By CIJA CEO Shimon Koffler Fogel, The Hill Times
Last week, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus (a CIJA affiliate) wrote to Canada’s new Foreign Affairs Minister, the Honourable Stéphane Dion, asking that the government “make a priority of advocating for at-risk Christians throughout the Middle East and Africa.” The bishops and rabbis cited studies showing that Christians are now – “on a global scale and in absolute numbers” – the most persecuted religious community in the world. The two groups specifically requested that Ottawa “explore new and effective ways of providing diplomatic and humanitarian assistance to alleviate their suffering.”
While various religious and ethnic communities around the world endure terrible persecution, the situation facing Christian minorities is acute, deteriorating, and, as clergy have noted, unmatched in scale. In countries governed by Islamic law – including Iran, Sudan and Saudi Arabia – the state bans both conversion out of Islam and various activities by Christian ministers (often called “enmity against God” or “spreading corruption on earth”) on penalty of imprisonment or even execution. In countries such as Nigeria and Kenya, Christians are singled out for attack by local extremists or heavily-armed terrorist groups like Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab. In Egypt, home to the largest Christian population in the Middle East and North Africa, discriminatory laws (including restrictions on church construction) combined with local harassment have increasingly put the very future of the Coptic community in question.
This is to say nothing of the violence and desperation that have engulfed smaller Christian sects – along with their Muslim neighbours – throughout Iraq and Syria. Among the millions of refugees seeking safe haven are scores of Christians, including Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriac Catholics, Maronites, and Yezidis. This is particularly heartbreaking given that Christianity was born in the Middle East. Indigenous Christian communities that have existed in relative peace for centuries are now extinct, as in the case of Mosul, following a systematic program of murder and expulsion.
The Christmas season should be a reminder that the social harmony and diversity we enjoy in Canada is both an historic anomaly and an elusive aspiration in much of the world today. To put things in perspective, in Canada, pundits debate whether a display at City Hall should be called a “Christmas tree” or a “Holiday Tree.” (As an aside, I am an observant Jew who believes that Christmas need not be removed from the public square, especially given that it reflects such Canadian values as peace, charity and goodwill). But, amid the perennial commentary on this issue, we must remember that such “controversies” are trivial compared to the existential crises facing Christian communities overseas. Today churches in the region are in the process of safeguarding their premises against potential attacks by terrorist groups that target Christian sites during the Christmas season – as happened in Egypt and Nigeria in 2011, and Iraq in 2013.
Regardless of their faith or background, all Canadians should be worried by the ongoing crisis facing millions of minority Christians overseas. From a Jewish perspective, I am reminded of a phrase that often takes the form of Arabic graffiti in the region: “After Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) comes Sunday (the Christian Sabbath)”. It has long been an axiom of Islamist extremists that, once the “Jewish problem” is removed, the region’s Christian minority will be the next target for violence and expulsion. The reality of this warning is emerging today. In the years after the founding of the modern State of Israel, more than 850,000 Jews living in countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa were forced to flee rising Arab persecution and violence. Today, Christians are facing similar threats and, in some cases, fleeing the same countries Jews fled in decades past.
In 2014, the federal cabinet accepted the all-party recommendation of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development that Canada formally recognize the experience of Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. This was a crucial step in ensuring Canada’s foreign policy accurately reflects the historic record. It should also serve as a catalyst for government action to assist Middle Eastern and African Christian minorities today. Such a program, which should entail both humanitarian aid and diplomatic measures, would not compete with the ongoing and commendable effort to assist Syrian refugees regardless of their religious identity. Rather, the dedication of new resources to aid Christian communities on the verge of extinction would signal that Canada will not remain passive as religious minorities are targeted for destruction.
Shimon Koffler Fogel is CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA)