It is alarming that the Western media have not been giving enough attention to the persecution of Orthodox Christians in Syria and Egypt. While the press glorifies the actions of a recent prisoner swap involving 13 Syrian Orthodox nuns by Al-Queda rebels who were released last week in exchange for regime prisoners, it has failed to report on the devastation the crisis has caused on the general Christian population. Militants in Syria have destroyed over 60 Christian churches and monasteries, and more than 70 thousand Orthodox residents of Homs, and more than a half the Christians of Aleppo have left their homes, reports Interfax. Many Christians are undergoing martyrdom equivalent to what we read in the biographies of saints. According to a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor,
“But overall the situation for Syria’s Christians has deteriorated, particularly in the northern city of Raqqa, where a jihadist group recently forced local Christians to choose between converting to Islam, paying a protection tax, or being killed.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq now independent of the global terror network, presented Christians with an ultimatum in late February that included at least a dozen conditions. Among them were refraining from renovating churches, many of which have been damaged in the war, or wearing or displaying crosses and other religious symbols in public.
Some 20 Christian leaders reportedly agreed to the conditions, including payment of a twice-yearly protection tax, ranging from about $125 to $500, depending on personal income levels.
Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, expanded on the restrictions in the National Review late last month. “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),” wrote Ms. Shea, who characterized the requirements as returning to rules attributed to the seventh-century caliphate.
The US State Department has strongly condemned such steps.
“The United States deplores continued threats against Christians and other minorities in Syria, who are increasingly targeted by extremists,” said spokeswoman Jen Psaki in a March 3 press statement which specifically criticized the jihadists’ demands in Raqqa. “These outrageous conditions violate universal human rights. [ISIS] has demonstrated time and again its disregard for Syrian lives, and it continues to commit atrocities against the Syrian people. Although [ISIS] claims it is fighting the regime, its oppression of and senseless violence against Syrians … demonstrates that it is fighting for nothing except the imposition of its own brand of tyranny.”
Some have criticized the US for not taking stronger action to try to prevent such atrocities, saying the ultimatum given to Raqaa’s Christians is but the most recent casualty of the West’s inaction.
Christian exodus from Iraq
Syria’s Christians, one of numerous minorities that had enjoyed relative protection under the Assad regime, are increasingly concerned that they could face persecution on the scale of Christians in Iraq. While Iraqi Christians constituted approximately 5 percent of the pre-war population, they accounted for 15 to 18 percent of registered Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries, signaling a disproportionate exodus that left the country devoid of at least half its Christian population.
Syria’s Christians represented an estimated 5 to 8 percent of the country’s 22 million people before the war broke out, and the Syrian patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church recently suggested that as many as 450,000 of the 2 million Syrian refugees today are Christians. Such figures vary widely and are difficult to confirm given the volatility of the situation, but those who have fled tell of kidnappings, murders, vandalism to their shops, and pressure to convert.
“We are expecting what has happened in Iraq to happen in Syria as well,” a young Syrian mother named Athraa told the Monitor last year, a few weeks after fleeing her village on the Syria-Iraq border.
Given that overall climate, it is noteworthy that the Syrian nuns, members of the Greek Orthodox denomination, reported that they were treated well by their rebel captors, and have been released unharmed.” (March 10, 2014, Christa Case Bryant, staff writer Christian Science Monitor).
A separate incident last October in Sadad, Syria tells of a massacre of Herodian proportions. “The worst Christian massacre—complete with mass graves, tortured-to-death women and children, and destroyed churches—recently took place in Syria, at the hands of the U.S.-supported jihadi “rebels”’ cites humanevents.com.
What happened in Sadad is the most serious and biggest massacre of Christians in Syria in the past two years and a half… 45 innocent civilians were martyred for no reason, and among them several women and children, many thrown into mass graves. Other civilians were threatened and terrorized. 30 were wounded and 10 are still missing. For one week, 1,500 families were held as hostages and human shields. Among them children, the elderly, the young, men and women…. All the houses of Sadad were robbed and property looted. The churches are damaged and desecrated, deprived of old books and precious furniture… What happened in Sadad is the largest massacre of Christians in Syria and the second in the Middle East, after the one in the Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Iraq, in 2010.
The situation in Egypt is not far from what it is in Syria. Because many Coptic Christians have been lumped together as anti-Morsi supporters, they have become scapegoated targets in the epicenter of the “Arab Spring.” A case in point was the death of 8-year-old Miriam Ashraf and 12-year-old Miriam Nabi, two of the 17 victims, when two men on a motorcycle—a driver and a shooter—sprayed bullets into a wedding celebration at a Coptic Christian church in Cairo. Robert Fisk himself, a long-time Middle East correspondent for the UK’s Independent, expressed shock and disbelief at this violence as the Christian and Muslim communities have long enjoyed a history of tolerance and religious harmony.
In a blog post in The Week, journalist Michael Brandon Dougherty, brings up Ed West’s Kindle Single “The Silence of Our Friends.” The booklet is a brisk and chilling litany of horrors: Discriminatory laws, mass graves, unofficial pogroms, and exile. The persecuted are not just Coptic and Nestorian Christians who have relatively few co-communicants in the West, but Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants as well. In the same article, he brings up the case of Ayman Nabil Labib who had a tattoo of the cross on his wrist. Ayman’s Arabic-language teacher told him to cover his tattoo in class. Instead of complying, the young man defiantly pulled out the cross that hung around his neck, making it visible. His teacher flew into a rage and began choking him, goading the young man’s Muslim classmates by saying, “What are you going to do with him?” Ayman’s classmates then beat him to death. False statements were given to police, and two boys were taken into custody only after Ayman’s terror-stricken family spoke out.” (Read the full article).
This is a modern-day martyr story as good as any one of the ones you read in your Lives of the Saints bios. The difference is it is happening right now, while you are sipping your Starbucks latte.
May the Church be glorified in her martyrs, but we must as members of the one true Church raise the call. We must alert our American politicians, parishioners, and Orthodox religious leaders of all denominations to categorically denounce such blatant religious persecution in the 21st century. Spread the word and raise the Cross to help raise consciousness in your community about the devastation reeked on the small Christian minorities, the remnant that remain in the Holy Land and the greater Middle East.
Above all, we must pray for our brethren in the suffering lands of the Middle East.