Over the next two days, Christians in the United States will celebrate the incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who was born in Bethlehem approximately 2,000 years ago. His birth took place under some pretty mean circumstances. Not only was He born in a grotto, but in a backwater town in a vast empire whose leaders did not flinch from perpetrating great acts of violence to assert their supremacy. Despite the surroundings, the angels sang and the shepherds were able to recognize royalty when they stood in its presence. They heard the call and answered it with praise.
The incarnation that took place in Bethlehem was proof to the shepherds and to the others that gathered that God had not abandoned humanity and that He truly does work in history. For American Christians who have been on the winning side of history for most of the past 200-plus years, belief in such a God is a pretty easy thing to maintain.
It's a different set of circumstances altogether for Christians in the Middle East, particularly those in Iraq and Egypt. Their belief in a God who works in history is a much tougher to hold onto because history seems to be coming to a close for them in the land of their birth.
Christians in Iraq have been victims of some terrible attacks since the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein by American forces in 2003. These attacks have forced Iraq's Christians to flee from their homeland in great numbers. Consequently, the population of Christians living in Iraq has dwindled from 1.4 million in 2003 to somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 today. And more are getting ready to leave in the aftermath of bombing attack that killed several dozen Christians at a church in Bagdhad on Oct. 31. Things are so dangerous for Christians that church leaders have decided to cancel Christmas. If 2010 ends without more attacks on Christians, it will be a miracle.
Egypt is another place in the Middle East where Christians are in peril. They are more numerous in Egypt than they are in Iraq, but they are targets of a similar strain of hostility. In January of 2010, six Christians were murdered outside the church where they were celebrating Christmas mass. (Christians in Egypt are Coptic Orthodox Christians who celebrate Christmas in January.)
This was only one of several attacks that took place in Egypt during the past year and given the level of hostility, it's likely more acts of violence will take place in the next few weeks. Imams have appeared on television accusing Coptic Christians in Egypt of storing weapons in their churches and of being in league with Zionist Jews from Israel. In Muslim majority Egypt, these are lethal charges. When prominent religious and political leaders make accusations like this, it's a signal to others that personal attacks on Christians will be tolerated and condoned.
Fortunately, Iraqi and Coptic Christians living in the U.S. have started to speak out about the violence endured by their sisters and brothers still living in the Middle East, but for the most part, their message has not hit the mainstream. As a result, peole who would murder Christians in Iraq and Egypt have no reason to believe that American Christians in the U.S. care what happens to Christians in the Middle East. It's made the papers, but for some reason, violence against Christians in Iraq and Egypt hasn't provoked the outrage it deserves. I was at a rally in defense of Iraqi Christian rights in early December in Washington, D.C. and there were about 50 people there.
That's not very many.
That's why I am writing this letter on my own time, on Christmas Eve "Eve." (In my day job, I work as Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, also known as CAMERA.) I'm writing this letter in hopes of drawing attention to the plight of Christians in Iraq and Egypt and to pray for their safety. I'm sending it to a small number of friends in hopes that they will pass it on to others. It is my hope that in the next few weeks, thousands of people will pray a simple prayer: "Dear Lord, Restrain the Blade. Restrain the blade of anti-Christian violence in Iraq, Egypt and every where else in the world. Amen."
It's a simple prayer that can be adapted to our own lives as well. "Restrain the blade of anger in our hearts, Lord, restrain the blade. Teach us the way of forgiveness."
Send it to your pastors. Ask that they say it in the pulpit during the Christmas Eve Celebration with a particular eye toward Christians in Iraq. And once Christmas is over, I ask you to focus your attention on the welfare of Coptic Christians in Egypt who will celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, 2011. If possible, organize prayer vigils to draw attention to the anti- Christian violence in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. The underlying goal should be to remind leaders in both the U.S. and in the Middle East to protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East.
Pass it on.
Restrain the blade.
Dexter Van Zile
Dec. 23, 2010