Where are Christians persecuted? How bad is the persecution? What can be done to stop it? These are among the questions a new book, Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians, seeks to tackle. Nina Shea, coauthor and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the international crisis of Christian persecution.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What can be done for the Christians in Egypt?
: Religiously motivated violence against the Coptic Christians in Egypt, who number about 8 million, has been intensifying in recent years, and now their situation is particularly acute during this period of political turmoil. This spring even Cairo’s Orthodox cathedral was besieged, and several Copts inside attending a funeral ceremony were murdered by an enflamed mob. The attacks are incited by jihadist groups, Salafist imams, the Muslim Brotherhood, and even, at times, the security forces. Their situation has become ever more perilous since Morsi’s ouster, with assassinations and kidnappings for ransom of individual Copts, the torching of a Coptic neighborhood, and mob attacks on several churches, all documented over the past month. This is partly due to scapegoating, and partly due to the fact that Islamists with a religious-cleansing agenda take advantage of political disorder to provoke a mass exodus, as is occurring in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. should use its substantial diplomatic and economic leverage to ensure the Egyptian military protects the Copts and their churches, homes, and businesses, and that government authorities do not allow such crimes to be carried out with impunity. Furthermore, the U.S. should press Egypt to end its prosecutions of sharia apostasy and blasphemy offenses, so favored by Islamist groups; Egyptian mother Nadia Mohammad Ali, sentenced, along with her five children, to 15 years in prison for reconverting to Christianity, should be immediately pardoned and released. Sharia must not be enshrined in the new constitution. Congress did condition U.S. aid to Egypt this year on respect for religious freedom, but the Obama administration waived this sanction and gave the aid anyhow. The American people and church leaders should let their elected officials know that taxpayer dollars should not go to an Egyptian government that wages or tolerates religious persecution.
LOPEZ: What can be done for the Christians in Syria?
SHEA: Syria’s Christians are being targeted for religious cleansing in a shadow war conducted by Islamists alongside the major Syrian conflict. Because they are also caught in the middle of this larger conflict and lack defenses of their own, they are especially vulnerable. The best development would be a negotiated settlement to the conflict that provides for the protection of the religious minorities. The Obama administration has promised arms to the moderate rebel opposition but is finding it difficult to determine who qualifies. It must ensure that no arms or aid, from any source, goes to the Islamist rebel groups, of which there are “scores,” with more popping up each day, according to the State Department. It must ensure that desperately needed humanitarian aid reaches the Christian communities — in Iraq, American aid was withheld from the Christians and other non-Muslims by local authorities. Also, because the Christians fear religious persecution in refugee camps outside Syria, they have largely not registered as refugees with the U.N.; U.S. refugee aid is therefore not reaching them. The U.S. should channel some of its refugee assistance to the church organizations to which they have gone for shelter in Lebanon, Turkey, and elsewhere. In determining whether to accept Syrian refugees, it should take into account the fact that most Christian refugees are not U.N. registered and allow them to apply to come to the U.S. through another process.
LOPEZ: Do Christians need a homeland in the Middle East?
SHEA: Before the 7th century and the Islamic conquest of the Middle East, Christians formed the large majority of the populations there. A hundred years ago, they accounted for about 30 percent of the Middle East. Now they are down to less than 3 percent, with the largest of their communities found in Egypt and Syria, where they account for 10 percent of the national populations. They, along with their ancient churches and monasteries, are spread in villages and neighborhoods throughout these two countries and are not enclaved in any particular spot. Though the Middle East Christians are often members of distinct ethnic groups, such as Copts, Assyrians, and Armenians, they are not tribal. Many no doubt will come to the West to escape persecution. Hundreds of thousands already have. I’ve just heard that the city of Södertälje, Sweden, is home to more than 30,000 Assyrians and will soon be teaching Assyrian in its schools. Large communities of newly arrived Iraqi Chaldeans and Assyrians and Egyptian Copts are found in New Jersey, Michigan, California, Florida, and various other American states. Their exodus from the Middle East will mean, apart from purely religious concerns, that that region will be deprived of an historically important moderating influence and the experience of living among non-Muslims.