Yasmin Seweid and Ugly Truths
Joel Leon.

I appreciated this post. It pained me to see reports of hate crimes following the election. Growing up my next door neighbor’s were a family of Iraqi Refugees, with children who were similar ages to me and my siblings so we spent countless hours together. They are also members of the Chaldean Catholic Church and I still remain in regular contact with my friend who was a grade above me during K-12. Below I want to share some thoughts and reports regarding the dire situation of Christians in the Middle East. This is not to discount the reality that the majority of ISIS victims are Muslim’s (Shiite) but to hopefully add some perspective when examining these events.


Yesterday, the governor of the Indonesian Capitol, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama a Christian, stood for his first day of trial after being charged with blasphemy. He is accused of insulting Islam in a campaign speech he made on Sept. 27, in which he pushed back against hard-line and ultraconservative Muslims who have argued that a non-Muslim should not hold a leadership position in Indonesia — the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

At the time, he said that hardliners who had backed up their position by citing a Quranic verse were lying. He told a crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen, you don’t have to vote for me — because you’ve been lied to by those using [the Quran’s] Surah al-Maidah verse 51.”

Earlier this month, 100,000’s of protesters, many of whom had arrived in groups from neighboring West Java, chanted, “Hang Ahok, hang the traitor,” and, “Cut off a hand and foot and deport him.”

Mr. Basuki had faced protests because of his Christianity, notably before his swearing-in, and he responded with a mixture of good humor and taunts. When Islamists threatened two years ago to storm his offices at City Hall, he assured them that they would be arrested if they did so.

The worst attack on Egypt’s Christian minority in recent years occurred Sunday, December 11, 2016. St. Peter Cathedral in Cairo, packed with worshipers celebrating Sunday mass, was bombed; at least 25 churchgoers, mostly women and children, were killed and 65 severely wounded. As many of the wounded are in critical condition, the death toll is expected to rise.

As usual, witnesses say that state security was not present, and that police took an inordinate amount of time to arrive after the explosion. Preliminary investigations point to a bomb placed inside an unattended woman’s purse on one of the rear pews of the women’s section.

Mutilated bodies were strewn along the floor of the cathedral. “I found bodies, many of them women, lying on the pews. It was a horrible scene,” said one witness.

“I saw a headless woman being carried away,” said Mariam Shenouda. “Everyone was in a state of shock. We were scooping up people’s flesh off the floor. There were children. What have they done to deserve this? I wish I had died with them instead of seeing these scenes.”

In death toll and severity, this attack surpasses what was formerly considered the deadliest church attack in Egypt — a New Year’s Day bombing of a church in Alexandria that killed 23 people in 2011.

Sunday’s attack was also symbolically more significant: St. Peter’s Cathedral stands alongside and is used by St. Mark’s, the seat of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Christian church and home to its leader, Pope Tawadros II.

It is to President Sisi’s shame that the deadliest church attack in Egypt occurred on his watch. Yet it is also not surprising, considering how little has really changed for Egypt’s Christians since Sisi ousted Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013.

Although Western media outlets do not report them, there have been several unsuccessful terror attacks on churches in Egypt in recent weeks and months. Last November, a man hurled an improvised bomb at the entrance of St. George Church in Samalout, Egypt. Had the bomb exploded (it was dismantled in time), casualties would have been high, as the church building was packed with thousands of worshipers congregating for a holiday.

Instances of angry Muslim mobs attacking and killing Christians on the mere rumor that they are trying to build a church, or are meeting to pray in a house church, are also on the rise. Last summer in Minya — the same place where a 70-year-old Christian woman was stripped naked, savagely beaten, spat on, and paraded in the streets to jeers, whistles, and yells of “Allahu Akbar” — rioting Muslims burned down 80 Christian homes on the rumor that Christians were trying to build a church. “No one did anything and the police took no pre-emptive or security measures in anticipation of the attacks,” said Bishop Makarios. He is also on record as saying that Christians are attacked “every two or three days” in Minya, and that the authorities are always turning a blind eye, if not actually aiding or enabling the attacks.

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Although Christians have lived in the Middle East — the birthplace of Christianity — for nearly two thousand years, as a result of years of persecution and discrimination, especially in the past 15 years, they now constitute no more than 3–4% of the region’s population, down from 20% a century ago. Christians are not the only minority being discriminated against in this region, but their plight is more visible in many places

The Christian communities of Syria and Iraq have survived 2,000 years of tumult and war. In some of them, prayers are still said in Aramaic, the language that Jesus used in daily life. These communities now tremble on the brink of destruction.

The numbers are stark. Almost 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Between the U.S.-led invasion that toppled his regime in 2003 and the rise of Islamic State, three-fourths of the country’s Christians are believed to have fled Iraq or died in sectarian conflict. The carnage continues. Of the 300,000 Christians remaining in 2014, some 125,000 have been driven from their homes within the past year, according to a March report on “60 Minutes.”

