The headline on CNN was depressing and all too familiar: “Six dead in car bomb attack at Nigeria Church.” This assault, which occurred at Saint Finbar’s Catholic Church, followed a similar attack two weeks before at the Church of Christ compound, which killed three people and wounded 38 others, and the Christmas Day attacks that saw more than 32 martyred for their faith at Catholic churches as they gathered to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.
I guess I was especially saddened by this report because the Archbishop of Jos, Nigeria, Ignatius Kaigama, who is also president of the Nigerian Bishops’ Conference, is a cherished friend of mine. He is one of the gentlest, wisest, most conciliatory men I know, and has been a bold leader in calling for calm, non-violence, and religious freedom for all. In our calls and communications, I can sense his deep anxiety as he daily watches his Catholic flock under attack, and as his own life is in peril.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, responded to the Christmas Day attacks, saying, “We join with Pope Benedict XVI, and other religious and civic leaders of good will, in condemning this vile and heinous terrorist attack on worshippers during this holy day. Once again we must repeat loudly: No circumstances ever justify acts of terrorism, and we must all continue to stand together to oppose it with all our strength and resources.”
It’s not just happening in Nigeria, of course. Christians are being persecuted and killed at an alarming rate in what Somali-Dutch dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali calls “Christophobia” spreading throughout Muslim-majority nations. In a recent article in Newsweek magazine, she writes, “In recent years, the violent oppression of Christian minorities has become the norm in Muslim-majority nations stretching from West Africa and the Middle East to South Asia and Oceania. In some countries it is governments and their agents that have burned churches and imprisoned parishioners. In others, rebel groups and vigilantes have taken matters into their own hands, murdering Christians and driving them from regions where their roots go back centuries.”
A frightening number of examples can be found, and Hirsi Ali cites many of them in her article. In Egypt, 24 are killed and 300 more injured when security forces drive their trucks into and fire upon a crowd of Christians protesting Islamic attacks on the Coptic Christian minority; World Vision, an ecumenical Christian aid group, in Pakistan to help the victims of an earthquake, is attacked by 10 gunmen armed with grenades, leaving six dead and four wounded; a minister in the government of Pakistan—a Catholic—responsible for the rights of minorities, is assassinated for defending the rights of Christians; Christian converts are regularly arrested in Iran for practicing their faith; two priests and more than 50 faithful killed as they gathered for Mass in Baghdad. The list soberly goes on and on, and seems to be growing every day. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican representative to the United Nations offices in Geneva, reported that between 2003 and 2010 there was a 309 percent increase in attacks on Christians in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Why are churches under such attack? My friend, Archbishop Kaigama, has said that these attacks are motivated, at least in part, by the desire of the terrorists to gain publicity. “An assault on a police station is not news, but a church massacre goes around the world and creates a reputation,” he said. It is also clear that for some extremists, the eradication of Christianity from Islamic countries is the ultimate goal. And, this violence and persecution is, in fact, resulting in the massive exodus of Christians from the Middle East. Thousands upon thousands are leaving—or are being forced out—of countries where Christianity has not only flourished, but in many cases where it first took root 2000 years ago.
Why hasn’t there been more of an outcry over the violence, the murders, the Christian diaspora from the Holy Land? Nina Shea, of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, notes that international media may report on random acts of Islamic terrorism, but rarely do they examine the global pattern of attacks on Christians. Do the media intentionally ignore these stories? It is hard to say for sure—but it is just as hard to imagine the ongoing and systematic killing and persecution of any other religious group provoking so little outcry. There does seem to be a deliberate double standard at play, and far less sensitivity to anti-Christian activity.
Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, with characteristic clarity, got right to the heart of the matter in his recent annual address to diplomats, sounding a theme that has become a staple of his papacy. The Holy Father said, “In many countries Christians are deprived of fundamental rights and sidelined from public life; in other countries they endure violent attacks against their churches and their homes. At times they are forced to leave the countries they have helped to build because of persistent tensions and policies that frequently relegate them to being second-class spectators of national life. In other parts of the world, we see policies aimed at marginalizing the role of religion in the life of society, as if it were a cause of intolerance rather than a valued contribution to education in respect for human dignity, justice and peace. In the past year religiously motivated terrorism has also reaped numerous victims, especially in Asia and in Africa; for this reason, as I stated in Assisi, religious leaders need to repeat firmly and forcefully that ‘this is not the true nature of religion. It is the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction.’ Religion cannot be employed as a pretext for setting aside the rules of justice and of law for the sake of the intended ‘good.’”
The horrifying shooting earlier this week at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, which left four dead, including three children, reminds us that Christians are not the only ones under attack. Our Jewish brothers and sisters know all too well the effects of anti-Semitism, and we stand in solidarity with them. All forms of hatred and violence must be condemned, especially when it is motivated by another’s race, nationality, or religious beliefs.
Certainly governments in the West must become more active in supporting and defending the rights of Christians in predominantly Muslim countries. Hirsi Ali again: “As for what the West can do to help religious minorities in Muslim-majority societies, my answer is that it needs to begin using the billions of dollars in aid it gives to the offending countries as leverage. Then there is trade and investment. Besides diplomatic pressure, these aid and trade relationships can and should be made conditional on the protection of the freedom of conscience and worship for all citizens.” Makes sense to me.
And, as Catholics, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, people of all faiths who rejoice in the religious freedom we are blessed to have here in the United States—we can unite ourselves in prayer with those who are suffering because of their faith elsewhere around the world.