Christians face persecution in 151 countries, according to the Washington-based Pew Center for Religion. Photo: Elena Elisseeva/Shutterstock
ISIS/ISIL in Iraq and Syria; Boko Haram in Nigeria; Kim Jong-un in North Korea; the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—these are all players in a worsening world pattern of persecution targeting Christians as well as other religious and ethnic groups.
The calamitous plight of the uprooted faithful in the Middle East may currently be the most media-documented example of animosity against Christians, but practically anywhere on the planet, the followers of Jesus are the likeliest to be persecuted for their religion, according to the Washington-based Pew Center for Research. Christians face religious oppression in 151 countries.
And in findings from the Netherlands-based Open Doors, an evangelical Christian group that monitors the oppression of Christians worldwide and facilitates the practice of their faith, number one in the top 10 of today's persecuting nations is North Korea—for the 12th consecutive year.
"An estimated 70,000 of North Korea's several hundred thousand Christians are currently consigned to labour camps for their faith, " says Paul Estabrooks, a spokesperson for Open Doors Canada.
That Supreme Leader-worshipping country is followed by Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Maldives, Iran and Yemen, where persecution of Christians is driven largely by Islamic extremism. With heart-wrenching images of thousands of Christian, Yazidi, Shia and Turkmen families fleeing ISIS jihadists seeking to establish a Sunni Muslim caliphate, northern Iraq and Syria have recently dominated the world's television screens, provoking pity and alarm. According to UN estimates, at least 400,000 people have been forced out of their homes since ISIS forces swept across the Syrian border into Iraq in June. Many have bee killed, raped or abducted. Churches, sacred monuments, tombs and documents have been destroyed.
In observations by Donatella Rovera, an Amnesty International crisis response adviser, the militants have turned northern Iraq into "blood-soaked killing fields." According to Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Washington's Hudson Institute, "Christians are being systematically eradicated from the region."
In late July, France responded to the brutal religio-ethnic cleansing by offering asylum to Christians expelled from the city of Mosul, home to one of the Middle East's oldest Christian communities.
Following suit in early August, several U.K. Anglican bishops argued that, given its participation in the destabilizing 2003 Iraq war that opened the door to Islamist extremists, Britain has a responsibility to grant prompt sanctuary to Mosul Christians after militants threatened them with speedy execution, ruinous taxation or forced conversion. To ignore their needs would be “a betrayal of Britain’s moral and historical obligations,” the bishops said in their letter to Prime Minister David Cameron. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby backed their demand a few days later.
Before the U.S.-led invasion that left the north vulnerable to radical jihadis, Iraq was home to about 1.5 million Christians (5 per cent of the population), who had lived there for almost 2,000 years. Since then, the Christian population has hemorrhaged out of Iraq, as elsewhere in the regional cradle of Christianity.
"In a sense, the current situation is only the latest in a long series of bloody attacks on Assyrian Christians, except this time it appears that in many places they have been permanently wiped off the map," says Archdeacon Bruce Myers, the Anglican church's co-ordinator for ecumenical and interfaith relations.
Referring to the annihilation of ancient Christian communities in an Aug. 13 media briefing in Melbourne, Justin Welby said, "...what is happening right now in northern Iraq is off the scale of human horror."
Back in July, in solidarity with Iraq's Christians, Welby had replaced his homepage photo with ن (nūn), the Arabic letter for N, standing for Nazarene, which was being branded on the doors of Christian homes for expropriation.
In August, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, joined other faith leaders in condemning the brutal violence against religious minorities in Iraq, Christians particularly. And the Primate's World Relief and Development Fund also announced an initial grant of $10,000 through the Action by Churches Together (ACT) Alliance to help assist those displaced by the conflict.
Speaking on CBC, Andrew Bennett, Canada's ambassador for religious freedom, called on the region's influential Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to step up and condemn the barbaric violation of human dignity, "which has all the characteristics of a genocide." The delicate Sunni-versus-Shia religious politics of the Middle East, however, may conspire against gestures that might seem obvious from afar.
Given the enormity of the crimes, though, has the response of global leaders been sufficient? With thousands of Christians so obviously suffering, why, some ask, did it take the expulsion of the Yazidis to spur the Obama administration to forceful action by air strikes? The Bush administration had sidestepped Christians' persecution as a "sectarian issue."
Taking up this question in an Aug. 19 op ed piece in The New York Times, Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress slammed the world's—including the United Nations’—relative indifference to the large-scale brutalization of many thousands of Christians in the Middle East, while being quick to protest Palestinian casualties in Gaza. "There are no flotillas traveling to Syria or Iraq. And the beautiful celebrities and aging rock stars—why doesn't the slaughter of Christians seem to activate their social antennas?" Lauder wrote.
Bennett shed light on the West's reluctance to decry the persecution of Christians in an Aug. 22 commentary in the National Post, noting that this may reflect "a domestic cultural instinct to shy away from public reference to religion, or a concern that such advocacy could be somehow cast as renewed Western imperialism."
Dr. Paul Cere, an assistant professor of religion, ethics and public policy at Montreal's McGill University, offers this explanation: "One of the challenges is that when enforcer nations such as Britain and the U.S. that are already viewed with suspicion in the Middle East come to the defence of religious minorities, does it complicate issues for these minorities since they're perceived as being in alliance with the West?"
But what immediate action can Canadians take? Estabrooks of Open Doors thinks Ottawa should follow France's lead in offering immediate asylum to expelled Christians. The problem is, many Christians would prefer to remain in their ancient communities. And while, Estabrooks says, diplomatic intervention might achieve this in some regions, "others, I'm afraid, are a losing battle."
Is there something immediate that Christians can do to help their oppressed co-religionists around the world? "The most tangible way we can respond to this appalling persecution is to support efforts to provide temporary refuge for those fleeing for their lives, to urge our governments to let our countries receive these refugees of religious violence and to pray for these persecuted sisters and brothers in Christ," says Myers.
Estabrooks concurs and looks beyond the Middle East. "The first thing persecuted Christians everywhere ask us almost universally is to pray for them," he says. "The second thing is to assure them they are not forgotten. People are aware of what's happening in Iraq and Syria but may not be aware of how serious the persecution is elsewhere."
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Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.
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