January 6, 2011

Several minutes into New Year's Day, a bomb exploded at a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt. Twenty-three people were killed and scores more were injured. The attack — timed to take place during a service when the church was full of worshipers — was the worst terrorist incident in Egypt in five years.

Far from being an isolated event, this vicious, cowardly attack was part of a growing trend of radical Islamist violence against Christians in the Middle East. (Though no group claimed credit for the bombing, the terrorist group al-Qaeda is widely suspected). Throughout the region, Christians are increasingly threatened by radical Islamists. The Christian population of the Middle East is shrinking — Christians now make up approximately 5 percent of the region's population, down from 20 percent a century ago.

Few people are more keenly aware of this tragic situation than Canon Andrew White, an Anglican priest who heads St. George's Church in Baghdad, Iraq. White has seen many of his congregants and personal friends in Iraq killed because of their faith. "Just yesterday two elderly people in my congregation were shot dead in their homes, their only 'crime' being that they were Christians," he told the U.K. newspaper the Evening Standard in a December 15, 2010 article.

Canon White fears that Christians in Iraq may go the way of another oppressed population in the country. "My worry is that after Saturday comes Sunday — first the Jews, then the Christians. Today there are 300,000 Christians in Iraq, compared with 1.4 million 20 years ago, and thousands more leave every week."

Indeed, with radical Islamist hostility toward Christians in the region reaching a fever pitch, it seems likely that many countries in the Middle East will soon be free of the "Sunday people" (Christians) — just as they are now free of the "Saturday people" (Jews). The exception, of course, will be Israel, a country where religious freedom for all — Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike — is written into law and respected in practice.

Today, please pray for beleaguered Christians throughout the Middle East. May God protect them from those who mean them harm, and allow them to worship as they see fit, free from the threat of violence. May He comfort all those who have lost loved ones in attacks. And may He bless them with His most precious of gifts — the gift of shalom, peace.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein