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Nazarenes under the Scimitar




By Ronald J. Rychlak


Jesus warned His disciples: “They will hand you over to persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of my name” (Mt. 24:9). Such treatment was a reality for the early followers of

Christ. During the first four centuries of the Christian era, both the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire persecuted Christians. With the conversion of Constantine around the year 400, Christian persecution at

the hands of the Romans largely ended. Unfortunately, persecution continues even today. This is, and long has been, particularly true in Islamic nations in the Middle East.


The Post-Classical Era


Muhammad was born in the year 570. When he was about 25 he entered into the service of a wealthy widow named Khadijah, whom he eventually married. According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad received revelations through the angel Gabriel over a period of approximately 22 years, beginning in 610, when Muhammad was 40, and continuing until 632, the year he died. These revelations became the content of the Qur’an, the sacred book of Islam.


Within 100 years after Muhammad’s death, Islamic rule had spread across the Middle East, Africa, and Spain. Much of this growth came though military conquest. This was not unusual at the time. “Spreading the faith by the sword” was part of the Islamic modus operandi from the beginning.


In most cases, those who were conquered were not required to convert to Islam at the pain of death. Defeated populations that chose not to convert were required to pay the “jizya’, or poll tax, and live as

dhimmis”, non-Muslims who were protected by the state but were denied many political rights. The financial strain of the tax, plus second- (or third-) class civil status for entire families, convinced many of the conquered to convert to Islam.


Christians and Jews, though they were treated as less than full citizens and had to pay extra taxes prior to about the year 1000, were granted freedom of person, property, and worship in Islamic nations. They also

played important roles in society. For instance, when Haroun al-Rashid, the Abassid caliph, opened the doors of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in 832, Christians translated Greek texts into Syriac and then into Arabic. (A caliph is a political and religious leader who is considered a successor to Muhammad. His power and authority are absolute. A caliphate is the state under his rule.)


The sixth ruler of the Egyptian Shī’ite Fāṭimid dynasty, however, began a sustained persecution of Christians and Jews. In 1004 Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (r. 996-1021) decreed that Christians could no longer

celebrate Epiphany or Easter, and he outlawed the use of wine for all purposes, including for Holy Communion. The following year, he ordered Jews and Christians to wear distinctive clothing, including two different-colored shoes, one red and one black. In 1009 he ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This was a direct assault against Christian civilization. Muslim leaders justified such

violence based on Qur’anic texts that allow for war against those who resist the reign of Islam (e.g., Surah Al-Anfal 8:38-39).


Christian populations in Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia decreased under Muslim rule. Persia (present-day Iran) had become predominantly Muslim by the beginning of the ninth century. By the tenth century, Egypt had a Muslim majority. The same was true for Syria and Mesopotamia. Prior to Islamic rule, North Africa had been a great center of Christian learning. By the 12th century, it was almost completely

Islamic. In the Middle East, only Lebanon retained a Christian majority (though even that is no longer true today). By this time, many conversions to Islam were forced by direct coercion, not only by the burdens imposed on non-Muslims, such as heavy taxation, segregation, and public humiliation.


Persecution, declining Christian populations, and a Muslim victory over Byzantine Christians at Manzikert in 1071 prompted Pope Urban II in 1095 to call for a defense of the Christian churches of Jerusalem. The

resulting crusades were a series of religious wars between Christians and Muslims to secure control of holy sites that were considered sacred by both faiths. In all, eight major crusade expeditions took place

between 1096 and 1291, and they shaped the history of the entire region. They did not, however, end Islamic persecution of Christians or the hard feelings between the two religions. In fact, accounts of brutality by the crusaders continue to motivate hostility toward Christians among today’s Muslims.


According to one account, between the years of 1200 and 1500 the number of Asian Christians fell from 21 million to just 3.4 million. In those same years the proportion of the world’s Christian population also fell

dramatically. The problem was exacerbated by Rome’s fracture of the unity of the larger church, called the  the Great Schism, which separated the Church into Western (Latin) and Eastern (Greek) branches, and by the spread of the Mongolian Empire.


