This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for May 16, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
“No one should be in fear in a house of worship,” tweeted Vice-President Pence after the tragic shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. This terrible attack involving a Jewish house of worship came on the heels of tragic bombings of Christian churches in the Philippines in 2019 and a fatal attack on a mosque in New Zealand.
Just a few days ago, six people were killed in an attack on a Catholic church in Burkino Faso, in West Africa. Christian churches have been under attack for some time now all over the world. In 2019, worldwide, 1,266 Christian churches were attacked, and 4,136 Christians killed for their faith. Most of you probably remember that 26 Christians were killed in a Baptist church in Texas in 2017, so these fatal attacks have not just been on Catholics, but on different denominations of Christianity, as well as on synagogues and mosques. This is a alarming commentary on the 21st Century, isn’t it?
One of the most horrible acts of violence against Christians in 2018 did not take place in a church but on a beach, when 20 Coptic Christians were beheaded in Libya for their faith. For the beheading, they were handcuffed and dressed in prison uniforms. Such things are as horrifying as the persecution against Christians by the Romans in New Testament times.
The Coptic Christian (Orthodox) church is considered one of the oldest Christian churches, if not THE oldest, in the history of Christianity. It began in Egypt, and it is believed, based on non-Biblical historical sources, that the Apostle Mark was the evangelist who brought Christianity to Egypt, and it spread to other parts of Africa, including Ethiopia (where the ancient Coptic Orthodox Church now has many members and is very active). The first Christian converts no doubt where Jews living in Egypt. In fact, it was in Alexandria, where the Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Jewish Bible was made. There were waves of anti-Jewish violence for many years in the region, and Greeks and pagans of all kinds made no distinction between Jews and Christians (they considered Christianity a sect of Judaism).
Based on non-Scriptural sources, it is believed by some historians that Saint Mark was martyred, that is, killed defending the faith, during these outbreaks of Jewish persecution. When you try to connect the dots in the history of Christianity in Egypt and the rest of Africa, you cannot help but remember that Joseph and Mary fled with the Christ Child to Egypt. And you cannot help but wonder if this bringing the Savior of the world to Egypt did not in some way plant the first seed of Christianity in a non-Christian area.
Today, it is a fact that there are more Christians in Africa than in any other continent in the world (Africa is a continent, not a country). Religious scholars report that while there is a huge rise in the Christian population in Africa, there is a steady decline of Christianity in Europe, the United Kingdom showing the largest decline. Why is this so? No doubt the fact that one of the oldest Christian groups in the world has been there for a long time, but also because of the many Christian missionaries who served in Africa over many years. Christian scholars predict that by 2060, the number of Christians in Africa will double, while declining on other continents. The old concept that Christianity grows and thrives where it encounters the most persecution may be a valid idea.
Back in the old days when I was a youngster attending Sunday School, I remember being shocked and horrified when my Sunday School teacher told us about how the Roman emperors would imprison, torture and kill Christians (who would hide in the catacombs), and how emperors like Nero would feed some innocent believers to the lions and pour oil on others and light them as human torches. It was hard to believe, but we were happy we were not living in such an era. I pray that the many tragic events today do not presage a return to those times.
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor.