Eminence, Excellences, dear friends,
Can Christianity survive persecution?
As Christians, our first thought would be to say: yes, of course! Christianity will never disappear. Look at the history of the Church! All the Apostles except John were martyrized, we went through three centuries of persecution and then the persecution continued in the Middle East and in Asia and then there was the twentieth century which is said to have been the worst time in history concerning Christian persecution… and we are still here!
We are in Malta, look at the order of Malta. Chased from the Holy Land and then from Rhodes, it survived. Look at Saint Paul, he was also in Malta. I don’t know if any other Christian has had to go through so much persecution: in 2 Corinthians 11 (24;26), he witnesses : “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers”. Well, he finally did die but it was a long process!
But we have even stronger: Christ himself says in Matthew 16,18: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it”. So, of course, Christianity can – and will – survive persecution! That’s great!
But then, Christ also says in Luke 18,8: “However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” And actually, the Church has disappeared from certain regions. Think of the Arabic peninsula or North Africa: it was covered by monasteries and churches! And then, everything disappeared. So the Church can disappear from a specific region! Sometimes, when I travel in rural areas in France, I wonder if the Church could also simply disappear from France… but I don’t believe it. Anyway, that means that there is no guarantee! Christianity can really, it’s a possibility, not be able to survive persecution!
I have been asked to focus on the Middle East. I would like to propose three sections. First, what is the situation? Second, who is responsable? Third, is there any hope?
I/ What is the situation?
Many books have been written on the subject, with titles like The Christians in the Middle East will they disappear? Well, the answer is nearly in the question. Everyday, we hear of new attacks against Christians either in Iraq or Syria or Egypt. They are being killed, they are leaving. The whole picture is clear: it seems to be the end! Remember the little film we have just seen, just a few quotations: “there is no hope and the easy solution is to emigrate”. “It would be a sad reality to have the Holy land without living stones”, which means this reality is now close. “They should remain here” which means they don’t. “They should feel the solidarity of the rest of the world” which means they don’t neither. “They need not feel alone or in danger” which of course means that they are in danger!
Let’s look at some figures. They perfectly illustrate the word evanescence, which means the process of disappearing gradually, vanishing, fading away… Lebanon: decline of 30% or more of the number of Christians since 1983 (that is 1% every year since 30 years). Iran: decline of two-thirds since 1979, that is 66% less, but please be patient: the following figures are even more impressive! Bethlehem, a nice 86% drop since 1948 where the Christians were 85% of the town, now only 12% (2010). Iraq: they were still 1.4 million in 1987, and now? Every single person I know gives a different number, but I have read that they could be reduced to 150.000. In that case, it would be a stunning 90% decrease in 25 years, that means in just one generation. Jerusalem: Christians were 53% in 1922 and 1.2% now: that’s 98% less. Finally, Turkey, which still wants to enter the European Union: the Christians were 25% exactly one century ago and now 0.1%. That’s an amazing 99.6% collapse.
Is that all? No, things are continuing! In Egypt last year, on August 14th, 39 churches were ransacked, entirely burnt or bombed while 23 other churches were besieged and attacked by stones, bullets, Molotov cocktails. Convents and Christian schools were also attacked not to mention houses, shops and cars belonging to Christians. The constitution, which had been revised by the Salafists and Muslim Brothers and which came into force in November 2012, led to a significant worsening in the situation of the Christians in the country.
In Syria, certainly one of the worst places on earth to be a Christian today, nobody can perceive the end of the nightmare. In the beginning, it was not a war against Christians and we can even say that, except Lebanon which has a special status in the Middle East, Syria was certainly one of the best places to be a Christian in the whole region until three years ago. The country was not a democracy but there was a real economic prosperity (9% annual growth) and Christians were not discriminated. Actually, at the beginning of the crisis, there were even several examples of protection of the Christians by Syrian Muslims. But, as the war continued and with the arrival of a huge crowd of foreign mercenaries who are violent jihadists, the exactions against the Christians started to spread.
A few examples: in November last year, the town of Sadat, which is close to Homs and whose population is mainly Syrian Orthodox, was taken by Islamist rebels and became the scene of “the worst massacre of Christians to have taken place in Syria in the past two and a half years” according to a Syrian Orthodox Archbishop. 45 people, including children, were murdered and thrown into mass graves, while 1.500 families were used by the rebels as a human shield.
