BERLIN -- Growing persecution of Middle Eastern Christians and holy sites by radical Islamists in the Middle East and Africa in 2012 resulted in large numbers of murders, bombings, imprisonments, church closures and forced conversions to Islam. In addition, the rise of Islamic governments -- coupled with tepid responses from some Western countries, the UN and many NGOs -- has contributed to unprecedented levels of Christian persecution.
In the course of interviews with The Jerusalem Post, leading experts on Middle Eastern Christians commented on the plight of the region's dwindling Christian population and Israel's role in fostering Christianity.
There was no shortage in 2012 of repressive and bloody campaigns against Christians in Iran, Gaza, Nigeria, Libya and Egypt.
Reuters reported on Sunday that in Libya two church workers were killed. "Attackers threw a homemade bomb at an administration building belonging to the Egyptian Coptic church in Dafniya, close to the western city of Misrata." The wire service noted that Egypt's consul in the city, Tareq Dahrouj, said he had visited the church and the building where the two church workers were killed early on Sunday.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Washington- based organization that promotes religious freedom in the US and across the globe, told the Post that Israel is the "most free and protective of religious liberty for Christians" of all the region's nations.
"So much of this persecution is centered in the Middle East, where Christians face grave danger," Sekulow said.
"We're grateful that countries like Israel embrace religious freedom and protect Christians and the Christian Holy sites.... Israel's dedication to religious freedom and human rights is critical during this most challenging time."
Despite the accolades, Christian sites in Israel were targeted in acts of vandalism and anti-Christian graffiti during the year, including an attack on the place of worship of a Jerusalem messianic congregation. The Post reported in February that vandals daubed "Death to Christianity," "Jesus was a bastard" and "price tag" on the wall of the site, and slashed automobile tires.
According to commentators, however, such violence pales in comparison to the persecution Christians receive elsewhere in the region.
Underscoring the severe dangers, the British daily The Telegraph headlined a pre- Christmas article: "Christianity 'close to extinction' in Middle East." The paper reported on a new study titled "Christianophobia" showing that the "lion's share of persecution faced by Christians arises in countries where Islam is the dominant faith."
The media reported in July that Hamas had kidnapped Palestinian Christians in Gaza in order to force them to convert to Islam. On Christmas Eve, the Nigerian-based Boko Haram Islamist terror group attacked a church.
The Long War Journal, a news website that reports on global terrorism, wrote: "Suspected Boko Haram militants killed at least six Christians and burned down a church in the northern Nigerian state of Yobe late on Christmas Eve, according to Nigerian army and local officials. The attack against the Church of Christ in Nations occurred in Peri village near the economic hub of Potiskum. The attackers killed a pastor and at least five worshipers during Christmas Eve services."
On Friday, Raymond Ibrahim, from the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, noted in a report titled "Egyptian Cleric Threatens Christian Copts with Genocide" that Islamic leaders continue to portray the popular protests against President Mohamed Morsi and his recently passed Shari'a- heavy constitution as products of Egypt's Christians.
Recently, as captured on video, Muslim Brotherhood leader Safwat Hegazy issued a threat to the country's Christians at an open rally.
"A message to the church of Egypt, from an Egyptian Muslim: I tell the church -- by Allah, and again, by Allah -- if you conspire and unite with the remnants [opposition] to bring Morsi down, that will be another matter.... Our red line is the legitimacy of Dr. Mohamed Morsi. Whoever splashes water on it, we will splash blood on him."
Clifford D. May, president of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former New York Times reporter, told the Post that the rise in the persecution of Christians in the Muslim world "may be the most significant -- and under-reported -- story in the world today."
"A generation from now, Christians may be entirely 'cleansed' from their ancestral homes -- this at a time when Muslim populations are growing in Europe and America," he said. "Yet there is very little urgency or even attention to this crisis by the UN, most of the media or Western leaders. I wish I were confident this would change in 2013. But I'm afraid this is an issue most people in America and Europe are determined to avoid."
May played a key role through his writings and talks over the years in drawing attention to the rising persecution of Christians.
"There is only one place in the broader Middle East where Christians are free and unafraid -- and their population is growing," he said.
"That place is Israel. Many people don't know that. And even many of those who do know it fail to perceive the significance."
Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar- Ilan University and president of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, told the Post that an "honest assessment" of the status of Christians in the Middle East shows that Israel is the only place they thrive.
"The powerful political groups that dictate the human rights and humanitarian agenda are blinded by a hate-filled anti-Israel ideology," he said. "To help protect the Christian populations in other countries, this immoral masquerade must end and these groups must turn their focus from attacks against Israel to defending the members of their own faith."
Asked about his prognosis for the new year, the American Center for Law and Justice's Sekulow said he hoped there would be more "international focus" on this increasingly problematic issue.
"Nations that understand and respect freedom need to speak out," he said. "This ongoing persecution of Christians by radical Islamists -- whether it's in Africa or Iran -- is intolerable. The actions also violate international human rights law."
By Benjamin Weinthal