The Persecution of Christians in the Middle East

See also: The Jihad Against the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians

The terrible violence in Oslo last month has brought the world's attention to the ravings of a madman and a murderer -- someone who was motivated to kill fellow Christians because he feels they had acquiesced to a takeover by Islam.

Our revulsion is appropriate -- this was the killing of innocent people in the name of religious and political hatred.   However, when the roles are reversed, and Christians are in the minority and Muslims in the majority, are we equally upset by murder, intimidation and religious hatred?

Sadly, we don't appear to be.  The world is standing silent as Christians living in Muslim-majority lands are killed, and their killers are venerated.

Today, Christians, regardless of affiliation, are being systematically harassed, persecuted, and murdered throughout the Middle East, the region of the globe from which Christianity first emerged.  Churches have been bombed and those attending Christian services have been killed.  Christian homes have been ransacked and cemeteries have been destroyed.  Converts from Islam to Christianity are considered apostates and subject to severe punishment.  In Iran, a man named Youcef Nadarkhani has been sentenced to hang for the state crime of converting from Islam to Christianity.  His appeals for clemency to Iran's highest courts have been rejected.

The former President of Lebanon, Amin Gemayel has declared, "Massacres are taking place for no reason and without any justification against Christians.  It is only because they are Christians."  This can only be called religious cleansing on a vast scale.

Christians once represented significant populations in the Middle East; the Copts of Egypt, the Assyro-Chaldeans of Iraq, the Maronites of Lebanon, and the Southern Sudanese.  Yet from the later part of the 20th century until today, the indigenous Christians are becoming refugees in the face of Muslim violence and persecution.

Lebanon was once 60 percent Christian.  Today there are only 1.5 million Lebanese Christians -- approximately a third of the country.  In Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, Christians were once 90 percent of the population, but are now a very small fraction of that.  The Palestinian Authority that controls Bethlehem even banned the cross for sale as a souvenir for tourists.  Samir Qumsieh, director of Al-Mahed Nativity TV in Bethlehem noted, "it is like saying that Jesus was never crucified."

Roughly only a third of all of Iraqi's Christians prior to the war remain.  In 2010, Iraq's Christian leaders called off Christmas celebrations in the aftermath of a bloody assault on a major church.  Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako explained, "Nobody can ignore the threats...The situation of the Christians is bleak."

One year ago, in Iskenderun, Turkey, the head of the Catholic Church in Turkey, Bishop Luigi Padovese, was repeatedly stabbed and then decapitated by his driver, Murat Altun, who shouted, "I killed the Great Satan. Allahu Akhbar."  His murder garnered little outrage.

In Saudi Arabia, a Muslim nation that is making major investments in technology and higher education, a nation that purports to be America's ally, it is still a crime to hold private religious ceremonies for any faith other than Islam.  It is even illegal to own Christian or other non-Muslim religious items.  Violators have been sent to prison and deported.

We in the West tend to gloss over these incidents, but we should not be so dismissive.  The treatment of religious minorities - or any minorities - often tells us a great deal about the majority.  If Islamic majorities hear no moral outrage and receive no resistance when they harass Christians, why stop the incitement and intolerance?

The mainline Christian churches are surprisingly unalarmed by this persecution.  Many U.S. and U.K. churches are more focused on boycotting and divesting from Israel, which is odd since Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population is growing in number.

There is only one historical metaphor for today's Middle East Christians: The Jews of Europe in the decades prior to the Holocaust.  Like today's Christians, the Jews of Europe were a minority, once thriving and at peace with their neighbors.  But they, too, were subject to discrimination by state authorities and orchestrated violence.  Those who left Europe as refugees were the lucky ones; those left behind became victims of genocide. 

The lesson we learn is a simple one: If we do not protect the freedom of conscience in all societies, the dark hatred of religious bigotry is sure to inflict damage on an unimaginable scale.  We are seeing that today in the Middle East, in its earliest forms.  And so it falls to our political and religious leaders to make clear their moral outrage, and to stand up not only to rogue terrorists but to despotic governments who have brought murder and pain into the homes of those who have chosen to pursue their alternative expressions of faith.

Cheryl Halpern is on the council of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and is former chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

If you experience technical problems, please write to