Almost a third of Syrians were Christian as recently as the 1920s, but only about 10% of the country’s 22 million inhabitants at the onset of the current civil war were members of Christian communities. That long and slow relative decline has accelerated as hundreds of thousands of desperate Christians, along with millions of their Muslim fellow citizens, flee the fanaticism of Islamist rebels and the brutality of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Violent oppression is nothing new for the Christians of these countries. The Ottoman Empire’s well-known genocidal violence against the Armenians during World War I was accompanied by similarly brutal and widespread mass murders of Assyrian Christians. And in the 1930s, in the ethnic and nationalist turmoil following the fall of the Ottomans, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians were murdered in riots and massacres.

Where will it end?

The process of murder and “religious cleansing” may well continue until, for all practical purposes, the Christians of these countries simply disappear. Other Christian populations in the Middle East have been almost entirely wiped out or displaced. In 1900, most of Constantinople’s residents were Christian; today, of Istanbul’s population of some 14.4 million people, fewer than 150,000 identify with any faith other than Islam.

Saudi Arabia, for example, bans the practice of Christianity (though many Christians worship in private). The UAE restricts proselytisation, but has otherwise supported its Christians. The number of churches in the country has grown from 24 in 2005 to 40 today. The emirate’s rulers often provide churches with free land, water and electricity. But these new Christian enclaves may not last. Migrant workers in the Gulf cannot easily become citizens or put down roots.

In any case it is the loss of ancient communities that most concerns church leaders. “Christians are not guests in the Middle East,” says Father Paul Karam, the president of Caritas, a Catholic charity, in Lebanon. “We are the original owners of the land.” But none of the Christian refugees who spoke with your correspondent plans to return home. “We don’t belong there,” says Samir, who expects Iraq soon to be empty of Christians altogether.

Over the past year, there were numerous incidents of Iranian authorities raiding church services, threatening church members, and arresting and imprisoning worshipers and church leaders, particularly Evangelical Christian converts. Since 2010, authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained more than 550 Christians throughout the country. As of February 2016, approximately 90 Christians were either in prison, detained, or awaiting trial because of their religious beliefs and activities.

During the reporting period, human rights groups inside Iran reported a significant increase in the number of physical assaults and beatings of Christians in prison. Some activists believe the assaults, which have been directed against converts who are leaders of underground house churches, are meant to intimidate others who may wish to convert to Christianity. In December 2015, authorities raided a number of private Christmas services and arrested nearly a dozen church members in Tehran. In April 2015, a revolutionary court upheld a one-year prison sentence and two-year travel bans on 13 Christian converts arrested in 2013. Christians, particularly evangelicals and converts, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and high levels of harassment and surveillance.


ISIL also has targeted Christian communities. In August 2015, Iraqi Defense Minister, Khaled al-Obeidi reported that ISIL had killed 2,000 Iraqis in the largely Christian Nineveh Plains between January and August 2015, and that more than 125,000 Christians fled to the KRG for protection. In Kirkuk, ISIL has used churches as bases and stormed and desecrated cemeteries; it also demolished Assyrian monasteries. In late January 2016, it was reported that ISIL had destroyed the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq, the St. Elijah’s Monastery in Erbil, which has been a place of worship for more than 1,400 years; the destruction is believed to have occurred between August and September 2014.


President al-Sisi was the first head of state to attend a Coptic Christmas Eve mass in January 2015. He did so again in January 2016, publicly apologizing that authorities had not yet finished rebuilding churches destroyed in August 2013 and pledging to complete the process within a year. Following the unprecedented scale of violence against Copts that summer, the Egyptian government found that 29 people died in sectarian-related killings, 52 churches were completely destroyed, another 12 damaged, and numerous Christian-owned properties were destroyed. At the end of the reporting period, at least half of the destroyed churches had been rebuilt and the other half were still being constructed or repaired. In February 2015, President al-Sisi offered condolences in person to Coptic Pope Tawadros after ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) killed 20 Copts and one Ghanaian in Libya. In October, Egyptian authorities started building a new church, as ordered by President al-Sisi, to honor the slain Copts.

