Christians in Egypt are under the worst persecution by Islamic radicals in recent memory, Syrian believers are displaced in massive numbers and the effort to assist them in both countries goes on despite tremendous upheaval in both nations.
Most of the recent attention has been focused on Egypt. Christians have been in the Muslim Brotherhood’s cross hairs since the 2011 Arab Spring, but the persecution has greatly intensified in the weeks following the July 3 coup that removed Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power. The violence is a result of radical leaders blaming the coup on Christians. It’s a palpably false claim but it carries great resonance with those loyal to Morsi.
“Right now these militants are lashing out for any reason. What you’re going to find is that people use the political climate as an expedient excuse. People in Egypt just want to worship in freedom. They’re not pushing a political agenda,” said Dr. David Curry, the new president and CEO of Open Doors USA, one of the most prominent organizations ministering to the persecuted church.
“They are a minority. There are people, when they have political problems, will lash out at any minority they perceive to be part of that, but the church is not an organized faction in this political situation. They’re just the victims in this circumstance,” he said.
Curry admits the religious freedom for Coptic Christians and other believers has never been ideal in Egypt but he sees the current conditions as a “new low” and says no one is sure where this crisis is headed next. In the meantime, Curry says Christian businesses, churches and individuals are in very serious danger. He says the decision by the Coptic pope to cancel services for the first time since the fifth century was a smart one.
“I think what the pope of the Coptic Church was doing was just using wisdom because right now to be on the street in Egypt, even just wandering around doing your daily business, is a very dangerous proposition for believers of the Coptic stripe or any sort of Christian stripe,” said Curry. “So when you have services that are scheduled and people know where to attack, it could be very dangerous. We’ve had almost 50 churches burned to the ground or attacked in some way in Egypt, just in the last few days.”
Despite a justified fear for their lives and safety, Egyptian Christians are still shining brightly in the darkness surrounding them. Curry says one account typifies the depth of faith of those under fire.
“We had one believer who was really trying to exemplify the message of Jesus, that is to love your enemies, to be a servant. So he was trying to give bottled water and care and love to people who were protesting in the street, even though he knew some of those people were militants who might someday attack his business and his home and his church. And indeed some did, but he was trying to be a loving example and caring for people,” said Curry. “You see, these are people of real spiritual depth and faith on the ground and we’re hoping that America and the American people are going to rally behind them and support them in their freedom to worship.”
Curry says U.S. support needs to take multiple forms.
“Prayer is our first weapon. It’s a supernatural weapon, but we believe wholeheartedly in it. The second thing we’re asking people to do is to support the work that’s happening on the ground. Open Doors has teams on the ground in every major city of Egypt that are helping to support believers, that are trying to keep everybody safe and do anything we can do. That’s the kind of work we’re doing and we believe it’s going to pay big dividends in the years to come,” said Curry.
Open Doors USA also has a significant presence in Syria, where a civil war has been raging for two years between the Iran-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad and a patchwork of rebel groups ranging from respected military leaders to Al Qaeda-dominated Islamist factions. It’s another crisis for Christians, many of whom fled to Syria when the new government in Iraq began persecuting Christians. It’s a situation further complicated by this week’s government attacks that rebels allege were chemical weapons.
“What we’re concentrating on is trying to help and serve the millions of people who are now refugees. A great many of them are Christians who have been forced out by the forces that would be against them. We’re providing packages on the ground for food, for general supplies that they’re going to need,” said Curry, who also noted the possible use of weapons of mass destruction.
“Those things have been suspected and talked about in the past. This is a very clear example of the danger that is evident to these folks who are refugees, who are displaced and might be in a position to be persecuted for their faith,” said Curry, who struggles to see any end to the Syrian conflict in the near future.
“The government here in the United States is going to have to find ways to try to bring this to a more peaceful and swift resolution,” said Curry. “Otherwise you’re going to see millions more not just displaced internally within the country as is the case now but also added to the refugee numbers. It will be a major – maybe the major – humanitarian crisis, although it’s competing with Egypt right now.”