ISIS’s Middle East Christian-cleansing

  • Written by:

By George MarlinJune
Photo: Reuters
Here we go again. ISIS’s butchers this week kidnapped 88 Eritrean Christians in Libya. Pray for them.
Last month, the jihadists captured Ethiopian Christians and executed them. In February, it beheaded 21 Egyptian Copts.
Before the horrific news of ISIS’s rise and its medieval barbarism splashed across Western TV screens and newspapers, many Americans probably had no idea that Christians today make up a good chunk of the Middle East’s population.
Yet, it’s a profound, and tragic, mistake to equate the Arab world exclusively with Muslims. Centuries before Islam appeared, the Mideast was the historic heartland of Christianity — its birthplace, and the place where its foundational theology and worship were first articulated.
It served as the launching pad of Christianity’s evangelization of Europe and Africa. And it was the land sanctified by its first martyrs and saints.
That Christian presence is now at risk of disappearing — for good. The loss would be immeasurable.
Since the Islamic conquest of the region in the seventh century, indigenous Christian communities have remained a vital part of the Arab world. Indeed, Christians were among the leading creators of that epic civilization.
In many cities of the region, they retained sizable majorities well into the Middle Ages. Christian artists and masons, in addition to beautifying their own churches, were responsible for the design and ornamentation of many of Islam’s most iconic monuments — including its sacred Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
Even when the Middle East became a provincial backwater after the Crusades, the region’s Christians, often troubled by religious violence, unjust taxation and discrimination, nevertheless continued to function as the area’s conduit to the wider world — through their roles in commerce and diplomacy.
Yet Middle Eastern Christianity is not simply a matter of ancient history. Hoping to end discrimination in modern times, Mideast Christians have struggled for change in the Arab world, supporting independence movements and democratic reform. They’ve fought consistently to end second-class citizenship for themselves and other non-Muslim minorities.
Alas, many of these efforts have run aground on the rocks of competing visions for the region — most recently, a toxic Islamic militancy that rejects the modern world and takes its cues from an illusory “Golden Age” of seventh-century expansionist Islam.
Like a plague on the land, ISIS is committed to merciless religious cleansing that may spell the end of Christianity from the very land of its birth — one Christian, one bishop, one priest at a time.
The mass killings and kidnappings, like the one in Libya this week, get some attention. But when a sole Jesuit was kidnapped from eastern Syria the other day, the world simply yawned.
And then, of course, there are the devastated lives of up to a million Christian refugees, who lack even the basic means to feed themselves and their children.
There is the tragedy of churches seeing their infrastructure dismantled: ancient manuscripts, artifacts, statues and buildings destroyed, a rich patrimony at grave risk of disappearing.
A Middle East without Christians — holy sites not surrounded by a living Christian community — would turn the region into a museum of Christianity, maintained by foreign clergy for the benefit of foreign pilgrims. It would become a “Church of stones,” in the ominous words of Pope Paul VI.
Regardless of what their governments may or may not do to help, Christians in the West are called on to walk the Via Crucis, the “Way of the Cross,” with their fellow Christians in the Middle East.
We must stand with them and equip them with whatever means we have at our disposal to help them continue to bear witness to Christ in the land that gave Him birth.
Christians in the West must never more forget their persecuted brothers and sisters in the Middle East. That sense of abandonment, indeed, is among the greatest crosses they have to bear.
“We feel forgotten and isolated. We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West? Would they do something then?”
Such was the plea by Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako I, well before the capture of Mosul last summer by ISIS. Will we ignore him and turn a blind eye to the enormous pain of his people and Christians throughout the region?
George Marlin’s new book, “Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy” is out this month.