Stop the Persecution of Christians

Christians, the most persecuted people in the world

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Christians in Middle East face growing threat, top cleric says

The patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, a cleric who formerly lived in Teaneck, recalled his visit recently to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, where thousands of Christians have fled for their lives. A young boy in a crowded church threw up his arms and said to the patriarch: “We have no place. We have no space.”

He meant a real, physical place for Christians like him and his family, who were expelled from ancient Christian towns in Syria and Iraq. But Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II said he also understood his words to mean a place in the culture, religion and life of the Middle East.

“Their existence is threatened,” Aphrem said during an interview last week at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Teaneck, where he served for 18 years until his election as Antiochan patriarch last spring. “This has been their home for 2,000 years, and thousands of years before that they were indigenous to the area. There’s a real threat that they’ll be driven out of the Middle East and there won’t be Christians anymore in the area where Christ was born.”

About 13 million Christians remain in the Middle East, and make up about 4 percent of the region’s population, according to a 2010 Pew Forum report. That population could continue to decline amid rising religious tension and war in the region. Samer Khalaf, a Paramus resident who worships at St. Mark’s, said the people should be concerned because the loss of Christians would hurt the entire region.

Aphrem and other Middle Eastern Christian leaders joined the In Defense of Christians summit in Washington, D.C., this month and met with top officials, including President Obama, to call for international help to protect Christians and save their communities from extinction.

The message resonates with Arab-Americans — about two-thirds of whom are Christian — who worry that their religion is being wiped from swaths of the Middle East. They are calling for understanding and protection to ensure safety for their families still in the region and a place for the world’s oldest Christian communities.

Came to U.S. in 1800s

For Middle Eastern Christians, roots are a deep source of pride. Their ancestors were among the first Christians who built the early church, and Sunday services are steeped in ancient Christian ritual and ceremony. Some, including members of St. Mark’s in Teaneck still worship in the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke.

“The bottom line is this is where God chose to reveal his word,” Khalaf said. “It was to us. For us to leave that foothold in the Holy Land, I think it diminishes the entire Christian community. Period.”

Arab Christians first came in large numbers to the United States in the late 1800s, mostly from what is now Syria and Lebanon, and many settled in Paterson. They include Christians who are Maronite, Coptic, Melkite, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. Many more left the Middle East in recent decades because of warfare, economic problems, territorial strife in Israel and rising religious tensions.

The plight of Christians was thrust into headlines in recent months after they were attacked this summer in their towns and villages in Syria and Iraq. Fighters from the radical group Islamic State destroyed churches, monasteries and religious statues and demanded that people convert, pay a tax or die. They terrorized Christians, Shiite Muslims and other religious minorities with executions and beheadings.

People had hours to flee, and most left with only the clothes on their backs. When Aphrem visited the refugees in northern Iraq, he found them sleeping in streets and abandoned buildings. On Sept. 14, he told a standing-room crowd at the Assyrian Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary in Paramus about his appeal to Obama for protection and help so Christians could return home and be safe.

“Christians across the world have been persecuted because of their faith, and the world should not remain silent and indifferent to what is happening. We are not in 1914, 1915, 1916,” he said, referring to the Ottoman slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenian Christians. “Today, with technology and communication, nobody can say I cannot see or hear what happened to these people.”

Metropolitan Joseph Zahlawi of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, based in Englewood, also was at the 45-minute meeting with Obama and U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice, where he asked for world dialogue about protecting Christians.

In a radio interview from the In Defense of Christians summit, Zahlawi said Christians in Syria were all affected by the violence from Islamic State fighters and the 3-year-old civil war. He said that four of his cousins had been killed and another young relative was burned from the waist down when a bomb struck on his way to school.

“We cannot accept the Middle East to be without Christians,” he said. “That would be an unforgivable crime. Therefore we are trying before it’s too late to do something and to encourage the Christians to stay where they are.”

Show of support

In churches across New Jersey, prayers have been offered for the faithful in the Middle East. Youth groups and church committees raise money for the refugees and consider ways to raise awareness of their plight.

