BY RABBI YECHIEL ECKSTEIN/Daily News
* There is still hope that the mainstream media will pick this up one day, but don’t hold your breath…
An Islamic court inÂ Shiraz, Iran, has just convicted two men of being infidels. Their crime? Converting to Christianity. The possible sentence? Death. Not too far away inÂ Saudi Arabia, an outraged father recently hacked his own daughter to death for the same “abomination.”
In the daily drumbeat of Mideast news, there is one story of historic proportion that goes nearly unreported: the persecution and systematic destruction in the Islamic world of some of the world’s oldest Christian communities.
But what about the jailing in Saudi Arabia of foreign workers for holding forbidden Christian prayers? Or the arrest inÂ PakistanÂ of a Christian man for marrying a Muslim woman? Or the continuing problem of an Islamic educational system that teaches the young that Christians (as well as Jews) are “the descendants of apes and pigs”?
The pattern is nearly the same wherever extremist Islam holds sway. FromBangladeshÂ toÂ Darfur, Christians have become regular targets for Islamic thugs and the governments that back them. Just this month, a Pakistani court upheld the kidnapping, conversion and “marriage” to older Muslim men of two Christian sisters, aged 10 and 13.
Even in lands that are not under orthodox Sharia law, Christian communities feel the pressure of persecution. In constitutionally secularÂ Turkey, a legally recognized Protestant church in the capital ofÂ AnkaraÂ is under threat of closure by local police.
Many Christians in Islamic lands have become subject to such terror that they are fleeing the homelands their ancestors have known almost since the time of Jesus. Iraq’s Christian sects now feel forced to pray in secret. Others simply leave. Although they comprise less than 4% of Iraq’s population, Iraqi Christians now account for 40% of its refugees.
Lebanon‘s once politically powerful Christian community has already shrunk almost beyond recognition. Thirty years ago, Lebanon was 60% Christian; today it is barely 25%. And the growing political power ofÂ Iran-backedÂ HezbollahÂ is encouraging further departures.
Even in the Holy Land, where Jesus walked, there is an increasing Christian exodus from both theÂ West BankÂ and Gaza. Part of it surely stems from the continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But much of it results from a growing Islamic campaign to force Christians to sell their property and leave.
The only place in the Mideast where Christian communities continue to grow is in the JewishÂ State of Israel. Israel’s tolerance is logical. What people of faith know the dangers of religious persecution better than the people of Israel – especially those whose families originated in the Islamic world? Between 1948 and 1956 more than 850,000 Jews were forced to flee the Arab lands where their families had lived for centuries.
When, in 2001, Afghan fanatics destroyed two ancient statues of Buddha, the world was shocked. But between 1948 and 1967, when Islamic forces controlled the Holy City ofÂ Jerusalem, there was a systematic campaign to erase the historic Jewish presence. Synagogues were destroyed and ancient Jewish gravestones carted away. Even today, theÂ Palestinian AuthorityÂ denies Israel’s right to consider itself a Jewish state and denies the historic Jewish connection to Jerusalem.
If there is hope for true peace in theÂ Middle East, it won’t simply come from Israeli and Palestinian leaders shaking hands at a formal ceremony. It hinges on extremist Islam reforming its view of others. People of commitment and tolerance all around the world – Christians, Jews, Muslims and others – must speak out loudly and forcefully to prevent the Islamic world’s Christians from suffering the same fate as its now all-but-nonexistent Jewish communities.
Eckstein is founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.