If recent Christmases provide any indication of things to come, somewhere in the Middle East terrorists are constructing, as I write, bombs intended to kill Christians attending Christmas liturgies. The terrorists know that their targets will include the defenseless. They know that they will kill women, children, and the elderly but will carry out their attacks nonetheless.
For some Christians in the Middle East, this Christmas liturgy be their last. They know that there is a distinct possibility of death or injury, but they will attend Christmas services nonetheless.
This fortitude is a feature of the modern Church much as it was of the early Church, with Roman soldiers and lions replaced with terrorists and Kalashnikovs. This is the courage of the early Christian martyr who faced death on the floor of the Colosseum for refusing to renounce Christianity; it is the courage of the Carmelite nun in Germany who, when evil knocked on the convent door on a summer night in 1942, responded simply, “Let us go for our people.”
The Christians of the Middle East today cling to a variation no less courageous: Let us remain for our people.
It is easy, perhaps even tempting, to regard the plight of Middle East Christians today as hopeless. But history invariably proves less predictable than demography or other indicators suggest. Christians living in Asia Minor a century ago — Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian — would have had difficulty believing that they would be all but eradicated as a matter of national policy by the Turks. At the conclusion of that genocide, it was thoroughly implausible that those surviving Armenians, outnumbered, outgunned, and facing certain extermination, would defeat the Turks and establish a nation-state of their own — all without any assistance from the outside world. Improbably, Armenian Christianity persevered.
A year ago, most Westerners were unfamiliar with the acronym ISIS (now IS), a terrorist organization funded by Gulf-state largesse. Today, IS evokes imagery as powerful as that of the persecution by Nero or the Terror of the French Revolution. The future of the region’s Christians yet hangs in the balance as they seek, like their forebears, to survive this winter without sufficient food, shelter, and clothing. Amid the hymns of joy and triumph, Western Christians ought to remember their Middle Eastern co-religionists in their suffering.
Christianity in pagan antiquity did not invite triumphalist sentiment. Contrary to Tertullian’s aphorism that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church, quite often persecution realized its purpose: apostasy. Pliny the Younger, Roman governor of Bithynia, wrote to the emperor Trajan in a.d. 112, concerned about Christianity, which had “spread like a contagion.” In his epistle, Pliny, a statesman regarded then as today as temperate and lettered, reassured his equally sophisticated emperor of the efficacy of compulsion and torture, citing instances in which the Christians denounced and cursed Christ, supplicating instead to the Roman gods and the Roman state (interwoven if not synonymous concepts), and to Caesar. In his conclusion, it is Pliny who was triumphalist: “To be sure, the temples, which were almost forsaken, begin already to be frequented.”
It may be easy for Christians today to feel disappointment in these early Christians; but it would be foolish to assume that we would prevail in similar circumstances. The tales of heroism are those we remember — but they are told precisely because they are exceptional.
Christians in the Middle East today deserve more from the Christian diaspora, those who, now living in the West, are too often are divided by internecine squabbles rather than united in support of their persecuted brothers and sisters. These Christians deserve more from Muslim religious and political leaders, who are compelled by faith, international law, and interest to protect Christians. These Christians deserve more from America’s political leaders, who too often acquiesce to cynical interests rather than protecting the fundamental rights of America’s natural allies in the region. These Christians deserve more from each of us, ordinary citizens.
There is much that each of us can do to help them. Americans can call elected officials in Congress and the White House and demand that humanitarian relief be supplied to Christians and other refugees. We can ask our churches to pray for the Christians of the Middle East. We can give to relief organizations serving the displaced Christians and others in Iraq and elsewhere.
The future of Christianity in the Middle East cannot be known. The prospects are dismal now, but no less than so than in second-century Bithynia, where persecuted Christianity faltered. Two centuries later, in that province in Asia Minor, the Council of Nicaea established the creed that is adhered to by most of the world’s 2 billion Christians today.
Jesus asked those closest to him, “Who do men say that I am?” Two thousand years later, how Christians answer this question may mean, again, the difference between life and death. And like the infant Jesus and his parents on the first Christmas, Christians of the Middle East today find themselves huddled together in the cold, lacking food, shelter, and clothing, exiles in their own homelands, clinging heroically to a belief in the Incarnation.
Christianity survived when it was merely a dozen discouraged, frightened men. It survived when it was merely a husband and wife with their child in a cave. It survived genocide at the hands of the Ottomans. It will survive the Islamic State jihadists, even as they murder, exile, and order Christians in Syria and Mesopotamia to convert or die. It will survive any attacks on its churches this Christmas, through the courage of those who go to Christmas liturgy, conveying in deed if not in word, “Let us go for our people.”
— Andrew Doran lives in Washington, D.C.