When Christians Become Targets

 By Simon Azazian- Christians have been living in the Middle East seven decades prior to the arrival of Islam, and for 14 other decades as part of, or under, the law of Islam.

Never has the situation of Christians reached such a difficult, unstable situation as it has in the last two years. Today the number of Christians is steadily dropping, particularly in places like Iraq and Palestine. Numbers are kept discreet as the church tries to encourage those few remaining to stay. But in reality, the emigration rate is very high as more families try to squeeze their way out of a place they once called home, to a new land where they strive for safety and security.

A couple of years ago, National Geographic dedicated a big chunk of an issue to address the drastically dropping number of Christians in the Middle East under the title “The Forgotten Faithful.” Unfortunately, not much attention was given to facts accompanied by personal stories describing the deteriorating situation of Christians. What strikes me most is that in these last two years the struggle has morphed from a “feeling of being a minority” to a “feeling of being a target.” In the last two years Christians in the Middle East have been targets of fanatical suicide bombers brainwashed with the idea of purifying the nation of infidel crusaders.

In October 2007, Rami Ayyad (a Palestinian Bible Society staff member) was kidnapped in Gaza after closing the only Bible bookshop in Gaza City. The next day his body was disposed of in one of the fields, and torture marks on his body reflected the brutality of his killers. An al-Qaeda group functioning in Gaza claimed responsibility for bombarding the bookshop twice and killing Rami. Yet because this was an act upon an individual it did not make headlines.

Larger attacks got more attention as Christians throughout the Middle East all shared the agony on the evening of Sunday, October 31, 2010: the attack on Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad, Iraq, left at least 58 people dead after more than 100 had been taken hostage. On the first day of 2011, just 20 minutes after midnight, as Christians were leaving a Coptic Orthodox Church in the city of Alexandria, a car bomb exploded in front of the church killing more than 20 and injuring more than 75.

Christmas Celebrations in Bethlehem 2010After an incident, anger and hatred are the first clear reactions I witness from many of the Christians. Hatred towards anything Muslim and a feeling of betrayal stir up every time an attack is carried out. But I also hear reactions like, “Not all Muslims want to kill Christians, it is just a very few that have these radical thoughts. The majority would never think this way.” And I hear an echo coming from a Muslim living in Afghanistan who has watched a fanatic pastor threaten to burn the Koran: “Not all Christians are evil. It is just these few radicals.”

Should we allow the gruesome actions of one individual to affect the mindset of a whole nation? This is how things are, and the danger is it allows for these people to build more walls of hatred and create wider delusions – that religions are at war. On the contrary, I urge every Arab Christian to stand even more firmly in his homeland, and to play a more active role in his surrounding community.

We need to remind each other, and the people around us, that our ancestors were the first people to receive the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost 2000 years ago. We need to remind them that our great grandfathers have played a very important role in shaping the Arab world and its structure. Christian Arabs were and still are some of the leading pioneers in influencing health, social, artistic and cultural arenas across the Middle East, not to mention the many creative, inventive and imaginative people in the history of this region. As Palestinian Christians under Israeli occupation for more than 60 years, we have learned how to endure.

Today, the world is asking how a Middle East without Christians will look. While many strive to find answers, others try to find solutions. One observation was, “A Middle East without Christians is no longer an Arab Middle East, only a Muslim one.” Yet as a Christian Arab I am reminded of the words Jesus said: “I have told you this so that through me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble, but be courageous – I have overcome the world!” We are called to be courageous, to fulfill our calling by being Salt and Light in this part of the world at this particular time in history. To be Light because there is so much darkness, hopelessness and sorrow around us; we bring hope. To be Salt because salt preserves, and we should preserve the Love of God through preserving His Kingdom on Earth, praying, “Forgive them, Father, because they don’t know what they are doing.”

Simon Azazian is the Director of Information and Public Relations at The Palestinian Bible Society.