The Late Middle Ages


The Mongolian Empire came about with the unification of several nomadic tribes in Mongolia, Manchuria, and parts of northern China. The empire grew rapidly under Genghis Khan, who ascended as ruler in 1206. He and his descendants sent invaders in every direction during the 13th and 14th centuries, and eventually the Mongolian Empire became the largest contiguous land empire in history.


Between the years of about 1220 and 1300 the Mongols were highly tolerant of various faiths. The majority religion at the time was Shamanism. By some accounts, the Mongols showed favor to Christians and

Buddhists over Muslims, but this changed as leaders of the empire began to adopt Islam. Eventually, three of the four main political subdivisions of the Mongolian Empire embraced Islam (the fourth adopted Tibetan Buddhism), and Islam became favored over other religions. Christians soon found themselves under the control of what has been called “a Muslim superstate” that grew into the (Islamic) Ottoman Empire.


From the 14th through 16th centuries the Ottomans attacked and conquered Bulgaria (1396), Constantinople (1453), Serbia (1459), Herzegovina (1483), Moldavia (1538), Hungary (1541), and Cyprus (1570). The first Ottoman caliph, Selim I (r. 1517-1520), ordered the confiscation of all churches, many of which were demolished. Christians were placed in a situation of “permanent inferiority.” They were forced to convert or pay heavy taxes and wear distinctive dress. Their children could be seized to serve in the sultan’s court or perform other duties. Christian families were often required to provide a number of their sons for the state to raise as slaves. The Bulgarians referred to this practice as the “Blood Tax.” The Ottomans also placed heavy restrictions on the practice of Christianity. They forbade religious processions and the ringing of bells. Christians who tried to convert Muslims could be sentenced to death.


When the Ottomans conquered a city, often they would take Christian women and children as hostages, but they would promise their freedom if the defeated Christian men would convert. This occurred in the southern Italian city of Otranto in 1480. After the Turks beheaded the archbishop and a priest who refused to convert, all the male citizens between the ages of 15 and 50 were brought before the Ottoman general, who promised their lives, their freedom, and the return of their captive families in exchange for their conversion to Islam. A tailor named Antonio Primaldo addressed the prisoners, saying:


“My brothers, until today we have fought in defense of our homeland, to save our lives, and for our earthly governors; now it is time for us to fight to save our souls for our Lord. And since He died on the cross for

us, it is fitting that we should die for Him, remaining firm and constant in the faith, and with this earthly death we will earn eternal life and the glory of martyrdom.”


None of the 800 converted; all were beheaded. The cause for their beatification began in 1539. Pope St. John Paul II visited the tomb of the slain men in 1980, and in 2007 Pope Benedict XVI declared the

validity” of their martyrdom. Pope Francis canonized the martyrs of Otranto in 2013.


The Ottoman Empire reached the height of its power in the 1500s and 1600s. King Francis I of France (r. 1515-1547) even established an alliance with the Ottomans because of his rivalry with Holy Roman

Emperor Charles V (r. 1519-1555). Later, King Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) re-established the French alliance with the Ottoman Turks, and some believe he encouraged the unsuccessful Ottoman invasion of Vienna in

1683. The armies of the Holy Roman Empire and the Polish forces, led by King John III Sobieski, repelled the invading Turks. The victory marked the halt of Ottoman expansion in Eastern Europe. After the Turks were defeated at Vienna, the Ottoman Empire sank into a slow decline.


The Late Modern Period


The fall of the Ottoman Empire continued into the 18th century, coinciding with the rise of modernity in the West and colonial expansions into the Middle East, India, East Asia, and Africa. Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt (1798-1801) began a process that brought Egyptians and other countries of the Muslim world into contact with modern Europe. The encounter with Western science and culture continued into the 19th century. Egyptians went to Europe to study, and they brought back learning that contributed to their nation’s modernization. They built railroads, universities, and opera houses in imitation of the West, but they also brought back some ideas that conflicted with the teachings of Islam. To many people in the Arab world, Western culture was both fascinating and off-putting.


During the 19th century, British and other colonial powers grabbed more and more pieces of the Ottoman world. Recognizing the vulnerability of Islamic power, Christian minorities became more assertive. Christians in Bulgaria, Syria, and Armenia pushed for independence from the Ottoman Empire, but the Turkish response was brutal. In 1895 thousands of Christians were massacred. Most of those killed were Armenians, but many Syrian Christians of northern Mesopotamia were also slaughtered.


During the chaos of World War I, the Ottoman government undertook a systematic extermination of Armenians. What became known as the Armenian Genocide, or the Armenian Holocaust, began in 1915 when Ottoman authorities rounded up, arrested, and deported about 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders from Constantinople (now Istanbul). Most deportees were eventually murdered.


As the Great War progressed, the Armenian Genocide unfolded in two phases. First came elimination of the able-bodied male population through massacre and conscription to forced labor. Next came the

deportation of women, children, the elderly, and the infirm on death marches leading to the Syrian Desert. Deportees were denied food and water and subjected to periodic robbery, rape, and massacre. Between

1915 and 1916 at least one million Armenians were displaced, and plausible estimates for those killed range from 800,000 to one million. In addition, Maronite Catholics in Lebanon, Assyrian Orthodox, and

Chaldean Catholics in Mesopotamia were also slaughtered. During these anti-Christian purges, as many as one and a half million Christians were killed in what is now the Republic of Turkey.


The collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the rise of the secular Turkish state in 1923, and the termination of the caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1924 all contributed to concern among tradition-minded Muslims. They wanted a new Islamic world, free from Western influence. This led to formation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928. Its principles included the introduction of sharia, a code of law based on the Qur’an, as “the basis for controlling the affairs of state and society,” and the unification of “Islamic countries and states, mainly among the Arab states,” and their liberation from “foreign imperialism.” While the Muslim Brotherhood officially sought to transform societies from within, it ended up becoming the ideological precursor of many of today’s most notorious violent Islamist groups,

including the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda, and Hamas. At about the same time, Arabia saw a revival of Wahhabism, a strict form of Islamic fundamentalism associated with the theologian Muhammad ibn ’Abd

al-Wahhāb (1703-1787).


Wahhabism insists on the literal interpretation of the Qur’an, and it teaches that all those who do not practice this form of Islam are heathens and enemies. Modern Saudi Arabia is built on Wahhabism, and its

government maintains a tightly knit Islamic system that treats Christians as second-class citizens. Saudi leaders seek to impose strict Islamic law on everyone in the country, and most of the public vehemently opposes any faith other than Islam. Apostasy is punishable by death. If any of the small number of Saudi Christians try to share their faith, the pressure and persecution they face from society and authorities increase.


In 1900 Christians constituted ten percent of the population of the Middle East, but by the end of the 20th century this figure was down to three percent. While some of the change can be explained by Christian

migration (and a booming Muslim birthrate), there is little doubt that the systematic massacre of Christians has been a major factor. The current rise of Islamic terrorism is actually a manifestation of a movement of de-Christianization in the Middle East that began early in the 20th century.


Current Times


Christians in the Middle East still face persecution today and are even subjects of a modern-day genocide. Among the better-known recent atrocities are the kidnapping and sexual enslavement of 276 Nigerian

schoolgirls in 2014 by Boko Haram (a terrorist organization that collaborates with ISIS), the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya in 2015 by ISIS militants, and the beheading of an elderly French priest during morning Mass by radical Islamists in 2016. The details of these events are horrific, but so are lesser-known stories, like that of the Iraqi Christian woman who watched jihadists crucify her husband to the front door of their home, or the Syrian evangelical preacher and his 12-year-old son who were tortured and crucified after they refused to renounce Christianity, or the Christian mother who escaped an ISIS sex-slave detention center where she had been brutally tortured. An Islamic sheikh ran the center, and he performed “marriages” between captive girls and ISIS fighters. The escaped Christian mother explained:


“That night I was married to eight different men and divorced eight

times. Each man raped me three or four times. When all this was over, we

were taken back to the room where all the girls were being held. They

made us walk naked through the big room where all the men were sitting.

We were barely able to walk. This scenario was repeated every week — it

was like a nightmare.”


Rather than denying and denouncing these actions, ISIS leaders have claimed responsibility for them, precisely because the victims were Christians. ISIS representatives have expressed their intent to wholly

eradicate Christian and other minority communities from their caliphate.


Islam traditionally considers Christians and Jews to be “people of the book” and therefore entitled to certain rights. Among those rights is that rather than suffering the full extent of ISIS-style persecution,

they are supposed to be able to pay jizya in exchange for the right to live and worship in peace. The ISIS periodical Dabiq regularly boasts of ISIS’s magnanimity in offering Christians the choice of paying this

tax. Only those who fail to pay jizya have serious difficulties, so the story goes. The facts, however, reveal a very different reality.


Jizya is simply a way for the extremists to extort money from the remaining Christians. Consider the situation in Raqqa, Syria, which until late 2017 was the capital of the Islamic State. After ISIS moved

in, its fighters abducted and raped Christian women and destroyed churches and other places of Christian worship. They ran off or murdered most “Nazarenes” (ISIS’s favored term for Christians). Only a few dozen

Christian families remained by the time ISIS offered jizya agreements.


In early 2014 ISIS told Raqqa’s remaining Christians that they could either pay jizya and abide by a list of restrictions regarding the practice of their faith, or they would be “put to the sword.” Under the proposed arrangement, each year Christian men would pay, in gold, amounts equivalent to one month of the average Raqqa salary (ISIS later raised this to three months’ salary). In exchange, ISIS would not harm them, and they would have a limited right to worship. The deal, however, included a list of prohibitions, including ringing bells, displaying crosses, making repairs, and holding wedding or funeral processions outside church walls. In other words, worship was not going to be easy even with the payment of jizya.


As it turns out, ISIS never intended to keep its word. Instead, it set about shutting down, destroying, or re-purposing all the city’s churches. No churches or priests remained by the time the caliphate was

announced in July 2014. The last cleric in Raqqa, Italian Jesuit Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio, had been murdered almost a year earlier. The few dozen older Christians who remained were used as human shields to protect ISIS fighters from foreign military strikes. These situations were repeated throughout the ISIS-controlled world.


Even Christians who fled ISIS-controlled areas faced great personal risk. Their cars and money having been taken by ISIS militants, they often had to walk through miles and miles of desert-like terrain in

100-plus degree temperatures. They carried their small children and pushed their elderly in wheelchairs. What few possessions and cash the families were able to bring were subject to confiscation by ISIS

officials at various checkpoints. ISIS officials  even killed a Sunni imam from Mosul who protested this treatment.


Those Christians who made it to a refugee camp risked a whole new round of persecution. Many faced violence and mistreatment at the hands of Muslim migrants who shared the camp. Rape was rampant. Unprotected from such persecution and unsure of the likelihood of resettlement, many Christians opted to stay away from the camps, but that made survival even more difficult.


Despite the military defeats ISIS has suffered in the past year, the situation for Christians in the Middle East is still not easy. Even their status as “people of the book” has not protected them from Islamist violence across the region.


In Egypt, where Coptic Christians account for about ten percent of the population, assaults have increased since the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. Several Copts were killed immediately following the ouster, and more than 60 churches were looted, vandalized, or completely destroyed.


In Syria, where Christians also account for roughly ten percent of the population, the bloody civil war pitting the regime of Bashar Assad against various rebel groups has left the Christian community in a

horrible situation. In Homs, Latakia, and other areas, both rebel and government forces have killed Christians, burned churches, and destroyed antiquities. General concern over fighting and violence tends to obscure very real concerns of Christians in the war zone. Too often, they are overlooked.


In Saudi Arabia, Christians are barred from becoming citizens, and it is illegal to import, print, or own Christian materials. In Lebanon, where Christians once made up a majority of the population, the steady

radicalization of the government and the growth of Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah terror have led to a large-scale exodus of Christians. Christians have also been the target of Islamists in Gaza since Hamas came to power in 2007. The small remnant of Christians in Gaza has tried to flee, but many were unable to leave, and now they suffer regular persecution. In Iraq and Israel’s West Bank, Arab Christians have been the targets of discrimination and violence, prompting many to leave. Cities with rich Christian history, such

as Bethlehem, are now under the control of a Muslim majority and almost completely devoid of Christians. In fact, Christians in Palestinian territories have dropped from 15 percent of the population in 1950 to

less than two percent today.


The only place in the Middle East where Christians face no restrictions on the practice of their faith is Israel. Christians comprise a little more than two percent of Israel’s population, but the government

provides them freedom of worship, grants them unfettered access to holy sites, and allows the Christian community to legislate its own religious affairs, such as marriage and divorce.