In much of the Middle East, Christianity predates Islam by hundreds of years. Yet as Islamic fanatics continue to wreak havoc across the region, killing Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Christians face genocide or "religious cleansing" in the land of their religion's birthplace.
Middle Eastern Christians have been fleeing violence in their homelands for decades. A century ago, Christians made up about a tenth of the population of the Middle East. Now they constitute less than half that share.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Arab Spring starting in 2010 and the rise of jihadist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front have increased the persecution of Christians and accelerated their exodus. The plight of Christians has deteriorated so far that the New York Times Magazine recently published a feature story asking, "Is this the end of Christianity in the Middle East?"
It's a good question. Consider Iraq, where much of the Bible's early history is set — the Garden of Eden, the beginning of Abraham's westward journey, the Tower of Babel, and the Lion's Den. The Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil recently told the Times, "Since 2003, we've lost priests, bishops and more than 60 churches were bombed." When Islamic State took Mosul in Northern Iraq last summer, militants painted the Arabic letter "n," for "Nazarene," on the doors of Christian homes, marking them for extermination. In all, as many as two-thirds of Iraq's Christians (more than a million people) have been killed or have fled in the past 12 years. In addition to the Chaldeans and Assyrians of Iraq, the Melkites of Syria, the Copts of Egypt and millions of others have suffered and fled.
As others have noted, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East is an issue that's too often ignored in the U.S. Middle Eastern Christians are seen as too exotic for the religious right and too Christian for the secular Left. (Ironically, the Left is only too willing to say Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are suffering genocide, when in truth those populations are burgeoning.)
The Bush administration went out of its way to reassure Iraqi Muslims that it wasn't waging a religious crusade, and so it largely ignored Iraqi Christians' pleas for help. The Obama administration has seemed reluctant to identify Christians targeted because of their faith as Christians at all. In February, when the Islamic State released a video showing the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya, President Obama initially identified them, with lamentable imprecision, merely as "Egyptian citizens."
Obama also does Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East a disservice when he refers to the region as "the Muslim world." This overlooks that Christians have had a place there since long before the beginnings of Islam, and played a vital role in the Middle East, as a buffer between Shiite and Sunni and as a cultural bridge between East and West.
This week, In Defense of Christians, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, is holding its inaugural national leadership convention in an effort to raise awareness of the plight of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Part of IDC's mission is to urge governments to take in Middle Eastern Christians who are fleeing religious persecution, and to make the region safer for those who want to stay and others who someday hope to return home.
It's a worthy cause. After all, Christians in the Middle East have numerous adversaries. But perhaps none is as formidable as the ignorance and seeming indifference of the West.