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The fallout of religious cleansing

January 04, 2011

Email

THERE hasn’t been much for millions of Christians in the Middle East and Africa to celebrate over the recent Christmas and New Year season.

In a suicide bombing at a church in Alexandria over New Year that left over a score dead, terrorists staged yet another attack against Egypt’s Coptic Christians. This community has lived in Egypt for nearly two millennia, and at 8 million, constitutes around 10 per cent of the population. An earlier drive-by shooting had left half a dozen dead.

In Iraq, a church full of Christians was taken over on Oct 31, with nearly fifty killed. In the resulting atmosphere of fear and sorrow, hardly any Iraqi Christians celebrated Christmas publicly. As it is, around half the million-strong Christian population has fled persecution and violence at the hands of the majority. The Boko Haram Muslim cult in Nigeria has staged a number of attacks against churches that have left scores dead over the last few days. The name of the group literally means ‘books are haram, or forbidden’, but it stands for the prohibition of modern education.

Reporting on the aftermath of the Alexandria attack, the New York Times quotes one Christian protester as shouting: “If this had happened in a mosque, the government would be doing something. But this happens to us every year and every day, and they do nothing.”This, unfortunately, is true. In fact, if a mosque anywhere in the world is attacked and worshippers killed and wounded, the backlash encompasses the entire Islamic world. A random attack on a Muslim centre in America will spark headlines and outrage on the other side of the world. But why is not this same anger expressed by Muslims over the killings of Christian fellow-citizens of Iraq and Egypt?

In other words, when did it become acceptable for Muslims to kill Christians? At school, and later in government, I had many Christian friends. Sadly, most of them have left Pakistan, and settled in the West where they and their children have done very well. The truth is that Pakistan is no longer a hospitable place for anybody not subscribing to the majority Sunni Muslim faith.

And yet despite all the evidence to the contrary, Muslims like to think that the Islamic bond between ‘the people of the Book’ somehow guarantees the security of Christian and Jewish minorities living in their midst. Tell that to Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman condemned to death under Pakistan’s draconian Blasphemy Laws, and whose family has had to go into hiding as a result of death threats from their neighbours.

The reality is that over the last couple of decades, intolerance has intensified in the Muslim world. In the aftermath of 9/11, when suspicion and anger shaped attitudes towards Muslims in much of the West, and Islamophobia raised its ugly head, action and reaction have led to a sharp decline in the relations between the two major faiths and their followers.

But it’s fair to note that despite this deterioration, the West has been remarkably restrained in confronting the Muslims living in Europe and America, even given the clear threat some of them pose to their host nations. In Muslim countries, Christians are being targeted only for their beliefs, and not for any acts of violence. Imagine the outrage and the reprisals had any of them actually carried out terrorist attacks against the majority.

Ironically, the Western media has not focussed on the increasing anti-Christian violence in many Muslim countries. While individual attacks are reported, the linkages between them are seldom remarked on. There is no equivalent in Christendom to the Muslim ummah. And while the Pope and various Western leaders have condemned the anti-Christian violence, no tangible steps have been taken to protect them.

The United States considers its relationship with both Egypt and post-Saddam Iraq as much too important to threaten sanctions against either state to push them to protect their Christian citizens. Whatever his other sins, Saddam Hussein ensured equal rights for Christians. Tariq Aziz, his foreign minister for years, was a Christian, as were other members of the government. What is more troubling than these frequent attacks is the silence of Muslim leaders and clerics. Few voices were raised in recent weeks to condemn this rising violence, and while the Muslim media did report it, few editorials have been as critical as they would have been had Muslims been at the receiving end.

If this disturbing trend continues, it is only a matter of time before evangelical Christians in the West begin to use their considerable influence to retaliate. Such an escalation will help nobody but jihadi forces who, in all probability, are carrying out these attacks against Christian targets in order to raise the stakes.

Another reason for this wave of violence is that extremists see local Christians as soft targets: as they cannot hit Westerners as easily, they bomb churches instead. In some places, Christians are being punished for perceived Western wrongs committed against Muslims.

So where is this mindless religious cleansing taking us? The Arab Christians now being forced to seek sanctuary in the West will harbour long and bitter memories of their suffering. In time, they might be at the vanguard of angry exiles who will influence their adopted countries’ policies towards the Muslim world. They may also seek to settle scores against the innocent Muslims living in their towns and neighbourhoods.

By our silence, we become collusive in what’s happening. It’s not enough to say that we ourselves did nothing to persecute the minorities. The question is what did we do to protect them? Only by condemning the violence in clear and unequivocal terms can we hope to stop it. Anything less is hypocritical and cowardly.

Every once in a while, I get emails from Christian readers who once lived in Pakistan. They speak wistfully of the peaceful time they had spent there as kids, and wonder how the country has become the violent place it is today. Having grown up in just the same environment, I wonder about the same thing myself: how did it ever come to this? And can we ever become a sane society again?

Tail piece: After sending this article, I received the awful news about Salman Taseer’s assassination. Salman was an old friend, and although I didn’t see much of him these last few years, I was deeply distressed by his death. May his wife Amna and his children find the strength to bear this terrible loss.