Arab Christians, and many people who are neither Arab nor Christian, have adopted the Arabic letter N as their online profile picture as a show of support. It stands for Nazarene, an Arabic word used to describe Christians because they follow Jesus of Nazareth. The letter was painted on the doors of Christians who were targeted by Islamic State fighters in Mosul, Iraq.

Nuran Tasci, who grew up in a Turkish town near the Syrian border, said relations among religious groups had been good until recently in Syria. Fanaticism had escalated, he said, and he worried for the safety of his relatives there.

“If we are really the leader of the world focusing on human rights, we can focus on that area and see our Christian brothers and sisters and what they are suffering,” said Tasci, of Saddle River.

The dwindling of the Christian population goes back decades before the recent attacks in Syria and Iraq. Christians have fled for a variety of reasons, including civil war in Lebanon; violence that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq; persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt; and displacement from towns and villages after the establishment of Israel. Some have simply followed the trail established by relatives who came to the United States before them in search of economic opportunity.

“You lose a whole set of culture and perspective that you would not have without the Christian community,” Tasci said.


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Christianity will live on in Iraq: Column

Despite centuries of persecution, violence rarely has the last word.

Weeks before its first horrendous beheading of an American journalist, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria gave Christians in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, a stark one week choice: Convert or face execution. Christian houses were marked with a black “N” — for Nazarene, a reference to Jesus.

Those who fled were, as a refugee named Raad Ghanem put it, “stripped of everything. Money, wallets, jewelry, ID, passports, watches, everything.” For the first time in 16 centuries, there are no Catholic masses in Mosul on worship day.

This persecution has reached well beyond Mosul. As recently as 2003, roughly 1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq. After more than 60 church bombings and ISIL’s recent campaign to exterminate religious minorities, the numbers have dwindled. Syrian Christians are under equally serious assault, as are Coptic Christians in Egypt.

But history offers a glimmer of hope in the midst of this darkness. It is not just that refugees from persecution often find a home in new countries where their beliefs can flourish, as Catholics and Jews did in 19th century America, and Protestants did before that. The more profound truth is that violence rarely has the final word, even in the country from which a religious minority has been excluded.

The Roman Empire sought to snuff out Christianity on several occasions, most famously during the reign of Nero.

Even when they were not actively persecuted, Christians often were forbidden from owning property and subjected to social stigma. Yet Christianity survived and eventually thrived. Ironically, Christianity’s own commitment to human rights — such as the dignity of women — was a key feature of its success.

According to sociologist Rodney Stark, Roman Emperor Valentinian was so worried about Christianity’s attractiveness to women that he issued an order in A.D. 370forbidding Christian missionaries from making visits to the houses of pagan women.

In the modern era, China clamped down on Christians during the infamous Cultural Revolution. The Chinese leadership was ruthlessly efficient, and for years few known Christians could be found in China. Yet as soon as cracks opened in the oppression, Christianity began to spread. Two of the 21 best known leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests are now ordained priests, and the number of Chinese Christians is now thought to be roughly 60 million.

Beliefs that no longer seem to make sense of the world may fade. This is why we don’t worship Baal, as the ancient Phoenicians did, or offer libation to Greek gods and goddesses. But any religion or system of thought that speaks to our deepest needs cannot be kept at bay forever, no matter how virulent the oppression. It will always spring back as soon as it is given an opening.

Christians are not perfect. Christians have sometimes been responsible for repression themselves, as in the Crusades and the Inquisition in the Middle Ages. But so long as Christianity continues to enable men and women to navigate the complexity of their lives, it will withstand even the most awful oppression.

The resilience of Christian beliefs obviously should not be an excuse for complacency as ISIL continues its rampage. Millions of Iraqis and Syrians live in constant fear. ISIL’s disdain for human rights cries out for a response. The U.S. and other countries need to do whatever they can to help restore order in this time of chaos.

But we can take comfort knowing that repression in Mosul and elsewhere will not be the end of the story. Although something precious is lost if an ancient tradition is severed, even temporarily, Christianity will one day return to Iraq. It always does.

David Skeel, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is author of True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World.