Over the past year, the number and severity of violent incidents targeting Copts and their property decreased significantly when compared to previous years; however, sporadic violence continued, particularly in Upper Egypt. For example, in June 2015, at the time of the two-year anniversary of the overthrow of former president Morsi, a number of Christian homes and properties were attacked, and in July, a mob firebombed a church in Alexandria and authorities reportedly responded slowly. In March, local police failed to prevent a mob attack on a Coptic church in the al-Our village, the hometown of 13 of the 20 Copts killed in Libya. In some parts of the country, Egyptian security services increased protection of churches during significant religious holidays, which lessened the level of fear and insecurity among members of the Coptic community

Furthermore, in response to sectarian-related violence, local Egyptian authorities continue to conduct “customary reconciliation” sessions between Muslims and Christians as a way of easing tensions and resolving disputes. In some cases, local authorities and Muslim and Christian religious leaders have abused these reconciliation sessions to compel victims to abandon their claims to any legal remedy. Human rights groups have argued that reconciliation sessions disadvantage Christians in resolving various disputes, many of which are sectarian-related attacks targeting Christians. In addition, following the August 2013 church attacks, the number of incidents of kidnappings for ransom and extortion of Christians rose dramatically. While these incidents have decreased over the past year, they continue in parts of the country, particularly in Upper Egypt. Furthermore, Egyptian-born Muslims who have converted to Christianity still cannot reflect their change of religious affiliation on identity documents, and in many cases, these converts also face intense social hostility.

In April 2015, four Coptic Christian teenagers and their teacher were arrested and charged with blasphemy for making a short, private video mocking ISIL. In February 2016, three of the four teens were sentenced to five years in prison and the fourth was placed in a juvenile facility. In December 2015, the teacher was sentenced to three years in prison in a separate trial and was expelled from his village; appeals for both cases are ongoing.


During the reporting period, Pakistan’s Supreme Court suspended the death sentence of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy in 2010 after a dispute with co-workers, until her appeal could be heard. She remains imprisoned, is in poor health, and in October 2015 was put into isolation due to concerns for her safety. On February 29, 2016, Mumtaz Qadri was executed by hanging for the murder of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who had spoken out in support of Mrs. Bibi. In the last year, there has been no progress in prosecuting individuals for the 2011 assassination of Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who had called for blasphemy law reform.

Discriminatory content against religious minorities in provincial textbooks remains a significant concern. In early 2016, USCIRF released a new report, “Teaching Intolerance in Pakistan: Religious Bias in Public Textbooks,” a follow-up to its 2011 study, “Connecting the Dots: Education and Religious Discrimination in Pakistan.” The 2016 report found that while 16 problematic passages outlined in the 2011 report were removed 70 new intolerant or biased passages were added. Fifty-eight of these passages came from textbooks used in the Baluchistan and Sindh provinces, while 12 came from the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. Overall, the report found that Pakistani textbooks continue to teach bias against and distrust of non-Muslims and any faith other than Islam, and portray them as inferior. Moreover, the textbooks portray non-Muslims in Pakistan as non-Pakistani or sympathetic towards Pakistan’s perceived enemies — Pakistani Christians as Westerners or British colonial oppressors. These portrayals stoke pre-existing societal tensions and create a negative climate for Pakistan’s religious minority communities.

Forced Conversions Forced conversion of Christian girls and young women into Islam and forced marriage remains a systemic problem. In October 2014, the Pakistan-based Aurat Foundation reported that around 1,000 girls, many under the age of 18, are forcibly converted to Islam each year, mostly through forced marriages or bonded labor. According to the report, public pressure on the police often leads to inadequate or biased investigations in these cases and the girls and their families face intimidation to say they converted willingly. Hindu and Christian women are particularly vulnerable to these crimes. Pakistani law, except in one province, does not recognize Hindu marriages. In February 2016, Sindh province passed a law to allow the Hindu community to officially register their marriages. The law is also retroactive, allowing previously married couples to register. Reportedly, the National Assembly is considering a bill that would pertain to all Hindu marriages throughout the country. Christian marriages are recognized through the Marriage Act of 1872.

During the reporting period, religious minority communities suffered numerous violent attacks. For example, in March 2015, two Christian churches in Youhanabad town in Lahore, Punjab province, were bombed, killing at least 15 people and injuring 70.


Protestants In August 2015, 15 Protestant churches and 20 church leaders received cyber-threats including through SMS text messaging, email, and social media. The community and the Turkish government believe that the threats came from religious extremists in Turkey affiliated with or sympathetic to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In one video released on Twitter, militants threatened to commit mass murder in churches affiliated with the Association of Protestant Churches. Reportedly, the Turkish government is investigating the cases.

In May 2015, the Agios Konstantinos Greek Church, located in the western province of Izmir, reopened after extensive renovations; a mass was held for the first time in 93 years, with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch present. In July 2015, for the first time in 188 years, the Alevi community held a religious service in the Hacı Bektas¸-ı Veli dervish convent, located in the province of Nevs¸ehir. However, the community was required to get permission from the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry. In November 2015, for the first time in 60 years, a religious service was held in the Protestant Church in Artuklu, located in Mardin.

Libya: A few days before the 21 Christians were abducted (in two separate incidents), a Christian father, mother, and young daughter were slaughtered in the same region, Sirte. On December 23, Islamic militants raided the Christian household, killing the father and mother (a doctor and pharmacist, respectively) and kidnapping 13-year-old Katherine.

