The Persecution of Christians in Africa and the Middle East

July 23, 2018 Updated: September 20, 2018

Jesus warned his disciples: “They will hand you over to persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of my name” (Matthew 24:9). Such treatment was a reality for the early followers of Christ, and it continues today, especially in Africa and the Middle East.

Among the better-known recent atrocities are the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya; the killing of an elderly French priest at morning Mass by ISIS terrorists in Normandy; and the kidnapping and sexual enslavement of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram. The details of these events are horrific, but so are lesser-known stories like those of the Iraqi Christian woman who watched jihadists nail her husband to the front door of their home, or the Christian mother who escaped ISIS enslavement after she had been brutally tortured and taken to a sex slave detention center.

An ISIS sheikh who ran the center performed “marriages” between captive girls and women and ISIS fighters. The escaped Christian mother explained:

“That night, I was married to eight different men and divorced eight times. Each man raped me three or four times. When all this was over, we were taken back to the room where all the girls were being held. They made us walk naked through the big room where all the men were sitting. We were barely able to walk. This scenario was repeated every week—it was like a nightmare.”

Rather than denying and denouncing these actions, ISIS leaders claimed responsibility for these crimes, precisely because the victims were Christian.

Christians who fled ISIS-controlled areas faced additional risks. With their money and property having been confiscated, they often had to walk through miles of desert-like terrain in temperatures over 100 degrees. They carried small children and pushed the elderly in wheelchairs. Those who made it to refugee camps risked a whole new round of persecution. Many faced violence and mistreatment at the hands of Muslim migrants in the camps. Many Christians thus opted to stay away from the camps, but that made survival even more difficult.

With ISIS now in retreat and reportedly on the edge of collapse, the assumption seems to be that the persecution of Christians is coming to an end, and the remaining violence is a matter of regional clashes. In truth, only the location of some of the worst persecution has changed. The genocide continues.

During the first six months of 2018, about 6,000 Christians—mostly children, women, and the elderly—were killed in Nigeria alone. The details of these murders, though seldom reported, were often grisly. Many victims were hacked to death or beheaded with machetes; others were burned alive (sometimes inside locked churches or homes); and women were frequently sexually assaulted or raped before being slaughtered.

Both the Nigerian government and the U.S. government have tried to minimize news of this genocide. Reports often refer to “clashes” between farmers and herdsmen. The headlines mask the reality of the regular attacks by Fulani (Muslim) herdsmen on Christian farmers. The herdsmen, carrying AK-47s, almost always initiate the clashes. They often end them by raping women, butchering innocents, and burning down churches and villages.

The National Christian Elders Forum, a wing of the Christian Association of Nigeria, issued a statement saying: “Jihad has been launched in Nigeria by the Islamists of northern Nigeria led by the Fulani ethnic group. This jihad is based on the Doctrine of Hate taught in Mosques and Islamic Madrasas in northern Nigeria as well as the supremacist ideology of the Fulani.”

The forum also pointed out the objective of the terrorists: “The Islamists of northern Nigeria seem determined to turn Nigeria into an Islamic Sultanate and replace Liberal Democracy with Sharia as the National Ideology. The object, of course, is to supplant the Constitution with Sharia as the source of legislation.”

In addition to calling out the Fulani terrorists, Christian leaders are putting blame on the Nigerian government. Prior to his election, President Muhammadu Buhari presented himself as a moderate who would convince other Muslims to lay down their arms. However, his government now stands accused not only of failing to protect Christians but of possibly supplying weapons to the jihadists.

In a statement issued in July, after the massacre of more than 200 Christian farmers by “Fulani Muslim pastors” (as they are called), the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria demanded that Buhari resign if he is unable to ensure the safety of all. “It can no longer be regarded as a mere coincidence that the suspected perpetrators of these heinous crimes are of the same religion as all those who control the security apparatus of our country, including the President himself,” the statement read.

Two months earlier, the conference had published a harsh statement asking Buhari to resign after a massacre in the village of Mbalom in which two priests were killed, along with several parishioners.

With these outspoken Christian leaders, segments of the press are beginning to pay some attention to the situation in Nigeria. Hopefully, that will translate into life-saving action, but recent history indicates that when persecution is suppressed in one region, it rears its head in another.

In Egypt, where Coptic Christians account for about 10 percent of the population, assaults have increased since the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. Several Copts were killed immediately following the ouster, and more than 60 churches were looted, vandalized, or completely destroyed.

In Syria, where Christians also account for roughly 10 percent of the population, the bloody civil war pitting the regime of Bashar al-Assad against various rebel groups has left the Christian community in a horrible situation. In Homs, Latakia, and other areas, both rebel and government forces have killed Christians, burned churches, and destroyed antiquities. General concern over fighting and violence tends to obscure very real special concerns of Christians in the war zone. Too often, they are overlooked.

In Saudi Arabia, Christians are barred from becoming citizens, and it is illegal to import, print, or own Christian materials. In Lebanon, where Christians once formed a majority of the population, the steady radicalization of the government and the growth of Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah terror have led to a large-scale exodus of Christians.

Christians have also been the target of Islamists in Gaza since Hamas came to power in 2007. The small remnant of Christians in Gaza has tried to flee, but many were unable to leave and now suffer regular persecution.

In Iraq and in Israel’s West Bank, Arab Christians have been the target of discrimination and violence, prompting many to leave. Cities with rich Christian history, such as Bethlehem, are now under the control of a Muslim majority and almost completely devoid of Christians. In fact, Christians in the Palestinian territories have dropped from 15 percent of the population in 1950 to less than 2 percent today.

The only place in the Middle East where Christians face no restrictions on the practice of their faith is Israel. Christians comprise a little more than 2 percent of Israel’s population, but the country provides them freedom of worship, grants them unfettered access to holy sites, and allows the Christian community to legislate their own religious affairs.

Islam once militarily threatened Europe. Today, a new breed of Islamic extremists seeks to exterminate Christianity. It would be wonderful if one could point to an easy solution, but none are obvious. There is a role for diplomats (including Muslims) in trying to sway the extremists, a role for the scholars to study and develop alternatives, and a role for the military to act when necessary. Christians can take part in the diplomacy, study, and other preparations, but they also need to remember what Jesus said. They will be persecuted, and they have to pray even for their enemies.

Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at The University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).