While billions of Christians around the world dreamed festively of candy canes and sugar plums, unwrapped gifts, and laughed along with family this past Christmas, millions of others, largely in the Middle East and North Africa, continued to confront what some are now calling “the next great genocide.”
In response – and hoping to stem the violence – Pope Benedict has designed a summit of world religious leaders to take place in Assisi this coming fall, in order to address the problem.
And it is a problem – one nearing crisis proportions. The Pope’s announcement came only hours after the latest attack, this time on a Coptic church in Egypt, killing 21 worshipers on New Years day.
Having successfully rid itself of Jews, the region is now diligently purging itself of the rest of its non-Muslim population, with frightening success. Attacks on Christians in the Middle East are now becoming a near-daily occurrence, from the bombings of churches in Iraq to the drive-by massacres of Coptic churchgoers in Egypt like the one that took place the past weekend.
The October bombing of an Assyrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad that left 58 dead and 100 wounded led to a mass exodus of the country’s Christians; by some counts, half the country’s Christian population has fled since the fall of Saddam Hussein, leaving around 500,000 – and that number is decreasing by the day. Where once 100,000 Christians made their home in Mosul, a largely-Kurdish city in Northern Iraq, one resident told The New York Times earlier this month, “I expect that a month from now not a single Christian will be left in Mosul.” As the LA Times notes, this Christmas may have been the last in Iraq for most of the Christians who remain there.
That situation is not limited to Iraq. On Christmas Eve, homemade explosives killed 38 and injured 74 worshipers at several churches in the Nigerian city of Jos; attacks at three other Nigerian churches killed another six. That same day, Christmas shoppers were targeted in attacks in Pakistan. Describing the situation in Asharq Alawsat, an English-language Arab daily, Abdul Rahman Al-Rashid, the general manager of Al-Arabiya news, observed, “The Christians in Iraq today celebrate Christmas under armed protection that has been imposed on their churches after the latest massacre carried out by Al-Qaeda. The Christian Copts in Egypt recently went through a bloody confrontation, the Christians in Lebanon are in a continuous state of shrinking that increases with the rise in sectarian tension, and in Palestine; the numerical shrinking of the Christians is even more acute.”
Al-Rashid sees the persecution of Christians in the region as being little different, however, than the attacks Islamic extremists have perpetrated against their fellow Muslims. I disagree – but I recognize his point. (Certainly Muslims have blown up their fair share of mosques around the world.) Either way, these attacks can only lead us to the same conclusion: that there remains, both in the Middle East and in the West, a distinct effort to conquer – either by destruction or conversion – a world that does not subscribe to Salafist, Wahabbist Islam, and that resists the Islamicization of its culture. Increasingly, as Islamic extremists target non-Muslims (and “moderate” Muslims) in their own backyard, they reveal the true impulse behind their crusade: the creation of a new Caliphate and the universal rule of Islam.
Yes, it is about religion.
Even as I write this, I can anticipate the outcry. “No, it’s not,” some will protest. “It’s about politics, and Israel.” “It’s power,” others will chime in, “and oil.”
But when those who define themselves entirely by their religion set out to destroy those who follow a different faith, what, then, if not about religion, is it?
More important: do we have the courage and the determination to face the truth, and change it?
Pope Benedict (though he has remained silent about the rising number of attacks of Muslims against Jews), is clearly hoping so: according to Reuters, he called the summit an effort to “solemnly renew the commitment of believers of every religion to live their own religious faith in the service of the cause or peace.”
May the New Year bring us, then, not merely explanations, but honesty; not only sympathy, but solutions.
Peace on earth. Good will toward men. And above all, a call for freedom.
Happy New Year.
Abigail R. Esman, a columnist for Forbes.com, is the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West.