucifixion.

For millennia, people have discovered and deepened friendships around dinner tables. And during this sacred season, Jews and Christians are sitting down together simply to break bread, enjoy good company, and invoke God’s blessing on one another.

Because, in reality, we are natural allies in an increasingly dangerous world. And we have good reason to join forces.

For one thing, whatever our challenges, we have not forgotten how to pray.

For another, when in comes to matters of life and death, we can count on each other to choose life.

And most important of all, we still believe in miracles.

Intermingling in Mamilla

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Summer was in the air at Jerusalem’s Mamilla Mall, where the open-air pedestrian walkways, shops and outdoor cafes were crowded with shoppers of all descriptions. Weeks of clouds and rain had passed. A warm sun gleamed onto palegold Jerusalem stone, providing a stunning backdrop to an unusually colorful and bustling scene.

I was about to have brunch with a friend; we were waiting to be seated on a terrace where tables overlooking the Old City were in great demand. All at once the spot we had our eye on was snapped up by two chic young Arab women. Their heads were covered in designer scarves and their wellfitted jeans and accessories were upscale.

They were seated next to a haredi family in their own distinctive attire. And next to them was a table full of middle-aged American tourists in cargo shorts, souvenir Tshirts, and a clutter of cameras, GPS gadgets and fanny-packs.
I glanced around and saw that no one was paying attention to the Muslim women or to the many Arab shoppers passing by. Nor did anyone stare at the haredim – men in black hats or black yarmulkes, women in long skirts, with wigs covering their hair. In Jerusalem, like nowhere else, you can figure out what people believe in by the way they dress.

But no one around us seemed to notice or care what anyone else was wearing – or believing. Jimmy Carter’s pejorative phrase for Israel, the “apartheid state,” flashed incongruously into my mind.

THAT SAME night it was my good fortune to have dinner with some South African friends including Rev. Malcolm Hedding, executive director of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. Hedding actually fled South Africa in the 1980s when the government was on the verge of arresting him for his outspoken opposition to its racial abuses. He quickly moved his family to Israel.

I described the scene at Mamilla and asked, “So could that have happened in South Africa during the apartheid years?” “No way,” he laughed. “Everything was separate. The blacks had separate toilets, separate drinking fountains, separate benches. In some places there was a curfew, so they had to get out of sight and leave the town to the whites after sundown. It was like the American Deep South used to be.”

“Could blacks eat in the same restaurant as whites?” “Never! When we traveled with a black man who was part of our church, one of us had to go inside the restaurant and order take-out food so we could all eat together in the car. Otherwise he would have to eat alone.”

“So what about Israel? What’s your reaction to the ‘apartheid state’ label?” “When I hear apartheid used in regard to Israel, I think it trivializes the word. In fact, the harsh reality was that 40 million black people were dehumanized, robbed of their dignity and treated like absolute dirt.” He shook his head in frustration.

“They had no rights and no representation in the government. To trivialize apartheid like that is an insult to the black people of South Africa.”

On the way home, I suddenly remembered another vignette from Mamilla. I had rushed into the cosmetic store to make a quick purchase before leaving. I was in a hurry and there was only one clerk – a pretty Jerusalem girl wearing rather dramatic makeup. She was assisting two fashion-forward Arab women in silk head scarves, stylish trousers and well-tailored jackets. The three were having an animated discussion – in English – about eye shadow and eyeliner colors. The only disagreement between them had to do with hues: teal or olive green? Luminescent or matte? There was no way I was going to be waited on anytime soon. The clerk was trying out a new spring palette on one of them, testing the colors on her hands as she applied them while they all chattered nonstop.

As I left, I encountered a group of African pilgrims whose identical yellow caps told me they were from Nigeria. They burst into a gospel song as they made their way to the Jaffa Gate. People smiled and took their picture. An art display of Bible-story sculptures graced the plaza. Cellphones rang, horns honked on the nearby street and people of every age and description laughed and talked and celebrated the glorious weather.

And so it was, in the charming and controversial city of Jerusalem, eternal capital of the land of Israel. Many who love the little Jewish state rejoice in her goodness and beauty. Many who seemingly hate it, participate in events such as the global annual Israel Apartheid Week.

You’d think the hate-mongers would shop around for a new label. “Apartheid state” is so 1980s.

First Published in the Jerusalem Post

The writer has authored and co-authored more than sixty books, is an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute and lives in California and Jerusalem.