Today, over 1 billion Christians worldwide celebrate the death and resurrection of their Savior Jesus Christ, remembering that Jesus was ridiculed and persecuted in his life. Celebrants this week should remember that their brothers and sisters throughout the Middle East are joining in Christ’s suffering to this very day, facing ridicule and persecution that is driving them to leave the lands they have lived in for thousands of years. In our lifetimes, it is possible for the places that Christianity was born in to die out.
In the past year alone, attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt have been widespread. Twenty-four people were killed in a suicide bombing at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church, Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral, followed by a series of violent anti-Coptic acts in the town of Al Arish, driving Copts from the city.
Last year, on Palm Sunday, a sequence of suicide bombings killed a total of 47 Coptic Christians in churches in the Nile Delta and Alexandria. In May of last year as well, the Islamic State again targeted Copt Christians, this time attacking a bus en route to an Egyptian monastery, where 10 masked gunmen killed 29 individuals, both adults and children.
In Syria, Christian communities have dropped from a pre-war population of 2 million to around 900,000 today. Christians are regularly threatened by a myriad of Salafi-Jihadist and Islamist forces, and are in a hostage situation with a regime that exploits them. Their churches have been targets of mortar rounds, their people have been beheaded and crucified and their priests and children kidnapped.
Since the onset of Turkey’s “Olive Branch” operation in Afrin against Kurdish militias, the 250 Christian families living there have been under threat by the Turkish-backed Islamist forces that have attack their churches and forced conversions.
The situation in Iraq, although better with the near-defeat of ISIS, is still precarious for Christians. Recently, in the city of Mosul that was cleansed of its 30,000-strong Christian population in 2014, a mass grave with the remains of 40 Christians was discovered. In Baghdad, a Christian family of three was brutally stabbed to death in gang-related violence and a young father of two children was gunned down. These incidences highlight how terrorists target Christians because they are easy targets with no militias backing them and a weak central government that struggles to enforce the rule of law and protect them.
In the heartland of Christianity in Iraq, the many Christian villages of the Nineveh Plains sit in ruins almost a year since their liberation from ISIS. Only about half of the Christian population has returned, with many choosing to remain in refugee camps in Kurdistan or seek a new life abroad because their homes are destroyed. The security situation is tense too, with Kurdish, Iranian and Iraqi Forces entrenching themselves. This Palm Sunday saw joyous celebrations take place in Christian towns, a sign of hope and life in the midst of much despair.
The situation in Lebanon is better, since Christians make up an estimated 40 percent of the population, but the growing power of the Iranian-backed Shi’a militia and political party has hijacked the historically moderate Shi’a population with their brand of radicalism and threatens Lebanon’s stability everyday with its involvement in the Syrian civil war and threats to Israel.
If Israel responds with a military operation, the proceeding war will only harm Lebanon’s civilian population and push Christians to join their almost 10 million-strong diaspora abroad. Additionally, influx of more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in a country of only 4 million people has overwhelmed their resources and further strained the political situation.
This Easter, it is important to not only mourn for these persecuted Christians, but learn and act. These Christians are divided among various Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and other denominations with their own unique histories, cultures and languages. Learning about this diversity does them justice and also widens our understanding of the diversity of the greater Middle East too.
Many organizations, such as In Defense of Christians and Aid to the Church in Need, work to protect and rebuild these communities. Supporting them and getting involved with their work is important before it’s too late. This Easter, let us embody the true meaning of the holiday and help give life to communities under attack.