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In our opinion: Defender of faiths

Published: Sunday, Dec. 22 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Downtown visitors walk through the Church Plaza as Christmas lights are turned on downtown and at Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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Britain’s Prince Charles did something out of the ordinary last week. He became one of the few Western leaders to speak out loudly against the systematic persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

Thus he provided one powerful answer to a question Patriarch Louis Sako, a leading Iraqi Catholic, asked recently during a trip to Rome: “We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West?”

By “us all,” he was referring to Christians in the Middle East, in lands surrounding the birthplace of Christ. This week, millions of people in Europe, the United States, Latin nations and elsewhere in the world will celebrate Christ’s birth. Many will display a crèche, representing the scene on the night of his birth. Few, however, will be aware that Christians near the site of that birth are being persecuted and killed in large numbers.

We wish Prince Charles would be joined by President Obama and other leaders in a firm and united resolve that such persecutions will be punished and made central to any foreign policy discussions moving forward.

A recent report by Ed West in the Spectator in Britain said 1,000 Iraqi Christians have been murdered over the last decade because of their beliefs. Since the U.S. invaded Iraq, the Christian population has dwindled from about 1 million to about 200,000, with many fleeing the country, and many churches have been bombed.

West is the author of an ebook titled, “The Silence of Our Friends,” referring to how Christians in democratic nations seem to have turned their backs on their suffering brethren.

Iraq is just one small part of the region-wide persecution. Indeed, the Arab spring, heralded by many as a movement away from tyranny and toward democracy, has been bad for Christians. It has empowered majorities to invent charges against them and persecute them under the guise of official sanction.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in Egypt, where Coptic Christians, who claim to trace their origins to the Apostle Mark in the first century, have been murdered and driven from their houses of worship by extremists.

Persecution also has increased in Syria, a nation whose ruling regime so far has been resistant to the Arab spring. However, it is the rebel forces who are accusing Christians there of supporting President Bashar al-Assad as a pretext for violence.

Religious persecution is evident in other nations, as well. In Indonesia, new laws officially recognize only six religions — Islam, Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism or Confucianism. Every citizen must declare one of these, or simply “other,” on an ID card. Critics say it is a way to formally discriminate against people who chose a belief system that falls outside those six.

In Malaysia, a court has ruled that only Malay Muslims are allowed to use the word “Allah” to refer to God.

Given the rising level of this persecution, it is disappointing that the Obama administration has done little, other than a statement here or there, either to officially recognize or condemn it, especially given the administration’s recent discussions over humanitarian abuses in Syria. The United States long has been a beacon for religious freedom worldwide, beckoning the “huddled masses” to its shore, in the words of Emma Lazarus that are engraved on the Statue of Liberty.

In the absence of any effort to make religious freedom a platform in U.S. foreign policy, it is refreshing to see Prince Charles taking a lead.

The prince has even gone so far as to indicate that, should he one day assume the throne as king, he would change the symbolic title of the monarch from “Defender of the Faith” to “Defender of Faiths.”

Christmas time is a perfect season for all who enjoy religious freedom to contemplate how they can become defenders of faiths. It is a good time to assure Christians in faraway lands, in any way possible, that Westerners do not intend to stand idly by while they are persecuted and killed.

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