In early December, after the Christian town of Maloula was captured by the rebels, twelve Greek Orthodox nuns were abducted from their convent. Three Christians were also murdered for refusing to renounce their Faith. The Melchite Patriarch Gregory III Laham has compiled a list of Christian martyrs which, by the end of the year 2013, already had 215 names on it. Unfortunately, the list isn’t near to be closed.
Of course, all the Syrian population is suffering. 2.5 million Syrians have now fled abroad, while at least 7 million people have been uprooted within the country. More than 120.000 people have been killed, including a horrific number (about 10%) of children, several hundred of them deliberately targeted by snipers, the purpose being to rob the parents of all hope and will to live, so that they become unresisting and easy to defeat.
But there now is also an apparent goal of cleaning the country of its’ Christians. Is this a repetition of the Iraqi scenario? Is there a wider strategy of obtaining a Christian-free Middle East? At one point, we have to consider that possibility!
II/ Who is responsable?
Well, there is an obvious responsibility of the local governments and / or population and these countries happen to be essentially Muslim, but before trying to understand if Islam today is an explanation for this situation, why not look in our own backyard first?
What has the West – and in particular the United States – managed to achieve in the Middle East in the last decades? With the glittering excuse of bringing democracy, we have completely ruined Iraq and this has ignited a time bomb which is continuously exploding into concentric waves, now destroying Syria. What next? Lebanon? Why did we absolutely want to bomb Syria beginning of September? The official reason was to help the Syrian population which seems indeed very logical! What other reasons could there be?
Three theories which are as many keys may help to understand the apparent unanimity, Russia and China aside, in the decision to destroy Syria. First, there seems to be an Israeli- American plan to remodel the Middle East. To put an end to existing countries which have the strength to go against decisions imposed to them – and that is very clear with Syria, these countries are able to resist – the plan consists in tearing apart the country into small regions with a mono-ethnic or mono-religious status: a Kurdish province, a Shiite region, a Sunni area…
These micro-states would obviously not have the resources to maintain a real army and would be dependent for their safety to the United States. There was Iraq and now we are dealing with Syria.
Second theory, in the fierce struggle today between the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia, the annihilation of Syria helps to break the Shiite arc that goes from Iran to Lebanon with the Hezbollah, stretching through Iraq, where most of the population is Shiite and Syria, where the majority of the population is Sunni but where the power is at the hands of the Alawites, a Shiite sect.
Largely financed by the Sunni monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the Syrian rebellion, overwhelmingly composed once again of foreign jihadist mercenaries, would help win a decisive round in this confrontation.
Finally, and in a more prosaic way, third theory, it always comes back to oil! It seems that the oil reserves belonging to Syria have been underestimated: they actually would be equivalent to 2.5 billion barrels, that is to say, more important than all the surrounding countries with the exception of Iraq.
It also seems that the Syrian decision to oppose the oil and gas pipelines transit through its territory, from the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean for the European market, has somehow upset the big oil companies from the West and de facto the Arabian monarchies. Probably approved to be faithful to its Russian ally, the Syrian decision simply meant a death sentence: in this world, you are actually allowed to be a dictator but you definitely cannot oppose the kings of oil.
Besides these disappointing stories of Western greed, there also is a definite abandonment by the West of the Christians in the Middle-East. I mean, except us, who cares?
Now, let’s come back to the local responsibility, even if this has already been mentioned. The war inside Islam between Sunnis and Shiites is not new, it actually started right from the beginning, but has now reached an unprecedented paroxysm. Most of the victims of this war are in fact Muslims, either Sunnis killed by Shiites or the contrary, as we can see every day in Iraq for example. Of course, this is also very sad and we point out this fact in our Religious Freedom Report which is published every two years. But proportionally, this war has had dramatic side-effects on the Christians, involuntary victims of this explosion of violence.
But the violence inside the Muslim world today is not only the result of this confrontation. We also have this violence in Nigeria, Pakistan or Indonesia. Why? Some will say that violence is inherent to Islam because both the life of Mohamed and the Koran are full of violence, which is true, but not all Muslims are violent and Muslim countries have not always been violent, so why now?
