“In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Most Merciful! All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the worlds!” The Fatihah, the central verse of the Qu’ran is chanted as the camera focuses in on a Libyan beach lined with 21 blindfolded men in orange uniforms. Behind each one of them is a member of the Islamic State, dressed in black, brandishing a knife, held close to the neck of his Coptic Christian captive. The narrator of the five-minute-long video leaves no room for misunderstanding:
“Today we are sending you a message, oh crusaders, safety for you will be only wishes especially when you’re fighting us all together! Therefore we will fight you all together until the war lays down its burdens.”
At the close of the video, the curved knives of the militiamen strike home, and the Copts are sent to receive their eternal reward.
Christians are being driven out of the Middle East. Pressure from Islamist groups and economic forces make remaining in Middle-eastern countries less and less feasible for Christian families, many of whom have lived there for hundreds of years. Building hostility from the Islamic State (IS) continues to ravage the area with constant threat of retribution.
Militants pass through small towns, marking Iraqi Christian homes with the Arabic letter ن (equivalent to our Latin alphabet’s letter “N”) in dripping red spray paint. Christians here are called Nazarenes (نصارى). This marking leaves a clear message: “leave, or you will be killed.” Iraq is no outlier. In Syria, the birthplace of Saint Peter the Apostle, the faithful now only make up 10% of the population; in Turkey, a thriving center of the early Church, only 0.2%.
This trend, however, is not only limited to the severely unstable parts of the region. The Israel/Palestine conflict takes its toll on Arab Christians living in the Holy Land, where the state of Israel treats Christians as second-class citizens. Ever-growing Israeli settlements and restrictions on movement make quotidian life dangerous and expensive. For instance, Christians who live in Bethlehem are not permitted to travel six miles to Jerusalem to worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. These restrictions often separate families and restrict commerce.
Local Christians fear the Holy Land will soon become a sort of “spiritual museum” where believers can visit to take photographs and light a candle, but where no Christians live, raise children, do business, or attend local parish events. Christians in the area tend to be well-educated, and therefore have more opportunities to leave the area to pursue educational or corporate ambitions. Because many countries in the region do not have stable economies, market growth, investment, and innovation are reduced to the smallest possible scale. Christians are not returning to share the wealth, know-how, or expertise they have learned.
Even with all of these issues, the media do not attend to the plight of believers in the Middle East, since such headlines are neither flashy nor provocative. The fact is, however, that if any other cultural or religious group was being driven out of the region in such large proportions, humanitarian and political leaders would decry the loss of such a large and intrinsic part of the Middle East’s heritage. The first step in knowing–let he who has ears to hear, hear.
To the Coptic Marytrs
Ye twenty-one of fearless faith,
Amidst the toils of this our world,
Your steadfast virtue abounds in grace,
And meet upon celestial clouds unfurled,
The kindly King who as reward,
Gives crowns of glory to each man,
Who taken by that crescent sword,
Gave witness on that sun-baked sand,
Unto eternal Truth’s great price.
No greater faith on earth is known,
Than this whole-offered sacrifice,
And plead you now before the Throne,
That ours may one day with you be
Our portion in eternity.