Last month, World Watch Monitor released a report, Beyond Count, highlighting the alarming frequency with which Christians are fleeing the Middle East. Now a British historian has added his voice to those concerns.
By Dr. Jenny Taylor
Respected UK historian Tom Holland told a briefing in London this week that the world is watching the effective extinction of Christianity from its birthplace.
In an apocalyptic appraisal of the worsening political situation in the region, a panel of experts provided a mass of evidence and statistics for the end of the region’s nation states under the onslaught of militant Islam.
“In terms of the sheer scale of the hatreds and sectarian rivalries, we are witnessing something on the scale of horror of the European Thirty Years War,” said Holland.
“It is the climax of a process grinding its way through the twentieth century – the effective extinction of Christianity from its birthplace.”
The event, titled ‘Reporting the Middle East: Why the truth is getting lost’, sought answers to the “anaemic” coverage of attacks on Egypt’s Christians on 14 August.
Pre-planned destruction of scores of ancient churches, monasteries, schools, orphanages and businesses had gone unreported for days across the West, said Nina Shea, Director of the Hudson Institute Religious Freedom Centre in Washington.
After the Islamists swept multiple elections during the first revolution in 2011, US newspapers asking how it would change Egypt suggested merely that women would be prohibited from wearing skimpy clothes, and Sharm el-Sheikh would close as a tourist destination.
This was “utterly trivial”, she said. Persecution of Copts, who dated their church to Gospel writer St. Mark in Alexandria, was at its worst since the fourteenth century, with “horrific levels of violence”.
“It has been the worst persecution in 700 years against the oldest, largest remaining Christian minority in the Middle East.”
The media had failed to ask the most basic questions, she said. “Why were the Copts singled out, what was the significance and purpose of the attacks?”
A fourth-century church dedicated to St. Mary – whom Muslims are supposed to revere – and that was on the shortlist to become a UNESCO World Heritage site, had been destroyed and designated as a Muslim prayer space.
It was 200 years older than the Bamyan Statues in Afghanistan, yet the mainstream media had ignored its demise.
Yet there was enough evidence to show that the violence was part of a plan to “drive out the Copts, to terrorise them into leaving”, she added.
Holland said Egypt was not a developing nation, which needed help to emerge as a Western democracy but had been the world’s first state, with a civilisation on a level with China and Iran. In Roman times, it had been the world’s bread basket.
Now it was the single largest importer of wheat anywhere on the planet.
The audience heard a litany of atrocities and devastation covered by Arabic-speaking foreign correspondent Betsy Hiel of a US newspaper, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, who has been on the ground in Cairo throughout both revolutions.
The Coptic Church in UK’s General Bishop Angaelos, former secretary to the late Coptic Pope Shenouda, spoke in detail of distortions in media coverage that were mere presuppositions aggravating the situation on the ground.
He said some reports had even suggested Egypt was undergoing a civil war, even referring to a “field hospital” in a mosque in the “leafiest”, most affluent part of Cairo.
“Egypt will never have a civil war,” Angaelos said. “Its demographics just don’t fit that scenario.”
Muslims, he pointed out, often protected Christians. The church and civil society together were against the extremists. Many Muslims had turned against the Brotherhood when it became clear there was no economic plan.
In answer to a question from the floor, he agreed there had been what felt like “silence” from Western churches, governments and indeed Western Muslims after the attacks, which he said belied Islamist propaganda that the West colluded with Christians.
Nina Shea, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, also spoke about Syria.
Christians in Syria were now “caught in the middle”, she said. There was a shadow war against them by rebels, with jihadis and al-Qaeda factions deliberately attacking Christians.
“When they conquer a town they set up sharia courts and mini sharia states. The Christians are fleeing. Given the choice to be killed or to leave, they leave. If they stay, the jizya tax is imposed, and then raised. If they cannot pay they are killed.”
Shea said Christians dared not go to refugee camps run by rebels as they would be recruited to fight.
The so-called Damascus Plan drafted by the Free Syrian Army for after the war ends, included retribution killings against any who did not oppose Assad, Shea said.