The case of the Iranian pastor sentenced to death for his faith has attached a human face to the horrible situation of Christians in the Middle East.
While Youcef Nadarkhani awaits the death sentence for practicing his religion in Iran, scores of Christians across the Middle East are fleeing their countries amid rising hostility. Sadly, the religious diversity of the Middle East is rapidly vanishing.
In contrast to pervasive terror attacks against Christians, Nadarkhani’s case garnered tremendous media coverage, including a statement from the U.S. State Department demanding that Iran halt his execution.
The pressing urgency of Nadarkhani’s case cannot be overstated enough. Earlier this month, he refused to renounce his Christian beliefs and recognize the prophet Mohammed as God’s messenger.
Only international media attention, NGOs and government pressure can spare Nadarkhani from Iran’s wrath.
Our colleague, the former New York Times reporter Clifford D. May, writes that "persecution of Christians in numerous Muslim-majority countries is the most important international story not being told by the mainstream media.”
Take the example of Habib Bastam, an Iranian who converted to Christianity and sought political asylum in Romania. In 2009, one of Tehran’s star chamber courts sentenced him to death for “apostasy.” Earlier this month, the Romanians denied him asylum.
U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom chairman Leonard Leo declared that Arab Christians face increasing persecution. “Christianity in Iraq could be eradicated in our lifetime, partially as a result of the U.S. troop withdrawal,” Leo wrote.
After Hosni Mubarak’s regime collapsed, 100,000 Christians fled Egypt in what the Egyptian Union of Human Rights called a “mass exodus.” In the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the radical Islamic terror group Hamas, 3,000 Christians face persecution.
According to Justus Reid Weiner of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, some 1,000 Palestinian Christians are leaving the city of Bethlehem, in the West Bank.
In a recent Christmas celebration hosted by the territory’s ruling Fatah faction, central committee member Mohammad Shtayyeh appealed to Christians to “remain in the land.”
Should the exodus of Christians from Bethlehem continue in the next two or three decades, there may be no clergy left to conduct religious services in Jesus’ birthplace.
Unsurprisingly, but nonetheless largely ignored by the media, Israel is the only country in the Middle East where a Christian population is vibrant and growing. As documented in the Jerusalem Central Bureau of Statistics, the Israel’s Christian community that numbered 34,000 people in 1949 is now 163,000 strong, and will reach 187,000 in 2020.
In Egypt, the provisional military rulers’ traditional hostility toward radical Islamic groups has led them to embrace the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood.
The public backlash has empowered more radical Salafists, who’ve been implicated in deadly attacks on Coptic Christian churches.
In a late December commentary in the Jerusalem Post, David Parsons, the media director for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, explained what’s at stake in the transformations unfolding across the region. “As the Arab Spring runs its course,” he said, “the litmus test of whether democracy truly is taking root in Egypt and elsewhere in the region will be if the emerging rulers respect the rights of their Christian minorities.”
Christian refugees from Iraq and other countries have found refuge in Europe and the United States, but as their regimes are shaken, only so many of them can escape.
The U.S. and its European allies should exert their muscle to help them, denying foreign aid, preferential trade treatment and other economic enticements to countries that treat their Christian minorities poorly.
The IMF and World Bank ought to use its loan policies as an instrument to combat the persecution of Christian communities.
U.S. embassies across the region, particularly in Iraq and Egypt, can also redouble their efforts to combat rising hostility toward Christians.
American diplomats can publicly issue support in Arab language news publications and help provide resources for Christian communities to practice their religion in a non-discriminatory environment. Unless measures are implemented to halt its decline, Middle Eastern Christians will go extinct.
Youcef Nadarkhani’s case has helped shed light on the persecution of Middle Eastern Christians, and break down Western indifference toward it. But, sadly, it hasn’t yet saved any lives.
Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Giulio Meotti is a journalist with “Il Foglio” and author of the book “A New Shoah.”
Benjamin Weinthal reports on human rights in the Middle East and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @BenWeinthal