Editor's Note: This essay originally was published in USA TODAY.
"Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world." So asserted German Chancellor Angela Merkel late last year, causing a stir. Merkel echoed a concern expressed by then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who warned in a 2011 speech that Christians face a "particularly wicked program of cleansing in the Middle East, religious cleansing."
Now, this is not about clerks who say "Happy Holidays" or bans of Nativity scenes in public schools. Merkel spoke of real persecution of hundreds of millions of Christians around the world. Indeed, a 2011 Pew Forum study found that Christians are harassed in 130 countries, more than any of the world's other religions.
The just-released book "Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians" provides the gory details behind these statistics. "Persecuted" is a collaboration of the Hudson Institute's Nina Shea, Paul Marshall and Lela Gilbert to catalog the human rights abuses visited upon Christian believers from North Korea to Mali. They define this persecution as Christians "who are tortured, raped, imprisoned or killed for their faith." It's a worldwide phenomenon, but Shea points out a troubling acceleration in the cradle of Christianity's birth: the Middle East and North Africa. As London Guardian columnist Rupert Shortt wrote in January, "The religious ecology of the Middle East looks more fragile than ever, as the 'Arab spring' gives way to 'Christian winter.' "
Tragically, Christians have been forced to abandon homelands they have occupied for thousands of years. Up to two-thirds of Christians have fled Iraq in the past 10 years to escape massacres, church burnings and constant death threats. Many Christians fled to Syria, where they are experiencing persecution anew. In Iran, U.S. pastor Saeed Abedini has been sentenced to eight years in prison for preaching Christianity.
Last week, Amnesty International blasted Egypt's government, a major recipient of U.S. aid, for its continued failure to protect Coptic Christians from discrimination and violence. Amnesty's report comes on the heels of a fresh wave of attacks just before Easter in the town of Wasta, south of Cairo.
Lebanon was once a majority Christian country, but no longer, as Christians flee the hostility. CBS News reported in 2011 that the former president of Lebanon, Amin Gemayel, complained of a "genocide" against Christians in the Middle East. "Massacres are taking place for no reason and without any justification against Christians. It is only because they are Christians."
"The future of Christians in the Middle East is very bleak," Neil Hicks of Human Rights First told me. "What has happened in Iraq and Syria is de facto ethnic cleansing of Christians." In other words: Christians can leave or be killed.
The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, an expert on the region, told me he is shocked that American Christians aren't regularly protesting outside of embassies drawing attention to this issue. Persecution of Christians in the Middle East is, he says, "one of the most undercovered stories in international news."
Perhaps it's time for that to change.
Kirsten Powers is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, a Fox News political analyst and columnist for The Daily Beast.
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