As far back as the 5th century, the Monastery of Abu Fana in Upper Egypt was renowned, in the words of one travel guide, for its "exceptional splendor and prestige." In the 21st century, that grandeur is gone and the monastery has become instead a symbol of the abuse and degradation to which Egypt's ancient Coptic Christian community is regularly subjected.
In a room badly damaged during an attack on the monastery in Abu Fana, a Coptic monk wears a neck brace because of injuries he sustained. (Photo: New York Times)
Two millennia after Jesus was born in the Middle East, Christians living there often suffer greatly for their faith. Egypt is home to the oldest and largest Christian population in the region, yet the indignities heaped on them are many: They are prevented from building or repairing their churches, barred from many government positions, and treated with disdain when they seek help from the police or the courts. In the wake of the Abu Fana assault, the government arrested two Coptic brothers, who were held for 14 months and released only after the monastery agreed to "reconcile" with the Bedouins -- i.e., not to press criminal charges against those who had actually attacked the monastery.
When President Obama spoke in Cairo last June, he noted obliquely that "among some Muslims, there's a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of somebody else's faith." But there was nothing oblique about the violence at Abu Fana, or about other recent attacks on Egyptian Christians, including the vandalizing of a Christian center in Ezbet Boshra-East in June, the torching of a Coptic church in Ezbet Basilious in July, or the looting and destruction of Christian-owned businesses in Abou Shousha and Farshoot last month.
What is most tragic about the plight of the Copts, however, is that they comprise only a fraction of the estimated 200 million Christians in 60 countries worldwide who face persecution because of their religion.
In Iraq, Christians in the northern city of Mosul are being driven out by a wave of violence that has worsened with the approach of Christmas. In recent weeks, a car bomb exploded outside the Church of the Annunciation, grenades were thrown at a nearby Christian school, and terrorists operating in broad daylight leveled the Church of Saint Ephrem. What is underway, says the Archbishop of Kirkuk, is a campaign of "ethnic and religious cleansing." Last week an anonymous source told Asia News: "The Christian community is destined to die."
In China, Christians who decline to worship in government-affiliated "patriotic" churches are systematically harassed. "At least 40 Roman Catholic bishops or priests remain imprisoned, detailed, or disappeared," the US Commission on International Religious Freedom noted in its 2009 annual report. "The Beijing Gospel Church, with a membership of 1,000 people, was raided by officials from four different agencies. . . . Local police raided the Chengdu Qiuyu Blessings Church . . . telling church [officials] they were suspected of 'illegal religious practices' and confiscating Bibles, hymnals, and other education materials."
In Somalia, at least 11 Christians who had converted from Islam were beheaded in 2009 by the jihadist group al-Shabaab. Another Christian convert was executed in Mogadishu last month; when his body was recovered, it "showed signs of torture," the Compass Direct news service reported. "All of his front teeth were gone, and some of his fingers were broken."
To such horrors could be added many others -- in India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Eritrea, Laos, North Korea, Saudi Arabia. It has been more than 2,000 years since the shepherds abiding in the fields near Bethlehem were told by an angel of the Lord, "Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy." But for millions of persecuted Christians, the fears are all too real. And so therefore is their need for prayer and solidarity from all of us, Christian and non-Christian alike, who seek to be our brother's keeper.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
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