Last February 2014, after Ansar al-Sharia — the “Supporters of Islamic Law,” now an Islamic State branch — offered a reward to any Benghazi resident who helped round up and execute the nation’s Coptic residents, seven Christians were forcibly seized from their homes by “unknown gunmen,” marched out into the desert and shot execution style 20 miles west of Benghazi (graphic pictures appear here).

Days later, another 24-year-old Coptic Christian was shot in the head by “unknown gunmen” while unloading food in front of his grocery stand in Benghazi. On the next day a corpse was found, believed to be that of yet another Copt — due to the small cross tattooed on his wrist traditionally worn by Egyptian Christians.

This is to say nothing of the churches attacked, of Christian cemeteries desecrated, and of 100 Christians — including Western ones — arrested, tortured (some dying) for possessing Christian “paraphernalia” (like Bibles and crosses) in the post “Arab Spring” Libya the Obama administration and its allies helped create.

In Kenya, after rioting Muslims burned down two church buildings, the congregations were forced to erect church tents, some of which were flooded by strong rains, which carried away five people.

In Indonesia, authorities in the Sharia-governed province of Aceh began to remove tents built by Christians for worship after their churches were torn down by authorities responding to Muslim violence against churches that left one dead and thousands Christians displaced. At least two church tents were torn down. Earlier, in 2012, the St. Johannes Baptista church tent was sealed off by authorities.

In Jordan in Sept. Nahed Hattar, a prominent Jordanian writer from the country’s Christian minority, was standing outside the Jordan’s Palace of Justice Sunday in the country’s capital, where he awaited trial for sharing a cartoon on social media last month deemed by some to be anti-Islamic, a crime punishable under Jordan’s anti-blasphemy laws. As he entered the court house, a 49-year-old man identified by local media sources as Riad Abdullah, a former imam, shot Hattar three times.

The controversy started last month when Hattar posted a satirical cartoon titled “God of Daesh,” a term in Arabic used to describe the Islamic State, which views it as derogatory. The caricature depicts a bearded men in heaven lying in bed with two women as he orders God to bring him a glass of wine and some cashews, as though he were instructing a servant. Hatter’s relatives said the writer posted the cartoon to mock ISIS’s distorted religious views of what awaited them in the afterlife and that he had no intention of insulting Islam, which strictly prohibits depictions of God or the Prophet Mohammed.

After receiving several angry responses, Hattar deleted the post. Two days after sharing it, Hattar was arrested for insulting Islam and inciting sectarian strife.


Last April, police in Sicily reported that Muslim migrants hurled as many as 53 Christians overboard during a crossing from Libya. The motive was that the victims “professed the Christian faith while the aggressors were Muslim.” Another report cited a boy seen praying to the Judeo-Christian God. Muslims commanded him to stop, saying “Here, we only pray to Allah.” Eventually the Muslims “went mad,” in the words of a witness, started screaming “Allahu Akbar!” and began hurling Christians into the sea.


According to a September 30 report, in Germany, “Many Christian refugees from Syria, Iraq or Kurdistan are being intimidated and attacked by Muslim refugees. In several refugee centers set up by the local authorities, Sharia law is being imposed and Christians — which are a minority — are the victims of bullying.”Gottfried Martens, pastor of a south Berlin church, said that “very religious Muslims are spreading the following idea throughout the refugee centers: Sharia law rules wherever we are.” Martens expressed especial concern for Muslims who convert to Christianity — apostates who, according to Islamic law, can be killed: “There is a 100% chance that these people will be attacked.”


In Sweden, a July report told of how two small families of Christian asylum seekers were harassed and abused by approximately 80 Muslim asylum seekers from Syria.

fter extensive harassment and threats, the Christian refugees who thought they had escaped “ISIS” left the Swedish asylum house “fearing for their own safety.” A spokesman for the government migration agency responsible for their center said:

“They dared not stay. The atmosphere became too intimidating. And they got no help… They chose themselves to organize new address and moved away without our participation because they felt a discomfort.”


In Denmark, according to the conclusion of a study conducted last year, “Christian asylum seekers are repeatedly exposed to everything from harassment to threats and physical abuse by other [Muslim] refugees in the asylum centers, simply because they have converted from Islam to Christianity.” An eight year old Christian boy was repeatedly bullied and beaten by larger Muslim boys on his way to school, to the point that he dropped out. And someone tampered with a Christian asylum seeker’s bicycle so that he crashed and broke both hands.

According to Niels Eriksen Nyman, who led the study:

“There are certainly many more cases around the country than the ones we hear about in the church. I hate to say it, but I’m afraid that on some of the asylum centers there are some very unhealthy control mechanisms when the staff turns their back… I refuse to support Islamophobia, but we have a serious problem here.”

This piece in NYT’s “Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?” is heart wrenching.


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