War on Christians in the Middle East must be stopped

By Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein

An Islamic court in

Shiraz, Iran
, has just convicted two men of being infidels. Their crime? Converting to Christianity. The possible sentence? Death. Not too far away in

Saudi Arabia
, an outraged father recently hacked his own daughter to death for the same “abomination.”

In the daily drumbeat of Mideast news, there is one story of historic proportion that goes nearly unreported: the persecution and systematic destruction in the Islamic world of some of the world’s oldest Christian communities.

Sure, we hear when a Catholic bishop is murdered in Iraq, when machete-armed fanatics attack Egyptian Copt worshipers, or when churches are torched in Hamas-controlled Gaza.

But what about the jailing in Saudi Arabia of foreign workers for holding forbidden Christian prayers? Or the arrest in Pakistan of a Christian man for marrying a Muslim woman? Or the continuing problem of an Islamic educational system that teaches the young that Christians (as well as Jews) are “the descendants of apes and pigs”?

The pattern is nearly the same wherever extremist Islam holds sway. From Bangladesh to Darfur, Christians have become regular targets for Islamic thugs and the governments that back them. Just this month, a Pakistani court upheld the kidnapping, conversion and “marriage” to older Muslim men of two Christian sisters, aged 10 and 13.

Even in lands that are not under orthodox Sharia law, Christian communities feel the pressure of persecution. In constitutionally secular Turkey, a legally recognized Protestant church in the capital of Ankara is under threat of closure by local police.

Many Christians in Islamic lands have become subject to such terror that they are fleeing the homelands their ancestors have known almost since the time of Jesus. Iraq’s Christian sects now feel forced to pray in secret. Others simply leave. Although they comprise less than 4% of Iraq’s population, Iraqi Christians now account for 40% of its refugees.

Lebanon’s once politically powerful Christian community has already shrunk almost beyond recognition. Thirty years ago, Lebanon was 60% Christian; today it is barely 25%. And the growing political power of Iran-backed Hezbollah is encouraging further departures.

Even in the Holy Land, where Jesus walked, there is an increasing Christian exodus from both the West Bank and Gaza. Part of it surely stems from the continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But much of it results from a growing Islamic campaign to force Christians to sell their property and leave.

The only place in the Mideast where Christian communities continue to grow is in the Jewish State of Israel. Israel’s tolerance is logical. What people of faith know the dangers of religious persecution better than the people of Israel – especially those whose families originated in the Islamic world? Between 1948 and 1956 more than 850,000 Jews were forced to flee the Arab lands where their families had lived for centuries.

When, in 2001, Afghan fanatics destroyed two ancient statues of Buddha, the world was shocked. But between 1948 and 1967, when Islamic forces controlled the Holy City of Jerusalem, there was a systematic campaign to erase the historic Jewish presence. Synagogues were destroyed and ancient Jewish gravestones carted away. Even today, the Palestinian Authority denies Israel’s right to consider itself a Jewish state and denies the historic Jewish connection to Jerusalem.

If there is hope for true peace in the Middle East, it won’t simply come from Israeli and Palestinian leaders shaking hands at a formal ceremony. It hinges on extremist Islam reforming its view of others. People of commitment and tolerance all around the world – Christians, Jews, Muslims and others – must speak out loudly and forcefully to prevent the Islamic world’s Christians from suffering the same fate as its now all-but-nonexistent Jewish communities.

Eckstein is founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.