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Five Things I've Learned about Religious Persecution in the Middle East 

1) The church in the Middle East has been persecuted for thousands of years. 

Right now, I am sitting in the Logos Center at the Saint Bishoy Monastery of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Wadi El-Natron, Egypt. Coptic and Egyptian Christians have suffered persecution for thousands of years. The Coptic (Egyptian) Church began with the martyrdom of Saint Mark in the streets of Alexandria in the first century. The persecution of Christians in the Middle East continues to persist to this day. 

February 15, 2015, marked a significant day in the lives of Egyptian Christians and other followers of the cross living throughout the Arabic-speaking world. ISIS released a "propaganda video" showing the mass execution of twenty-one Egyptian Christian men in Libya, wearing orange jumpsuits with their hands cuffed behind their backs. In the video, men dressed in black stood behind the victims, who were then pushed to the ground and beheaded. 

Let us remember and honor the lives of the 21 Egyptian martyrs who were killed in Libya at the hands of ISIS. 

2) History continues to influence and define current relationships that can lead to persecution. 

Often in 21st-century conflicts, the decades (or centuries) of the history of relationships between people groups are forgotten. History continues to define relationships unless historical narratives are reconciled, and past wrongs or injustices are addressed. This lack of reconciliation can often lead to the persecution of Christians and other minority groups. 

The persecution... points back to the random divisions.

Consider the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between the Allied Powers after WWI that divided up much of the Middle East. In the agreement, the remnants of the Ottoman Empire were divided up among the western powers. Many of the conflicts today in the Middle East, and specifically the persecution of the Kurdish people in Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, points back to the random divisions that neglected to acknowledge the whereabouts of different tribes and people groups. 

3) Not all things that cause religious groups to leave or emigrate are because of persecution. 

For example, the departure of Christians from the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza is not because of persecution by their Muslim neighbors. Rather Palestinians living in those territories, both Christian and Muslim, live under military occupation. One of the consequences of the occupation in the West Bank is that Palestinians living there are under martial law and do not have civil rights. Because of these realities, many Palestinian Christians choose to leave. The Christian community in the Palestinian territories are highly educated and often have enough resources and access to the West that they are able to emigrate. While the rise of Islamic extremism in different parts of the Middle East is a concern, Christians and Muslims in the oPt more often than not live side-by-side in peace and harmony. 

4) Religious Persecution is something that can be codified into the laws of the land. 

For example, the constitution in Iraq and some other Middle East countries openly privileges Muslims and discriminates against atheists and some other religious minority groups. According to the 2017 U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report, "The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the 'established provisions of Islam.' The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice for Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but not for followers of other religions or atheists. The law prohibits the practice of the Bahai Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam." When I was traveling in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq in late October, I heard from religious leaders that the practice of Bahai in Iraq is punishable by death. 

I heard from religious leaders that the practice of Bahai in Iraq is punishable by death. 

In the Middle East, even in countries where religious persecution is not codified into law, discrimination against different religious groups still can extend to civil privileges that are awarded to some religious groups over others. Sometimes when laws are actually made to protect religious minorities, it doesn't mean that those laws are actually lived out and put into effect. 

5) Words are dangerous and can lead to persecution of religious minority groups. 

The old adage "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me" does not hold true in the world we live in today - especially in the Middle East. Often the hatred and vilification of others extend to physical acts of violence and religious persecution. I have learned this brutal reality from my Jewish friends. A rabbi once told me never to forget that the Holocaust and murder of six million Jews and millions of Polish people, the Roma, and others began with words of dehumanization and hatred. Consider as well some of the recent crimes against religious communities where hateful epithets were spouted while people in the community were being killed, such as Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Tree of Life Synagogue near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

As we reflect upon these realities, may we be reminded of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:10)

For more articles in this series on 'What I've learned about religious persecution" follow this link!

Photo by Cole Keister on Unsplash

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