JERUSALEM NOTEBOOK: AN EASTER REMEMBRANCE OF PERSECUTED CHRISTIANS
JERUSALEM NOTEBOOK: TERRORISM’S UNSEEN WOUNDS
JERUSALEM NOTEBOOK: AMERICAN ELECTIONS – WHAT DO ISRAELIS WANT TO KNOW?
JERUSALEM NOTEBOOK: FROM ISRAEL, WITH LOVE
A VISIT TO EUROPE: REFUGEES IN THE SHADOW OF RADICAL ISLAM
JERUSALEM NOTEBOOK: CHRISTMAS WITH TURKEY’S CHRISTIAN REFUGEES
JERUSALEM NOTEBOOK: SEEKING PEACE WHERE THERE IS NO PEACE
JERUSALEM NOTEBOOK: THANKSGIVING AND THE GIVING OF THANKS IN JERUSALEM
JERUSALEM NOTEBOOK: TERRORISM IN PARIS – A CONVERSATION WITH IDDO NETANYAHU
JERUSALEM NOTEBOOK: SHATTERED HOPES AND DREAMS ON BUS NO. 78
For more Lela Gilbert/Jerusalem Notebook posts from Philos Project, please go to: https://philosproject.org/author/lela/
Catholic Herald: Why Pope Francis was right to call the Armenian massacres ‘genocide’ 4/16/15
Morning Star News: The Islamic State – Hastening the Apocalypse? 3/16/15
Fox News: International Women’s Day – Celebrating and Remembering 3/09/15
Fox News: Letter from Jerusalem: The horror of Tuesday’s synagogue terror attack
Jerusalem Post: Kurdistan’s Refugees struggle to survive as they outrun Assad’s army and ISIS
Fox News: Why American Support for Kurdistan Could Soon Become a Matter of Life and Death
Jerusalem Post: The Kurds, The Christians, and the Barbarians at the Gate
Fox News: Malala has won the Nobel Peace Prize and it’s about time.
Jerusalem Post: Black flags in Jerusalem
Hadassah Magazine: Christians in the Crosshairs
Jerusalem Post: The religious cleansing of Iraq’s Christians: Can this really be happening in the modern world?
Fox News: The Last Christians in Iraq
Fox News: Israel unrest: “Missing you in the bomb-shelter”
Fox News: Tears for Israel’s Murdered Teenagers
Fox News: The Religious Cleansing of Iraq’s Christians
Huffington Post and United with Israel (cross-posted):
Will Egypt’s New President #BringBackOurCopticGirls?
Zenit: The Tragedy of Syria’s Besieged Christians
Fox News: Francis in Bethlehem: What will the Pope hear about abuse of Palestinian Christians?
Fox News: Kidnapped Nigerian girls: We must act fast against Boko Haram terrorists
Fox News: Passover and Holy Week: Remembering Miracles
Fox News: The stuff of nightmares – Christians forced from homes in Kassab Syria
Lela Gilbert Personal Blog: What can we do to help persecuted Christians?
Fox News: Christians in captivity – the agony of waiting
Fox News: Syria’s Christians face new threat: “convert, submit to Islam or face sword”
Fox News: Why Vicar of Baghdad is 21st Century Hero.
Fox News: Syria’s Christians: Who will help them?
Fox News: In Nazareth a Christian-Arab priest seeks full integration into Israeli society
Fox News: A Scary not merry Christmas for the Christians in the Middle East
Fox News: Silence is deafening as attacks on Christians continue to grow
Fox News: Did Nobel Committee snub Malala Yousafzai because it fears radical Islam?
National Review Online: “Thank God there are almost no Jews in Syria now” (and the Christians are next)
National Review Online: Saturday and Sunday in the Holy Land – Israel, Christianity and Peace
Ricochet: “Because they were Copts – That’s enough of a crime”
National Review Online: “Iranian Christians sentences for crimes against the Islamic order”
Weekly Standard: “Saturday People, Sunday People”
Jerusalem Notebook: Saturday People, Sunday People and the Wings of Eagles.
Airlifting Persecuted Christians: Lord Weidenfeld’s Dept of Gratitude 7/21/2015
Jerusalem Notebook: Christians, Israel and Michael Oren 6/30/15
Jerusalem Notebook: Finding Hope Amidst the Flames 6/19/15
Persecuted Christians: In Search of New Beginnings and Brighter Tomorrows 6/3/15
Jerusalem Notebook: Egypt’s Coptic Christians – Braced for Persecution 5/25/15
Armenian Genocide: 100 Years of Remembrance 4/23/15
Why Pope Francis was right to call the Armenian massacres ‘genocide’ 4/16/15
Jerusalem Notebook: Passover – A Celebration of Freedom 4/12/15
Jerusalem Notebook: Israel’s 2015 Election – Gone but not Forgotten. 3/30/15
Morning Star News:
The Islamic State – Hastening the Apocalypse? 3/16/15
Jerusalem Notebook: Reflections on Purim 2015 3/13/15
International Women’s Day – Celebrating and Remembering 3/09/15
Jerusalem Notebook: Assyrian Christians: Remembering the Year of the Sword 3/1/15
Jerusalem Notebook: By the Rivers of Babylon 2/16/15
Jerusalem Notebook: Living in the Eye of the Storm 2/3/15
Jerusalem Notebook: Thoughts on a Cold Jerusalem Night 1/22/15
Letter from Jerusalem: The horror of Tuesday’s synagogue terror attack
Kurdistan’s Refugees struggle to survive as they outrun Assad’s army and ISIS
Why American Support for Kurdistan Could Soon Become a Matter of Life and Death
The Kurds, The Christians, and the Barbarians at the Gate
Malala has won the Nobel Peace Prize and it’s about time.
Black flags in Jerusalem
Christians in the Crosshairs
The religious cleansing of Iraq’s Christians.
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
With all the grim and often infuriating news reporting from Israel, I apologize but must take a break to introduce something a bit less distressing.
My new novel – co-authored with LTC (ret) W. Jack Buckner – was released today. It’s about another conflict – the ongoing horror story in Nigeria.
But this takes a different tack. Instead of relying on national armies (a rather disheartening option these days) I have invented – and Jack has armed and launched into action – a privately funded commando unit of Special Ops. They rush in where angels (and politicians) fear to tread and get the job done!
Don’t miss it – now on Kindle, Nook and in paperback. The Levine Affair: Angel’s Flight.
Order it today and enjoy some warriors who aren’t bound by lame Rules of Engagement and ridiculous “ceasefire” demands.
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.
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.
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.
Spread the word. Push the powerful. And yes, pray as if everything depended on God.