It might seem paradoxical, because usually we Westerners are supposed to be afraid of Islam but I believe the main reason of this violence inside the Muslim community today is fear, and more precisely, the fear of three phenomenons.
First, the fear of globalization, which is something quite common today in most cultures and which usually leads to isolationism and the focus on identity. The biggest part of the world thinks that Western civilisation, and especially the American way of life, is invading everywhere, which is also true, and they are scared to lose their specificity, which we can understand. When this “cultural” invasion is dubbed with aggressive strategies motivated by greed, as we have already seen, then at one stage, we can understand the emergence of some sort of resentment.
Second phenomenon: some kind of incapacity to adapt to modernity. Just try to find a recent invention or achievement coming from the Muslim world in any field: technology, medicine, culture, literature, … There’s nothing much, and they know it. This feeling is made even more painful today because of the creativity of Islam in the beginning. It’s as if they were trapped in a dead-end, in front of a wall. Violence seems to be the solution suggested by the Islamists, who dream of the glorious old times of the expansion of Islam. This dream goes very far since the Salafists (from the word salaf which means predecessor or ancestor, designing the companions of Mohamed) try to imitate the first Muslims by dressing like them, wearing a beard, not using toothpaste, etc…
Finally, third phenomenon, which explains why they specifically target the Christians: they realize something that we Westerners cannot see anymore: the strong attraction of Christianity. Christianity is spreading today everywhere, except in Europe, and Christ is attracting more and more people, including Muslims. This attraction is so powerful that their only response is to separate Muslims from Christians by chasing them from the Middle East. But this attraction is already the beginning of my last part: Is there any hope?
III/ Is there any hope?
A Christian is supposed to practice both the cardinal and the theological virtues, faith, hope and charity, so officially, we can never lose hope. This hope is already nourished by the big number of conversions from Muslims to Christianity. A Saudi Arabian imam said – and he was horrified when saying this – that there were six million conversions each year in Africa. In the Arabian Peninsula, there are also conversions even if it is impossible to count them, for the simple reason that most of them are completely anonymous for security reasons.
Even if conversion is before all a grace of God, it seems that this grace usually borrows two channels, the media and something more surprising, dreams. Concerning the media, there now is a very wide proposal of information on Christianity in Arabic, Farsi, Turk, etc… through Internet, television and radio broadcasts. Most of the people discover Christianity and are attracted to it, through this channel, but in each of my trips to this area, I always hear stories of people suddenly, without any human mediation, being attracted to Christ after having dreamt of Him. I personally know an Iranian woman who has experienced this. I have never heard about such experiences in the West, so I actually am a little bit jealous about God’s intervention in the Middle East. Why doesn’t he do that in France?
Anther reason of hope is positive steps towards unity among Christians. In Egypt for example, the new Orthodox Pope and the new Catholic Patriarch (they were elected more or less at the same time a bit more than one year ago) are much closer than what their predecessors were experiencing. If the unity of the Church could be a fruit of all this turmoil, then maybe all this suffering would have been worth it.
Still another reason to hope: the exponential increase of foreign Christians living in the Middle East. Of course, these newcomers cannot replace the original Christians with their long heritage of local culture and furthermore, these foreigners are not meant to stay (they are there for work and leave as soon as their contract is finished) but, in spite of this, the result is quite astonishing: in some countries of the Arabian peninsula, there are actually more Christians than Muslims! The Catholics were 200.000 thirty years ago and now 3.1 million. That is fifteen times more, which means an average of 50% increase each year! That’s a world record! What should we understand by this? What is the plan of the providence in this area?
Finally, what happened in Egypt can also be a sign of hope. After having experienced the Muslim Brotherhood, there was a massive rejection of radical Islam by the Egyptian population, most of them being Muslim. The new constitution is much more respectful of the religious minorities including the Christians which appear much more hopeful than just one year ago.
As the Coptic Pope Tewadros II told me two months ago in Cairo, “all the countries of the world are in the hands of God but Egypt is in the heart of God!” Let’s hope that that is true and that all our brothers living in this area are also close to the heart of God. Thank you very much.