What’s behind the wave of attacks on Christians?

9416758648058dea244af40186191.jpegA Pakistani governor is murdered after backing a pardon for a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy.
Dozens of Iraqi Christians are targeted in some of the bloodiest attacks since the chaos that followed the U.S. invasion.

More than 20 Christians are killed and dozens more wounded in a New Year’s Day suicide bombing at an Egyptian Coptic church.

At least seven Nigerian Christians are killed in mob violence on Christmas Eve.

For many Christians around the world, 2011 dawned bleakly, leaving shrinking communities of believers feeling more vulnerable, wondering what the future holds for their religion and their families.

“I am very pessimistic,” says Jamsheed Choksy, a professor of Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University. “There is a small but deadly group of extremists who are armed and ready to carry out violence. Countries seem unable to grapple with them.”

The Obama administration says it is “deeply concerned” by the wave of attacks on Christians, and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.

Coptic churches in Canada are on alert as they prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ this Friday, and Egypt’s Coptic Pope Shenouda III appealed for calm as protesters clashed with Egyptian police for a third day after the attack on an Alexandria church.

Religious violence isn’t new to the Middle East, where some of the most serious repression and attacks on Christians have taken place. Nor is the migration of Christians, who were traditionally more educated and mobile than Muslims.

But as a steady stream trickles from the region in the wake of war, instability and poverty, experts predict that some 12 million Middle Eastern Christians could dwindle to fewer than 6 million by 2025 if the tide is not reversed.

“We are seeing a pattern of anti-Christian cleansing in two of the (homelands) of Christian culture, Egypt and Iraq,” says Nina Shea, who heads the Center for Religious Freedom at the Washington-based Hudson Institute.

“Protecting the Christian minorities has not been a priority for those governments or for the West.”

Christians may be targeted not just because of their religion, but as surrogates for the Western countries that Islamic extremists revile, says Middle East expert Joost Hiltermann, of the International Crisis Group.

“If you attack Christians you become more visible. It’s symbolically useful for the attackers. It’s a way of staying on the map.”

In Iraq, Hiltermann says, militants may be frustrated because their efforts at spreading terror haven’t ignited a civil war, as they did in 2005. Christians are soft targets who can be attacked with impunity.

But he added, “the real aim is the Muslim governments they want to overthrow.”

While experts warn against viewing the anti-Christian violence as part of a global Islamist conspiracy, “copycat” attacks are made easier by the Internet, which rapidly spreads rumors and hatred against minority groups. (One Islamist website lists 100 Copts in Canada, for example.)

“There is the ability to communicate instantly and sow the seeds of militancy,” says Choksy. “Those who carry out attacks use the same excuses for violence.”

Terrorist tactics also intimidate moderate Muslims who abhor religious strife but are afraid to speak up against it.

“A small number of people carry out the attacks, but the majority stays silent,” Choksy said. “Muslims are killing other Muslims, and members of other minorities, as well as Christians. The big problem is how do nation states rein in the militants and establish civil society?”

Ultimately it’s up to individual governments to fix the conditions that lead to militant anger, like inequality, autocracy and powerlessness. And they must have the political will to stand up to violent extremists.

But in countries like Iraq, a prey to ongoing power struggles — Egypt, with an authoritarian leadership that fears change, Pakistan, where draconian blasphemy laws discriminate against non-Musims and Nigeria, torn between religious and tribal groups fighting for rights and property — that looks unlikely to happen anytime soon.

In the meantime, says Shea, “Christians need protection, and the West should make policies to do it. Withholding aid in some cases, or offering asylum. This violence isn’t just a coincidence, it’s a pattern.”