Holy Week 2017 is here, and what a start. As I am writing, the networks are sharing a breaking news story about two attacks on two Egyptian Coptic churches on this Palm Sunday. ISIS (Daesh) is taking credit for the horror. It seems that horror is never far away from you in the Holy Land.
In the interest of full disclosure, this will be a different type of blog from me this week.
When Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, the Jews were under the Roman Empire’s heel. Zealots were killing Romans and Roman sympathizers, a pretty rough season in Israel’s history. By the end of the week he will be brought up on false charges, be beaten, betrayed, crucified, buried, but, well you know the rest of the story, he arose!
As we celebrate this special season, I would like to take a moment and reflect on the status of our brother and sister believers living in the Middle East and North Africa area.
While Palm Sunday is the traditional beginning of the holiest week in all of Christendom, today also marks the untimely death of over forty Coptic believers
Many of you know that over the past several years I have been blessed to work with several nongovernmental agencies, primarily in the Levant region of the Middle East. The term is occasionally employed to refer to contemporary events, peoples, states or parts of states in the same region, namely Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey are sometimes considered Levant countries. In these trips, I have had the chance to talk to missionaries, relief workers, and local believers, as well as their Muslim neighbors. In these discussions, I would occasionally ask them about the status of Christians in that part of the world. Two to one, they shared how dismayed they were about how many Christian, who grew up in the Holy Land are leaving the area. This was something I had heard about but have only now begun to understand how significant this migration has been.
Let me share some interesting facts about this dilemma.
The following is from Dr. David L. Johnstons’s blog Christians Caught in the Crossfire. Be sure to check out the full article by clicking on the link. This was written in March 2014, there have been some obvious changes with some of the current issues with Syria and ISIS (Daesh).
Why the exodus?
Colin Chapman, Anglican clergyman and Islamicist who taught for many years at Beirut’s Near Eastern School of Theology gave a lecture on the past, present and future of Middle East Christians (available here). Here are some of the challenges, he said, that all Christians in the region are facing:
1. An identity crisis: “In cultures in which it is assumed that ‘Arab’ means ‘Muslim,’ Christians are made to feel that they don’t belong.” Yes, they massively contributed to the 19th-century Arab literary, scholarly and cultural.
2. A ghetto mentality: Because of many legal restrictions against them and an often difficult minority status over the centuries, Christians tend to fear their Muslim neighbors and despise them.
3. A fear of Muslim radicalism: with the rise of international jihadism since the mid-1990s Christians wonder if that might not become the true face of future Mideastern Islam.
4. Economic hardship: Arab Christians are well educated, but squeezed by a stagnant economy without job prospects for the youth.
5. American foreign policy: even with the US pulling out of Afghanistan and Iraq, Arabs in general (you can add Turks and Iranians), who have suffered from arrogant and aggressive colonialist policies in the last two centuries, still see the founding of the State of Israel, the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and current US hegemony in the region as more of the same. Christians, as a result, have often been seen as secretly allied to the “Christian West” and have paid a heavy price for it. But never before has violence against Mideast Christians flared up as it has in this new century – hence, the last point I add myself, building on Chapman’s third point.
6. The new wave of violence against Middle East Christians: Imam Yahya Hendi, President of Clergy Beyond Borders, quotes Azizah al-Hibri, professor of law at the University of Richmond and founder the influential Islamic feminist website Karamah (“Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights”) in an article that calls on Muslim leaders to stem the tide of Christians leaving the region:
“The desecration of cemeteries in Libya, the murder of clergy in Iraq and Syria, the attacks on churches in Egypt are all beyond the imaginations of civilized nations and educated spiritual region. Recently, suicide bombers targeted worshippers leaving their church in Peshawar and killed at least 60, including women and children and two Muslim policemen guarding the church. A gang of armed terrorists attacked a couple of weeks ago, the sleepy village of Ma’loulah in Syria. Several of its inhabitants were killed, its historic monasteries and churches were pillaged, and the crosses were removed.”
Plenty of other Muslim leaders and scholars are speaking out as well. I want to single out two, in particular, Hussein Ibish and Reza Aslan. Ibish was born in Beirut, earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts and taught Islamics at the American University of Beirut. Today he is best known in his country as a prolific writer and journalist, though he is also a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and based in Washington, D.C. Already in April 2013, he published an article entitled, “Fate of Christians will define Arab Future.” The incident which sparked the piece was an Islamist attack on a funeral service in the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo which killed two people and injured ninety. This kind of attack, he writes, sends shivers down his spine:
“As Egypt goes, so goes the Middle East. If the Coptic community of Egypt is thus abused, disparaged, and attacked, what kind of societies are emerging in the Arab world? The regional implications are chilling.
Pluralism will be unattainable if long-standing, and traditionally well-regarded Christian communities cannot be respected. Forget about skeptics, agnostics, or atheists. Never mind smaller religious groups like Yezidis, Alawites, Baha’is, and Druze. If ancient, large Christian communities find the Arab world fundamentally inhospitable, Muslims will turn on each other just as readily.”
“The bottom line is this: if the Arab world, and the broader Middle East, cannot accommodate Christians and other minorities, it won’t be worth living in for anybody. And if the region emerges from a period of ethnic and sectarian conflict – of monumental inhumanity when minorities are hounded out of areas in which they have lived for generations and been an integral part of the culture – those societies will one day look back on it as an unprecedented calamity.”
I hope that you will take a look at the entire article.
I have shared all of this with my Christian friends to raise awareness and to shed some light on what is going on in the cradle of Christianity over 2000 years ago.
As we move through the rest of Passion Week and reflect on the week before Christ’s death, burial and resurrection let us be reflective and prayerful as we remember the price Jesus paid for our sins, but let also remember the Christian throughout the world who are under persecution.
Thanks for taking a moment to read this post, I hope you have a meaningful Easter as we celebrate His Resurrection.
He Is Risen!
Next week: What Easter teaches us about fear.