No Easter joy in Middle East

By Sam Lucero | The Compass | April 1, 2015

Christian persecution continues

As the Christian family gathers at the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, we cannot forget about our brothers and sisters living in the Middle East. The persecution they are facing, especially in recent months, at the hands of Muslim extremists, must make any thought of Easter joy a far-off dream.

Displaced from their homes, fearing violence and death, Christians in the Middle East MAY relate more closely to the Passion of Christ rather than the joy of his resurrection. Persecution is nothing new to Holy Land Christians. According to Catholic tradition, St. Stephen the deacon was stoned to death by a mob led by Saul about one year after Christ’s death and is considered the first martyr.

Christian persecution, first by Jews and the Roman Empire, has continued around the world and by different antagonists, for 2,000 years.

Open Doors USA, a non-profit organization serving persecuted Christians in more than 60 countries, issues a yearly World Watch List on Christian persecution. Last January, Open Doors reported that Christian persecution reached historic levels in 2014, with approximately 100 million Christians worldwide “facing possible dire consequences for merely practicing their religion,” reported Religion News Service.

On its list of the top 50 countries cited for Christian persecution were numerous Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq (number three), Syria, (four), Afghanistan (five) and Iran (seven).

David Curry, president of Open Doors, told RNS that Muslim extremists are the primary drivers of Christian persecution worldwide, counting for 40 of the 50 nations on its list.

While the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is responsible for a majority of the terror inflicted on that part of the globe, other Muslim extremists such as Boko Haram are to blame for more than 1,000 Christians murdered or kidnapped in Nigeria. (Open Doors ranks Nigeria as the 10th worst offender of Christian persecution.)

Tolerance for people of other faiths is no longer the norm in places where extremists hold power. For example, in 2010, Syria boasted a Christian population of 1.1 million. Today, that number is estimated to be around 400,000. About 1.5 million Syrians have fled to Lebanon, a country whose population of 4 million now consists of more than 25 percent Syrian refugees.

Overall, the Christian population in the Middle East has dropped from around 20 percent at the start of the 20th century to around five percent today, according to a March 26 Newsweek Magazine report. It also noted that less than one percent of the world’s 2 billion-plus Christians now live in the Middle East.

“This is the land of Christ, but without Christians here, it is like having the stones without the spirit—having all the churches here but without the spirit of the people,” Samia Khalileh, a Greek Orthodox who lives in the West Bank, told Newsweek.

Every year on Good Friday, the Catholic Church takes up a collection for the Holy Land. The collection is administered by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, which cares for Christian shrines, and the Congregation for Eastern Churches.

Contributing to the collection is one way Catholics worldwide can show support for fellow Christians who continue to call the native land of Jesus their home. Last year, the collection provided $2.5 million for emergency assistance to people in Iraq and Syria. The collection also helps maintain the Holy Land shrines and many social, charitable and educational activities. Donations can be made online at www.myfranciscan.org.

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