With the only Christian in Pakistan’s government murdered outside his mother’s home, Coptic Christian churches being burnt in Egypt, and Iraq’s Christian population reduced by about half of its 1.4 million total of 25 years ago, the future for many Christians in the Muslim world looks at best uncertain.
Dr. Walid Phares wants the Chicago area to be aware of the ongoing persecution and Saturday stressed the unknowns of the political situation in many countries in the region. He is particularly anxious about what type of government might replace any overturned regimes.
“Are they really going to be democratic?” Phares asked. “Will they give rights to minorities … will they be better or worse?”
Phares was the keynote speaker at “The Persecuted Church: Christian Believers in Peril in the Middle East.”
The daylong conference was sponsored by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, and held at the Double Tree Guest Suites in Downers Grove.
Phares, born in Beirut, is an attorney and Ph.D. holder who teaches at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., has authored several books on the Middle East, and serves as an adviser to both the Homeland Security Administration and the U.S. House Anti-Terrorism Caucus.
Phares called for a concerted effort to bring awareness to Americans of the plight of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East, joking that he would call it, “The Chicago Initiative.”
Phares outlined the modern history of the region, asking why so many other regions had agitated for freedom in the last generation — he noted democracy movements in Europe, Latin America and South Africa — while so many Middle Eastern people still lacked basic freedoms. “It has to do with policy,” he said, stressing that decision makers were often subject to bad advice, advice informed by substandard education about the Middle East in American universities.
Phares noted that money donated to American universities from Middle Eastern sources, particularly from Iran and Saudi Arabia, misinformed education about the region, saying the money came “with strings attached.”
He also faulted the American media for failure to report on the plight of Christians and other minorities in the region, saying media tended to view any conflict in the area through the lens of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.
While he listed several areas where Christians suffered persecution in the region, he singled out Iraq, noting that as a country that has direct U.S. influence, we had “an obligation to help provide protection for Iraqi Christians … they are in direct and clear danger of destruction.”
The event began at 9 a.m. with individual testimonies from witnesses to the persecution of Christians in the region.
Particularly vivid were the accounts of attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt, including the recent arson to St. George Church and the destruction of homes in the Christian community. “We are definitely disappointed and disheartened,” said Dr. Refaat Abdel-Malek, a prominent member of the Chicago Coptic Christian community. He stressed that the Egyptian police “sort of disappeared all of a sudden” when the attacks occurred. “That all happened with the army in front of the church watching,” Abdel-Malek said.
Kamal Ibrahim, also a Coptic activist, framed the problem as one of the governing philosophy of Egypt. “We need to think of their constitution,” he said, noting that there has been no mention of the section of the Egyptian constitution that mandates the primacy of Islam. “We need to look at a new constitution.”
Speaking of the young people of Egypt and the way they stood up to the Mubarak regime, Ibrahim did offer a glimmer of hope. “That was so powerful and I’m proud of them,” he said.
Juliana Taimoorazy is an Assyrian Christian who immigrated to the United States from Iraq. She noted that persecution of Assyrian Christians had been a regular feature of the region since the rise of Islam and had become worse since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
She pointed out that the United States government had “yet to establish a policy” to protect the Iraqi Christians.
Taimoorazy bristled at the notion that Assyrian Christians were minorities in Iraq, saying, “We are the indigenous people of that country.”
Kitty Weiner represented Congressman Peter Roskam, R-Wheaton, and pointed out the diversity of the audience of almost 400 people. “Look at all the different cultures that are in this room,” she said.
After lunch, a panel discussion included several Christian leaders. Some of them were more optimistic than others about the prospects for Christians to live peacefully in their ancestral homelands.
Dr. Carl Moeller of Open Doors USA noted that a recent PEW Research poll showed strong majorities of the Egyptian people favored death penalties for apostasy from Islam and stoning for adulterous women. “If we have democracy, what kind of government will be produced?” he asked.
But Todd Nettleton, media director for The Voice of Martyrs, detected a ray of hope. “Democracy can lead to more Islam but Islam may lead to Christianity,” he said.
As evidence he noted that, even with Islam seemingly on the rise in many of the regions undergoing unrest, interest about Christianity is also peaking among young people in the Middle East.
By Hank Beckman