The Luxe Bel Air hotel on Sunset Blvd. is a tucked away behind trees and barely visible from the road. Sunday night a multi-ethnic panel of experts gathered in this hide away to discuss what they believe is one of the most underreported stories in the modern world: the often violent persecution of Christians around the globe.
The Forum was put on by the American Freedom Alliance and featured presentations by five speakers plus one video presentation created especially for the event.
Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute is the author of 20 books on the topic of religious freedom. He opened the forum by offering a broad overview of the severity of the problem.
“The PEW Forum on religion and public life, which is probably the leading center in the world of religious statistics, says that Christians suffer discrimination, persecution and harassment in 133 countries. That is 2/3 of the countries of the world and PEW says this is the widest, largest pattern of religious persecution in the world. So while we should always acknowledge that pretty well every religious group is persecuted somewhere…the topic we’re talking about right now is the widest pattern of religious persecution in the world.”
Marshall says the persecutors can be subdivided into three basic groups. First are the communist nations such as China, North Korea and Vietnam along with countries which consider themselves “post communist.” Because there are so many Christians living in these countries (especially China which may have as many as 100 million Christians) the harassment by these communist powers effects the greatest number of Christians.
The second area of persecution is south Asia where religious nationalism in places like India and Sri Lanka creates a threat. Marshall noted that Buddhists and Hindus have a “usually deserved” reputation for coexistence with other religions. However there are extremist elements associated with each religion. “Killings are unusual but in terms of beatings, attacks and the destruction of churches there may be more violent attacks on Christians here than anywhere else.
Finally, the third and probably best known case is the treatment of Christians in the Middle East. According to Marshall, the first two instances of persecution are bad but are relatively stable. Only the persecution by Muslims is currently growing. “It’s a pattern which is spreading. In this sense it’s the most dangerous.”
In each case Marshall provided a list of recent examples of violence which has made the news, though sometimes less that in warranted in his opinion. He pointed to the recent Muslim Brotherhood inspired mass destruction of churches in Egypt as the worst anti-Christian pogrom in that country since the year 1321.
Raymond Ibrahim is a historian, author and expert on the Middle East who spoke primarily about the persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt.
“When I tell people in America I’m a Copt the first question I get is which precinct I work for.” This brought a laugh and a brief respite from the seriousness of the evening. “When you look at Egypt it has just enough Copts for them to be prominent and they’re also small enough to not be able to defend themselves.”
“My background is more in ancient history, medieval history and I’ve often read in the original languages, the primary texts especially Arabic, the history of Egypt under the Islamic conflicts. And the things that you would read in that of course you’ll never read in a best selling English book. You’re not going to get this from Karen Armstrong or John Esposito history because it’s not what people want to hear. But what’s amazing to me is that it mirrors what is happening today…Under, for example, one caliph’s reign according to the primary sources 30,000 churches were destroyed in Egypt and in Syria.”
“Saladin the great magnanimous Arab Muslim fighter who evicted the crusaders is often portrayed in the West as such a great and magnanimous man and yet you don’t know that in the primary sources he was an ardent jihadist whose death wish was to chase Christians and force them to convert or die. And in the countries where he was in charge like in Egypt he actually had churches wherever they were found painted black and the crosses broken off.”
Ibrahim feels that reading the headlines in places like Egypt today we are seeing a continuation of the same history, the same story.
Lela Gilbert has written for the Jerusalem Post, National Review Online and the Weekly Standard. She is also the author of a new book “Saturday People, Sunday People.” Gilbert described the meaning of the title during her presentation.
“Saturday people, Sunday people isn’t just the name of a book. It’s a slogan. It’s a slogan that’s found in graffiti in the Muslim world. I first saw it in Bethlehem. In my book is a picture of a flag. It’s a Palestinian flag but in Arabic it says ‘On Saturday we kill the Jews, on Sunday we kill the Christians.’ First comes Saturday then comes Sunday is the more humane way of saying it. But we have a pattern of what happens to the people of the book.”
Gilbert went on to mention a series of stories from the region including Iran and Syria, places where attacks on Christians has happened in the past 5 years. She concluded by asking a rhetorical question “What can we do?”
“We can pray and we should but we can really bother our legislators. Some of them are on the right side of this and many of them are not. It doesn’t hurt to bother them. It doesn’t hurt to bother the White House.”
The closing speaker on the panel was Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Adlerstein said he was there to speak to the “non-non Jews” at the forum. He called upon mainline churches to get more involved in confronting the problem.
“The World Council of Churches that claims to represent 590 million Christians around the world…the World Council of Churches so far has devoted how much space, how many resolutions, how much energy to the plight of Coptic Christians? [Audience: Zero!] No, no it’s better than that. Two-hundred-and-thirty-four words. Two-hundred-and-thirty-four words in one statement.”
Rabbi Adlerstein also talked about the unique power of messages of support from other faiths. “My message to you, to the Jewish community here is to keep on doing the same thing that the the Simon Wiesenthal Center has been doing. We started years ago. We’ve taken our message to the White House multiple times. Walk in there, they see a bunch of rabbis with yarmulkes and they’re trying to figure out ‘Okay, how much more aid for Israel do they want?’ and instead we’re saying “What are you guys doing about the persecution of Christians around the world?” This brought an appreciative round of applause from the audience.
The American Freedom Alliance has promised that video of the event will be made available soon. Their primary interest, made clear throughout the evening, is to get the word out that the worldwide pattern of persecution needs to be given more attention by the media and by concerned citizens of every faith.