Speak up for Christians under siege in Mideast

Robert A. Cohn

BY ROBERT A. COHN

The season of Hanukkah and Christmas offered a stark study in contrasts regarding the status of Christians in the Middle East and Africa. Reporting from Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth, NBC News correspondent Martin Fletcher reported that as many as 100,000 Christian pilgrims from all over the world gathered peacefully in Manger Square to celebrate Christmas this year. Bethlehem, which is also the birthplace of King David and the burial place of the Matriarch Rachel, is under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, but Israel continues to be responsible for maintaining security in the city in cooperation with Palestinian police. This year, the number of pilgrims participating was more than 30,000 over last year. In previous years, terrorist attacks by radical elements discouraged many potential pilgrims from traveling to Bethlehem for the occasion. In the city of Nazareth, the city in which Jesus grew up and started his ministry, the Christian community there celebrated Christmas peacefully under the protection of the Israel Defense Forces. Ironically, it seems that the safest place for Christians in the Middle East is in the Jewish State of Israel and other areas under its protection.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the Middle East, the situation for Christians in several other nations has become dire. Both the PBS News Hour and The Wall Street Journal have reported that the once- thriving Christian community in Iraq, which numbered one million before the Iraq War, has fallen to about half that number, with most of those who left moving to neighboring Jordan or to the United States. Last October, the world was shocked by the horrific massacre, claimed by Al Qaeda in Iraq, of 58 worshippers at the main Roman Catholic Church in Baghdad. The Christian community, like the once-robust Iraqi Jewish community, traces its roots in Iraq back 2,000 years when Iraq was known as Babylonia.

Many of the Christians in Iraq still speak Aramaic, the ancient Semitic tongue which was the lingua franca in the region during the period from Abraham through the dawn of the Christian era. Members of the Roman Catholic, Anglican and other Christian communities in Iraq now live in constant dread of future attacks by Al Qaeda and its allies in Iraq. It is absolutely essential that the newly formed government in Iraq, in cooperation with U.S. forces, take whatever steps are necessary to protect the Christians of Iraq.

If the above examples were not enough, in Egypt the ancient Coptic Christian community is under constant siege by anti-Christian elements in that nation. Early this week in Nigeria, dozens of armed Islamist radicals attacked a Christian church in Maiduguri on Sunday, dragging the pastor out of his home and shooting him to death. Two young men from the choir, rehearsing for a late-night carol service, also were slain. The group of about 30 attackers, armed with guns and knives, also killed two people passing by the Victory Baptist Church. Across town an hour later, three men attacked the Church of Christ in Nigeria, killing a 60-year-old security guard.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his Christmas message from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, prayed for peace in the Middle East, and later condemned the anti-Christian violence in Iraq and Nigeria. The world, national and local Jewish community must not be silent or stand idly by “while our neighbors bleed.” We must speak up for the Christians who are under increasingly deadly attacks in the Middle East and Africa. We must encourage our own government to use all diplomatic and military means to put a stop to the anti-Christian violence, and to do so immediately.

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus at the

St. Louis Jewish Light.