by John Allen
Image, 320 pages, $25
The attacks began at 2:45 a.m. on July 5, 2013. Fifteen minutes earlier, the body of a Muslim resident of Nagaa Hassan had been found on the banks of the Nile. Though it remains unclear today who killed him, the angry mob that gathered had one target in mind: the 275 families that make up the Christian population of the village. For the next eighteen hours, a three-hundred-strong mob roamed the village streets, moving from house to house, searching for any Christian they could find, searching to kill.
Early victims suffered from knife wounds and were beaten with metal sticks. Frightened Christians began calling the police and local authorities in the early morning. Help, however, never arrived. The local police were reinforced during the day with more troops from Luxor, but did nothing to prevent the pogrom. One hundred and ten houses were attacked that day. Some of them were burned; many were looted.
The pogrom culminated with the attack on the Habib house at 8 p.m., sixteen hours after the first attacks. Three brothers and their families lived in that house, and they had been joined by two neighboring families who hoped its iron gate would offer them protection. Thirteen women, seven men, and numerous children were trapped inside. As the mob surrounded the house, the armed officers on the scene reached a deal with them: The women and children would be taken away, the men left for the mob. The women begged the officers to save their husbands. Nobeya Zaki, a mother of two men killed in the attack, later stated: “I kissed the police officer’s hands and legs and begged him to protect my two sons and take them out; I told him: ‘their father died after they were born and I raised themplease take them out.’”
Their cries were met with police indifference. The women, who wore two layers of clothes, took off their outer clothes and tried to cover their men in them; the police refused, they had given their word to the mob. Only one man managed to leave with the women as he tightly held his twin daughters in his arms. Six men were left inside. Only two survived what happened next.
The officers were still holding the door when the mob pushed through. At least one of the officers never left. One survivor later recalled hearing him tell the mob during the murders to get done and finish it up. It took the mob half an hour to complete the job. The bodies of the four murdered Christians were filled with knife wounds and showed marks of being beaten by metal sticks.
Asked later, Major Khalid Mamdouh, the officer in charge of Nagaa Hassan, found nothing to fault in his troops’ behavior. He told Human Rights Watch: “There was no reason for the police to take any special measures, it’s not [the police’s] job to stop killings, we just investigate afterward.” He denied that the attack was sectarian in nature, adding, “You’ll see, come back in a month and everyone will be telling you that nothing ever happened here.” The wife of one of the victims later said: “Why did they [the police] let this happen? Why didn’t they take the men? They could have saved all of us. They sacrificed the men. . . . Is it our fault that we were born Christian?”
The brutal murder of Christians in Egypt’s Nagaa Hassan is hardly the worst in the rising wave of persecution faced by Christians around the world. In his well-researched new book, The Global War on Christians, John Allen takes us on a forceful tour, documenting the brutal reality of what it means to be Christian in many countries. The global onslaught is ecumenical in nature; no Christian sect or denomination is spared. While some of the stories have made it into the mainstream media, Allen’s more complete accounting will shock readers. Without attempting to offer a complete listing of all the stories of recent persecution around the globe, the book nevertheless introduces its readers to martyrs and Christian victims in fortyseven countries. It will be hard to forget the names and tragic stories of Umar Mulinde, Youcef Nadarkhani, Dritan Prroj, Fausto Tentorio, and the Burundi seminarians.
Allen divides his account into three parts: a long geographical overview of the war on Christians, a shorter deconstruction of the myths associated with the global war, and a tight analysis of the war’s consequences and what can be done. With the exception of the last chapter devoted to what can be done, the division matters little. The stories of persecution are intertwined with Allen’s attempt to counter the myths and examine their impact throughout the book.
Allen’s broad definition of persecution has received criticism from many reviewers. He is correct to conclude that “in assessing the scope and scale of today’s war on Christians, it’s not enough to consider what was in the mind of the person pulling the triggerwe also have to ponder what was in the heart of the believer getting shot,” and that we must ponder what religious motives drove the victims to place themselves in danger. But some of the stories he tells don’t involve clear elements of religious persecution. Including them opens the otherwise gripping narrative to unnecessary criticism. He makes a strong argument for including many stories in which the motive of the murderer may not have been religious, such as in Burundi and Colombia, but is less convincing with others in Chile and Cameroon. The number of Christian deaths per year in the global war is cited at one hundred thousand, with Congo contributing the most through its civil war. Without a more thorough examination of that conflict, debates about the number threaten to create an unnecessary sideshow to an important book.
