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Paul S. Edwards: Persecution of Christians in Mideast is shocking

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 30 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

In early November of 1938, the world was shocked by the events of Krystallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass, when German paramilitary groups and civilians systematically attacked Jewish synagogues and Jewish businesses throughout Nazi Germany.

The unfolding of events may not be as temporally-focused as Krystallnacht, but the scale and scope of violent persecution of Christians in the Middle East should shock our collective conscience.

Recent events in Iraq and Egypt are indicative of the crisis.

On Oct. 31, al-Qaida militants in Iraq mounted a direct attack on the Catholic Our Lady of Salvation Church in a Baghdad neighborhood during Sunday Mass. The priest conducting the service was martyred immediately, while the entire congregation was taken hostage. In the mayhem that followed, including a botched government raid, more than 50 people died.

Last Wednesday in Giza, Egypt (site of the pyramids), government security forces and Muslim civilians confronted Egyptian Christians, known as Copts, who are attempting to complete construction of a church for the more than 1 million Copts living in the area. The violent clash resulted in at least one death and hundreds of injuries.

The Christian communities in the Middle East are the oldest Christian communities in the world, and for millennia they lived peacefully with their neighbors of different sects, often operating the more successful schools, universities and hospitals in the region.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in his now legendary book "The Black Swan" that "this millennium of peace was interrupted only by small occasional frictions within Moslem and Christian communities, rarely between Christians and Moslems."

At the turn of the 20th century, in the areas that comprise modern-day Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, one-in-four inhabitants were Christian. Today, one out of every 12 are Christian.

In Iraq most Christians affiliate with the Chaldean Catholic Church although many are Syriac Orthodox. Their native language is Aramaic, the same language spoken by Christ. When U.S. forces first entered Iraq in 2003, the Christian population was estimated at close to 1.5 million. In the wave of sectarian violence that ensued, Christians faced unprecedented persecution. Today, the Christian population is estimated at about 600,000, with hundreds of thousands of Christian refugees having fled to Jordan and Syria. Within Iraq, many now live in Christian ghettos, like Karakosh, where thousands of Christians have fled for tenuous physical safety.

In Egypt, home to the Coptic Orthodox Church, one in 10 people are Christian, but few have easy access to a house of worship as officials have blocked most new church construction. Last week's clash came just as Egyptian Christians were getting ready to occupy a long-awaited new church.

It is hard to know how to appropriately respond to systemic religious persecution from afar. But we must not ignore it. Inasmuch as the United States has long-term strategic involvement with Iraq and Egypt, our national efforts should consistently press for the basic human right of religious freedom, including freedom from religiously-motivated violence.

And, as in all situations where we feel concerned but helpless, there is always the power of prayer. As we enter into this season when Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, perhaps we might pray more fervently for the safety and deliverance of the millions of Christians who still live in the lands first evangelized by His apostles.

Paul Edwards is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: pedwards@desnews.com

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