The end of Christianity in the Middle East?

Ed Jacobs reviews 'The Silence of Our Friends', by Catholic Herald deputy editor Ed West.

Ed Jacobs reviews ‘The Silence of Our Friends‘, by Catholic Herald deputy editor Ed West

It is not usual to start a book review at its concluding chapter, but for the purposes of Ed West’s ‘The Silence of Our Friends – The Extinction of Christianity’, that is exactly where we need to begin.

The first paragraph of the chapter quotes from a report by the charity Aid to the Church in Need, in which it soberly and chillingly asks whether “future historians [will] say of us that we were first-hand witnesses to the extinguishing of Christianity in the very countries where the light of our faith first took hold?”.

Having written on the subject many times, I anticipate a cry of ‘rubbish’ from some who read this statement. For others, however, I would urge you to read the book and consider soberly the stark reality of the persecution faced by Christians living in what West himself refers to as the cradle of Christianity.

Somewhat provocatively he declares that “Christian minorities are dwindling as a result of cleansing by Islamists” across the Middle East. Provocative it may be, but it is hard not to concur with the sentiments.

What follows is a tour-de-force of the region, containing eye-watering statistics and harrowing stories in equal measure.

Optimistic forecasts, West writes, suggest that by the middle of the century the Christian population of the Middle East will fall from 12 million to 6 million. He also documents how:

  • In Iraq, two thirds of its Christian population have fled the country since the US led invasion which opened a Pandora’s box of inter-religious tensions.
  • 200,000 Christians are thought to have fled Egypt since the initial uprising against Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
  • At the time that West wrote, 450,000 of Syria’s 1.75 million Christians are thought to have fled the country since hostilities began.

And in the holy land itself, having made up 52 per cent of the population in 1972, Christians are now thought to account for just 2.5 per cent of those living in the old city of Jerusalem.

Shocking though the statistics are, West uses well the power of case studies to highlight the horror of the situation faced by Christians across the region, documenting how:

  • In Iraq, over 70 churches have been bombed along with attacks on two convents, a monastery and a Christian orphanage.
  • In Egypt, the story of 10 year old Jessi Bolous, who was killed by a gunman following a single shot to her chest. Her crime? She was a Christian on her way back from a bible class.

We can add to this also the story of Fatima whose story has been told on YouTube. A Saudi convert to Christianity, the hostility she faced was such that having told her family of her conversion, her brother proceeded to burn her back, burn her face, cut out her tongue and kill her.

And then there is Miriam, the 15-year-old Syrian Christian captured last year by Islamic militants, raped every day for 15 days by a different person on each occasion, and then killed.

Whilst a series of desperate statistics and heart breaking stories might not necessarily be enough to convince some of the horror faced by Christians wanting to share God’s love in the birth region of Christianity, add it to the research by the Pew Centre showing that Christianity is the most widely persecuted religion in the world, and the picture is a bleak one.

Within his book, West asserts that “the persecution and religious cleansing of Arab Christians has mostly escaped media attention”, fleshing his thoughts out by highlighting massacre after massacre which simply fail to make it into the news.

He goes on also to highlight the anxieties of many Christians in the Middle East who feel that the West has ignored their plight. He points for example, to David Cameron’s statement in the House of Commons during the debate last Summer on taking military action against Syria, a statement which failed to mention the plight of Christians in the country.

Barack Obama too declined to mention the plight of Christians in the country when he addressed the US on the subject in September.

No doubt much time could be spent analysing the extent to which politicians and the media are ignoring the plight of Christians in the Middle East; but it is an exercise which I suggest is probably futile. What matters is how to progress forward, how those of us who are concerned about the tragedy unfolding across the region can best support those Christians facing threats of death simply for wanting to live their faith.

West makes a number of suggestions, most notably better use of immigration policy to accept Christians facing persecution; as well as governments around the world making as much noise as possible when they learn of persecution.

Measures such as these would be a good start, but what is needed are firm, practical policy ideas to take the issue forward.

Building on recent positive contributions from the minister for Faith Communities Baroness Warsi and the shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, an all-party commission could be a good place to start in examining how the UK can use its diplomatic and trade links to promote and support the freedom of Christians to practice their faith.

Ultimately of course, as Christians the most important and powerful thing we can do is to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ. As the DUP MP Jim Shannon said in a debate before Christmas on the subject:

“It is important that we use the powerful tool of prayer to help them.”

It was Martin Luther King Jr who declared:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

The challenge for our generation is whether, in the face of the prospects of Christianity being extinguished altogether in its birth region, we in the West maintain our deafening silence.

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