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Hope for persecuted Christians this Christmas

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By the time you are reading this, my family and I will have attended Christmas service at our church in Dhour El Choueir, Lebanon. Unlike many other places in the Middle East and across the globe, we have the peace of mind to know that we can worship in safety. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same about many of our fellow Christians around the world. A recent report from the British Government found that 80 percent of people who are persecuted because of their religion are Christians. Just last Easter, over 290 people were killed in a series of attacks in Sri Lanka. Coptic Christians in Egypt have been attacked multiple times in recent years during Christmas celebrations.

This Christmas, let us remember our brothers and sisters who do not enjoy religious freedom across the globe and pray for their safety on this holy day.

In Nigeria, there is a genocide against Christians that receives little attention. Boko Haram’s campaign of terror has displaced almost 2 million Nigerians over the past decade. The group has intentionally kidnapped Christian girls, killed people for refusing to renounce their Christian faith, forced Christians to marry Boko Haram militants, and has committed sexual abuse and torture against Christians. Churches continue to be attacked in Nigeria and Christians continue to be targeted in what can only be described as a deliberate and systematic effort to destroy the Christian presence there.

While we were happy to celebrate the asylum of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian who was imprisoned under Pakistan’s “anti-blasphemy” laws, the situation for Christians in Pakistan remains especially concerning. Hundreds of minorities remain in prison under these laws that, while presented to defend Islam, have been used to imprison Christians and even Muslims of minority sects. The government also has a history of failing to protect Christians during periods of expected persecution, such as Christmas worship.

The radical Hindu nationalism of Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, is also resulting in an increase in attacks against Christians. His government fails to hold accountable the Hindu radicals who attack Christians. Christian women have been the victims of gang rape, pastors have been hanged, and even groups of Christmas carolers have been detained.

This Christmas, we should also pray for our brothers and sisters in Hong Kong, the only place in China where there is religious freedom. As China seeks to interfere in Hong Kong’s sovereignty, Christians there fear what this could mean for their religious freedom, given China’s human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims and the government’s effort to viciously persecute unsanctioned churches.

While Christians in Egypt are hopeful for their future, given President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s gestures of inclusion, their situation on the ground is far from ideal. Christian activists such as Ramy Kamel have been imprisoned amidst a government crackdown against activists and journalists. The province of Minya, home to the largest concentration of Copts outside of Cairo, continues to face serious threats as a family there was recently stabbed in the latest of a series of hate crimes and terrorist attacks. While the perpetrator of this attack was prosecuted, often Christian are forced to “forgive” their attackers in forced “reconciliation” sessions that exonerate the attackers of all wrongdoing.

The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of ISIS, is a major step towards bringing justice for the victims of his extremist Islamic ideology. However, Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria are still recovering from the genocide they faced at the hands of al-Baghdadi’s henchmen. Many remain displaced in Iraqi Kurdistan, elsewhere in the Middle East, or in Western countries. And many historically Christian and Yazidi villages in Northern Iraq are now occupied by Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces. In addition to these challenges, Iraq’s Christians are joining with their fellow citizens of other faiths in protests against the corruption in Baghdad. Security forces have killed 430 protestors and the Chaldean Catholic patriarch even canceled the church’s public Christmas activities to mourn the lives of those lost.

While I am grateful that President Trump announced $50 million in aid for Christians in Syria, I remain deeply concerned about Syrian Christians and encourage the U.S. government to bolster American engagement in the region and be more proactive in supporting Christians there.

Turkey continues to be a foe to Middle Eastern Christians. I was not surprised to see Turkey once more committing ethnic cleansing and targeting Christian communities in Northeast Syria this year. Turkish government interference in the independence of the Armenian and Ecumenical Patriarchates, desecration of churches in Occupied Cyprus, oppression of Syriac Christians native to their southeastern region, and reckless actions in Northeast Syria all underscore this point.

On Dec. 12, the Senate unanimously voted to recognize the Armenian Christian genocide, a dark chapter in the history of Turkey that witnessed the massacre of millions of Armenians and other Middle Eastern Christians. The House of Representatives also recognized the Armenian Christian genocide in October.

The Trump administration has made religious freedom a foreign policy priority at an unprecedented level, through the now-annual State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom and its elevation of the issue at the United Nations. Recognizing the Armenian genocide would be a capstone achievement in the administration’s efforts to support Middle Eastern Christians.

Lastly, I want to touch on Lebanon, as an example of hope. St. Pope John Paul II said that Lebanon is a powerful message of coexistence between people of different faiths. Today, Lebanon is suffering from an economic crisis and government corruption. I am inspired to see Lebanese of all faiths joining hands and calling for government reforms. Lebanon truly has come a long way since the 20-year civil war that divided its people along sectarian lines. The fact that many Lebanese people, from all religions, have united for a peaceful revolution gives me hope for Christians elsewhere in the Middle East and in other countries where they are persecuted. Lebanon is the last bastion of Christianity in the Middle East, where Christians feel safe and have equal rights. This is the message of coexistence that the pope praised and proof that Christians can achieve equal rights and live in peace, even in countries where they face persecution today.

There are rays of hope breaking through the dark cloud of Christian persecution, but it is a long journey requiring both financial and diplomatic support to stem the violence and promote the change towards equality and multi-religious coexistence.

Toufic Baaklini is president and chairman of the board of directors of In Defense of Christians. He has committed years of service to preserving the historic Christian communities of the Middle East. To that end, he has testified before Congress, briefed officials at the State Department and National Security Council, and met with other high-ranking leaders.

Tags Christianity in Egypt Coptic history Donald Trump Lebanese people Persecution of Christians Persecution of Christians by ISIL

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