Persecution of Christians, Not Here But There

On this feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, Christians in America should keep two truths in mind. Here in our country, Christians are not persecuted. But in many regions of the world, they are—openly and violently.

It shouldn’t be so hard to keep these facts straight. Here in America, despite declining demographics for Christianity overall, the church remains strong and free. Almost every town of our enormous country had a church open on Christmas. Yes, our version of the holiday can sometimes be overshadowed by American materialism and the “Happy Holidays” catch-all. And yes, each public school must engage in annual diplomacy about how much Christmas is the right amount for the holiday concert. But these are the fine tunings of religious liberty and civil religion in a pluralistic, capitalist democracy—not persecution, or even its harbinger.

At the same time, Christians are being violently persecuted around the world. Baba Ahmed reports about Christmas in Mali, where a tiny congregation of Christians bravely gathered for worship, tentatively reinhabiting the church that was burned by al-Qaida-linked militants in 2012. In the town of Gao, Christian leader Philippe Omore laments that “before the crisis, we could go walk on the sand dunes outside of Gao, but today because of the security situation that is no longer possible. We miss it, and we want to live as we did in the past—free and without fear for our safety.”

At the Ankawa refugee camp in Irbil, Iraq, Hamza Hendawi met with displaced Iraqi Christians, who fled the Nineveh province when it was invaded by Islamic State fighters. They attempt to keep the Christmas spirit alive in the camp, but the idea of returning to their former church buildings remains a distant hope. Rev. Khouri Youssef, a Caholic Chaldean priest who helped to organize the refugees’ departure, longs to be home for Christmas: “We miss praying in our churches, sitting outside our homes in the summer evenings, tending our gardens and living in our homes. … We bear the wound in our hearts, but life goes on.” If and when they can return home, many sites of religious and cultural significance will no longer be there. Jonah’s Tomb (Nebi Yunus), the spiritual heart of Mosul, was blown up and then wiped off the earth’s surface in 2014.

In Egypt, the persecution of Christians is both tragically violent and eerily accepted. For outside observers, Michael Hanna puts this month’s horrific bombing of Cairo's St. Paul and St. Peter Church in context. He notes that the targeting of women and children in a “spectacular and indiscriminate mode of violence” marks a change for the Islamic State in Egypt, but “the shift to targeting Egypt’s most vulnerable community should not be seen in isolation as a mere tactical innovation.” 

Instead, the vulnerability of Egypt’s Christians should be understood more broadly, as a function of their status as second-class citizens in their own country. In practice and form, Sisi’s Egypt offers the Copts a paternalistic form of Islamism that largely avoids top-level stigmatization and indulges in the rhetoric of national unity without offering them equal protection or equal rights.

According to Hanna, the Copts have become “an inviting target” for the waging of an intra-Islamic war. “In the present context, any attack on Egypt’s Christians is bound to both embarrass the government and its pretense to restoring law and order and erode popular support for the Sisi regime. But more importantly, those effects can be achieved while not risking broad-based backlash, with Egypt’s ingrained sectarianism insuring that outrage remains real but limited.”

Since violence against Copts is rarely punished, the official policies of the government toward Christians are less important than they seem. Hanna fears that the persecution of Christians will continue unabated. “A state and society that tolerates and normalizes bigotry and sectarianism will also engender more malicious expressions of that hatred.”

And therein lies a lesson for Christians in majority Christian cultures, such as the United States. Religious freedom for minorities must be protected not only around Christmas holidays or major news events, but in everyday interactions. We must, in the words of George Washington, give "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." For when bigotry becomes normal, bombs are not far behind.

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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