Washington, DC – Easter morning sunrise services are part of a long tradition in Christianity. For millenniums, believers around the globe have gathered in the open at dawn on Easter Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and profess their faith. This year, there will be far fewer such assemblies in the Middle East and southwest Asia. For this we can thank what President Barack Obama calls the “Arab spring.”
One of the rarely reported consequences of the “democracy movement” sweeping across the southern Mediterranean coast to the tip of the Arabian Peninsula and up the Persian Gulf has been an increasing threat to indigenous Christian communities – some of which date back nearly 2,000 years. This Holy Week, the Obama administration was quick to profess “outrage” at the Qaddafi regime for killing and wounding journalists in Misrata, Libya. Yet, neither the White House nor our NATO allies have condemned a spike in violence against Christians throughout the region.
In Egypt, members of the Muslim Brotherhood – described as a “secular movement” by Western diplomats and intelligence officials – are telling Coptic Christians to avoid public displays of their faith “for their own protection.” Intimidated by murders, the firebombing of churches in Alexandria and Helwan, and the destruction of Christian homes and businesses by Islamist mobs, thousands of Copts are appealing for refugee status in Europe. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has been ruling Egypt since the February 11 ouster of Hosni Mubarak, has promised to “investigate all violations of religious freedom.” Yet no one has been prosecuted for the violence.
In Syria, where the Apostle Paul planted hundreds of churches after being converted on the road to Damascus, Christians are being told by the Assad regime to “avoid any public gatherings under the guise of religious expression.” Until recently, the Christian population of Syria – estimated to be 12 percent of the population – has been growing because of growing persecution in Iraq and Lebanon. Now Iranian propaganda encourages all “dhimmi” – meaning non-Muslims living in any Islamic state – “to submit or leave.” For Coptic, Chaldean, Melkite, Assyrian, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Maronite Christians, this means one thing: flee or die.
Though 45,000 U.S. troops remain in Mesopotamia, violence against Christians has been increasing since the American withdrawal began last year. A missionary in Basra – who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals against his congregation – said: “Two years ago, we baptized converts in the Tigris River on Easter Sunday. This year, the Feast of the Resurrection will be a very quiet affair.”
Lebanon – once a center of inter-confessional harmony among Muslims, Christians and Jews – is now a vassal state of the ayatollahs ruling Tehran. Hezbollah proxies of the Iranian regime have “removed” all vestiges of Christianity from southern Lebanon. Churches, some dating back to the Pauline era, have been torched, knocked down or converted into mosques and “cultural centers.” With the symbol of Christianity – the cross of the Good Friday Crucifixion – removed, the structures are emblazoned with Islamist graffiti and “Allah has no son” in Arabic.
In Palestinian-controlled Gaza, Hamas has issued a call for “Islamic purity” and ordered Christian missionaries to leave. Authorities even have closed desperately needed medical clinics and food and clothing distribution centers run by Christian organizations, because they are “fronts for Zionist spies.”
Since “popular uprisings” began in Tunisia late last year, an invigorated anti-Easter movement has spread well beyond North Africa and the Middle East. Though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted a growing lack of religious freedom during a speech last week in Germany, the apathy and indifference of so-called human rights groups to a global explosion in Christian persecution is stunning.
In Pakistan, “blasphemy” – defined as the public profession of any faith but Islam – is a crime punishable by death. It’s the same in Sudan, which imposes a like sentence on anyone who converts from Islam or proselytizes Christianity. And few Western leaders dare object to Saudi Arabia’s confiscation of bibles or the royal ban on Christian houses of worship and public displays of religious symbols – other than Islam’s crescent moon and star.
This week, authorities in Beijing arrested hundreds of Christians and shut down underground “house churches” to “maintain order.” On Thursday, two bombs were discovered at a church in Jakarta, Indonesia. They were timed to detonate during Good Friday services, when worshipers would gather to observe Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
Christians being persecuted is nothing new. Jesus Christ’s original followers were put to the sword, stoned, burned to death or crucified. And now the possibility that Christianity could be driven from the part of the world where it all began is a dismal prospect.
There is, however some good news in the midst of this travail at Eastertide. First, there is a place in the Mideast where Christians are welcome and where the faith flourishes: Israel.
Even more important is the message of Paul, the man who planted all those Mideast churches. He wrote: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” That’s what Easter is all about.