Aug. 26, 2013Bishop-General Macarius, sixth from left, a Coptic Orthodox leader, prays with residents at burnt and damaged Evangelical Church in Minya governorate, about 152 miles south of Cairo. Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who make up 10 percent of its 85 million people, have coexisted with the majority Sunni Muslims for centuries. Violence erupted periodically, especially in the impoverished south, but the recent attacks on churches and Christian properties have been the worst in years.Louafi Larbi / Reuters
When the history of the Christian church of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is written, at least one volume will no doubt be devoted to the persecution of the ancient Christian communities of the Middle East.
For the moment, however, their plight receives too little media attention, leaving many American Christians ignorant of, and thus unmoved by, the suffering of their fellow believers in the places that saw the birth of their faith more than two-thousand years ago.
This ignorance has many causes. Much of the media is preoccupied with how the momentous events of the Middle East affect American politics. And President Obama seems to believe that any acknowledgement of Christian persecution would hinder his efforts to launch, as he put it in Cairo four years ago, “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” While recently noting the burning of Christian churches, during most of his time in office he has been loudly silent on the suffering taking place.
It doesn’t surprise me that the plight of Christians is being played down in the media and almost ignored by the president. But what does surprise me—what breaks my heart—is the relative silence of too many Christian pastors.
In Egypt, deadly fighting between the Egyptian military and Islamists has left Egypt’s 10 million Christians caught in the crossfire. In the weeks since the military coup, Muslim Brotherhood members and their sympathizers have damaged or destroyed as many as 100 Christian churches and monasteries as well as untold numbers of Christian businesses, schools and homes.
In one incident, a Christian school in the Cairo suburbs was attacked. A cross was ripped from the gate surrounding the church, the classrooms were set ablaze and the nuns who taught there were paraded through the streets like prisoners of war.
Analyst Andrew Doran, a former State Department employee, has compared the targeting of Egypt’s Christians to Kristallnacht in Germany in 1938, when the Nazis systematically vandalized Jewish synagogues, homes and businesses and murdered many Jews.
While Egypt is the most glaring example, Christians face brutal oppression across the Middle East and beyond.
The Christian communities of most Middle East countries are a fraction of what they once were. According to religious freedom expert Nina Shea, 100 years ago Christians accounted for roughly 30 percent of the population of the Middle East. Now they make up less than three percent. Much of the decline has occurred in the last 20 years.
Lord Sacks, the outgoing Chief Rabbi of Britain, recently called the situation for Middle East Christians “the religious equivalent to ethnic cleansing [that’s] going almost unremarked.” Similar language has been used by other world leaders, from former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to former Lebanese president Amine Gemayel.
The oppression is not limited to the Middle East. According to a 2011 Pew Forum study, Christians are persecuted in 130 countries, more than any other religion.
This reality prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to label Christianity “the most persecuted religion in the world.”
The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has expressed shock that American Christians aren’t regularly protesting outside embassies to attract attention and demand a response.
They aren’t protesting primarily because they aren’t being told about the plight of their brothers and sisters in Christ — let alone admonished to act.
In 2011 a Pew Research survey, 84 percent of the evangelical leaders surveyed said that leaders should express their views on political matters, and 56 percent said that to be a good Christian it is essential to take a public stand on social and political issues when they conflict with moral and biblical principles.
Yet many pastors remain mum on the issue that should animate them the most. According to a 2011 survey conducted by Barna Research Associates, 52 percent of pastors had no plans to talk about the persecution of Christians abroad. From my own experiences speaking with fellow evangelicals, the silence from the pulpit continues today, even as attacks against Christians have escalated.
Why the silence? Many pastors claim that their congregations don’t want to hear such depressing news. But the Barna poll also found that nearly three in four American Christians want to be informed about the persecuted church.
When I’ve raised this issue with pastors over the years, many have said, “Well, Gary, this is what the Lord promised us would happen.” They remind me that, as Paul wrote in his second epistle to Timothy, “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.”
Jesus does tell us that those who follow him will be aggrieved. But it is a theological fallacy to conclude that believers are to be silent in the face of such suffering. The Christian faith also teaches that evil will quicken as we approach the end of history. That fact does not pardon us from our obligation to fight that evil.
Detachment can be a virtue, but it call also be a sin. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who resisted the Nazis and died in a concentration camp, once wrote, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil; God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Those words are as true for pastors as they are for presidents.
Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer is president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.