Never Again and the Persecuted Today

Coptic Christmas eve mass services at the Samaan el-Kharaz Monastery in Egypt, January 2017. (Reuters photo: Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
Getting serious about religious freedom

‘If ‘never again’ means anything, I had to be here today.” These words came from a rabbi, who invoked the memory of the Holocaust, standing among Christians outside a church in New York on Good Friday evening. This Catholic church, now being leased to Coptic Christians, was a powerful, prayerful scene of solidarity, an icon of brotherhood.

These Christians gathered in response to the recent ISIS attacks on churches in Egypt, one of which was an attempt to kill the Coptic pope. It surprises me just how many people have no idea those attacks happened; every day I mention it in conversation, I find, is another day people learn about the Palm Sunday terrorist attacks.

I find that many people are not pleased when we put a spotlight on Christian persecution. There is the mistaken caricature that if we’re writing about “persecution” in the West, we must be talking about someone getting bent out of shape at Christmastime because of a “Season’s Greetings” sign or displays showing Santa instead of the Christ child. Or, to make it more seasonal, seeing the Easter Bunny instead of proclamations of Resurrection.

Some react with revulsion because they assume that persecuted Christians are asking for special privileges. Others don’t like giving the impression that Christians look like helpless victims.

Yes, these Christians are persecuted. Yes, they are — in the case of Coptic Christians and so many other Christians and religious minorities in the Middle East — targets of genocide. They are also some of the most resilient people you could ever meet. They are forgiving, but not because they are passive victims. They are forgiving because they are beacons of a radical love beyond human understanding, and they know being leaven might be the only way to find hope in these situations.

A project called Under Caesar’s Sword — a joint academic effort of both the University of Notre Dame and Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center, among others — is heavily focused on these challenges. The group’s new report, “In Response to Persecution,” unpacks just what Christian persecution is, where it can be found, and what Christians are doing in response — surviving, associating with other faith communities, and confronting the challenges of their circumstances head on. Some, of course, give their lives for the cause not only of religious freedom but of human dignity itself, as the two are inseparable. Under Caesar’s Sword focuses on Christians because they “are the most widely targeted religious community, suffering terrible persecutions globally.”

The report goes on to explain:

Most of the world’s persecution of Christians takes place within a geographic band that begins around Libya, moves eastward to Egypt and the rest of the Middle East, expands north to Russia and south to Sri Lanka, and then proceeds eastward to China, Indonesia, and North Korea. Outside of this band are several other oppressive regimes, like Cuba.

In some of those cases, though clearly not all, Christians are outnumbered. In some of the cases — including in India and Indonesia — democracy doesn’t guarantee protection. In other countries, such as Eritrea, Somalia, and Yemen, persecution is so severe that it is impossible to conduct reliable investigations.

When 21 men, most of them Coptic Christians, were beheaded on the shores of the Mediterranean in Libya in February 2015, they “accounted for a mere twenty-one of the 7,100 Christians” estimated to have died for their faith just that year alone. “This represents more than a 300 percent rise from the 2013 figure of 2,123, and does not include incidents of intimidation or nonlethal violence,” the report adds. The Under Caesar’s Sword report is full of advice for NGOs, businesses, and media.

As Pope Francis heads to Egypt next week, ISIS has “welcomed” him in advance with an attack on the sixth-century St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, which is known as the site where God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. A beacon of the Beatitudes, Pope Francis brings headlines with him. And he brings the same love that fueled the likes of the Tibhirine Monks of Algeria, who, in an open letter written by Father Christian de Chergé, forgave their murderers in advance:

My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

Now is the time to beg forgiveness for not making the time to pay attention to this global crisis and to remedy our ways. If “never again” means anything, as the rabbi said on Good Friday, then we cannot turn a blind eye to Christian persecution.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here. This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.


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