Americans often think of Christianity as a Western religion, but its origins are Middle Eastern.
It’s not just that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, taught in ancient Judea and Galilee, and was crucified in Jerusalem. His religion took root first in lands that are now modern Israel, Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Iraq. Western Europe came very late to the party.
This Christmas Eve, let’s spare a thought — and a prayer, for those so inclined — for the Christians being killed and dispossessed in the faith’s ancient homeland.
Many of them belong to traditions — such as Oriental Orthodoxy, Chaldean Catholicism and the Assyrian Church — that are almost unknown outside the region. That may be part of the reason there’s so little awareness of their plight. Yet the roots of some of these communities stretch back to the earliest centuries of Christianity, long before the rise of Islam.
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Especially in Iraq and Syria, they’re being attacked from many sides. But Islamic State is the pre-eminent persecutor. From the days of Muhammad, mainstream Islam has had an official policy of tolerating both Christians and Jews, whom Muhammad recognized as “People of the Book.” This practice fell far short of equal treatment, and it was often violated by Muslim rulers, but most of the time it afforded some protection to people who adhered to biblical beliefs.
Despite Muhammad, today’s jihadists often ignore this doctrine. Islamic State in particular is systematically trying to eradicate Christian communities along with Yazidis and other believers (including Muslims who reject Islamic State’s pretensions to religious supremacy).
Muslims targeted by Islamic State have suffered the highest body count, and Yazidis have suffered an outright extermination campaign. The militants’ war on the region’s Christians might be described as Bosnian-style ethnic cleansing.
The Islamist extremists have carried out mass executions, torture, rape and other atrocities on a vast scale. They’ve made sex slaves of Christian and Yazidi females, girls as well as women. They’ve kidnapped children and the elderly and held them for ransom. They’ve demolished ancient churches and monasteries.
Wherever Islamic State dominates, Christianity is being destroyed. The jihadists have created a Nazi-like stigma for Christian households. Instead of yellow stars, homes are marked in red with the Arab character for “N,” for “Nazarene.” It makes them easy to single out for eviction and violence.
As of last summer, about 600,000 Christians had fled Syria. Americans and Europeans who malign Syria’s refugees should bear this in mind. Many of those “Muslims” are actually Christians.
Islamic State has visited the most extreme persecution on Middle Eastern Christians, but earlier waves of violence and oppression had already made them an endangered species in the region that first nurtured the world’s largest religion. That’s what genuine persecution looks like; that’s where the real “war on Christmas” is being waged.