Aware of contentious discussions of religious freedom in the polarized American political debate, Allen hopes his book will contribute to holding together coalitions such as that between Republican Congressman Frank Wolf and Democrat Anna Eshoo on behalf of Christians in the Middle East. He thus shies away from controversial issues that may alienate the liberal base. He takes great care in countering their skepticism and branding the issue in terms accessible to them. He differentiates between the actual war on Christians underway around much of the globe and the metaphorical war on religion in the United States. His efforts are laudable and necessary, yet his political correctness leads to some problematic statements. For example, he suggests a moral equivalency between the Islamist threat to Christians and Israeli security policies, takes a few unnecessary swipes at the George W. Bush administration, and describes Hezbollah as a group “seen in the West as a terrorist organization.”
The weakest aspect of the book is Allen’s attempt at dealing with the question of Islamism. While it is true that “it would be a mistake to conclude that Islam and its discontents are the lone force in the global war on Christians,” there is no denying that Islamists continue to be the main aggressors. Of the twenty-five nations that Open Doors lists as the most hazardous to Christians, seventeen are Muslim-majority countries. Even in countries that are not Muslim-majority, such as Russia and Kenya, Islamism has contributed significantly to the threats that Christians face. Of the 126 pages devoted to stories of persecution, a full sixty-two pages are set in countries where the war on Christians is being conducted by Islamists. And yet Allen contends that Hindu radicalism will come to be regarded as a primary threat to global stability in the same way that Islamic radicalism is today. I find such a claim extremely implausible.
The uniqueness of the Islamist threat to Christians is amplified by its success. Unlike other regions in the world, where Christianity is experiencing a flourishing revivalin many countries in Asia and Africa it is winning converts by the millionsthe Middle East and the larger Islamic world are the only places where Christianity faces the threat of extinction. The Middle East is unique not only because it is the birthplace of Christianity and the home of ancient churches that shaped what it means to be Christian, but, more important, because Christianity is being eradicated there.
Allen rightly notes that “most people in the West have little idea” of the threats Christians endure around the world. He points to several biases that blind many secular people to their staggering plight, such as a general hostility toward organized religion, the view of Christianity as Western and an agent of oppression, and political correctnessor as Régis Debray put it, the victims are “‘too Christian’ to excite the Left, ‘too foreign’ to interest the Right.” This was not always the case. In the mid-1990s, a grand coalition came together to press for religious freedom. It successfully forced a reluctant Bill Clinton to sign the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Many of the heroes of that struggle have since passed away and have not been replaced with equally enthusiastic fighters.
More fundamentally, the failure to act is the failure of Western churches. If the silence of the seculars can be explained, how can one comprehend that of Western Christians? Allen offers some explanations: Christians in the United States have no personal experience of persecution, they are too America-centric, their churches too attached to a kind of political correctness when it comes to discussing other faiths, and too divided among themselves to offer a collective response.
Yet Allen is hopeful. The “defense of persecuted Christians will increasingly become a front-burner priority for the various churches,” he says. Persecution, however horrific, will bear great spiritual fruits, creating an ecumenism of the martyrs. The Church will grow more diverse, what he terms “theology from below” will grow, and the blood of the martyrs will foster a renewed spirit for evangelization.
All of these wonderful things may come to pass, but for them to happen, the existing wall of separation between American Christianity and the rest of the world must come down. The story of the immigrant churches themselves provides a cautionary tale. Second-generation Copts in the United States feel little attachment to the plight of their brethren in Egypt. The melting pot has done its wonders. They may have kept the faith of their fathers, but it remains to be seen for how long, and the cultural affinity has fast eroded. The persecuted Christian’s dilemma is simple: Without the United States actively engaged for religious freedom, little will change. But how can they possibly get the U.S. engaged if even its Christians seem not to care?
Samuel Tadros is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and the author of Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity.