Yassir Sahd, a wealthy Iraqi Muslim, has erected an 85-ft Christmas tree in Baghdad this year to show solidarity with persecuted Christians in the region. He urged his fellow Muslims to join “our Christian brothers in their holiday celebrations” and demonstrate their horror at the persecution inflicted elsewhere in the country and in Syria by Isil. Mr Sahd’s gesture is a beacon of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape of religious sectarianism in the land where these two great faiths first took root.
In the early years of Christianity its adherents were hunted down and persecuted much as many are being today.
As the Prince of Wales commented on the BBC’s Thought for the Day persecution is a daily reality for Christians in some countries. We hear a great deal about so-called Islamophobia in the West but pay too little heed to its anti-Christian equivalent which can manifest itself in violence, ethnic cleansing and even genocide. Earlier this month dozens were killed in a Coptic Christian Church in Cairo after a suicide bomber blew himself up. Isil fanatics also beheaded 21 Coptic Christians in Libya.
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If they can, the extremists will push all Christians from the region since they also see them as representatives of the West. The once thriving Christian population of Iraq has fallen to under 500,000 today from as many as 1.5 million in 2003. In Egypt some 600,000 Copts have emigrated since the 1980s in the face of harassment or outright oppression.
Similar stories are unfolding in many Middle Eastern countries and in Pakistan. According to one report, Christians face religious persecution in more countries than any other religious group.
On this day of all days, therefore, as most of us celebrate Christmas in comfort and security with our families, we need to spare a thought for those for whom such a manifestation of their faith is to risk torture or death.
In his Christmas message, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said attacks on Christians “are not only designed to inflict appalling suffering but also to sow fear” and were “criminal acts for which the international community must bring those guilty to account”.
Yet the way forward is surely through people like Mr Sahd and his Christmas tree. Before the fanatics of Isil came to the fore countries like Iraq and Syria welcomed Christians and other faiths now being targeted by Muslim extremists.
In the early years of Christianity its adherents were hunted down and persecuted much as many are being today. They clung to the hope inspired by their faith and overcame the forces ranged against them. Today is the day when, every year, that hope is revived.