ISIS, Christianity, and Easter by David Montgomery

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It was a beautiful Easter Sunday on the Eastern Shore.  We attended church, greeted friends, and celebrated the resurrection of Our Lord in peace and freedom.  It was also a good time to remember that for many of our brethren in the church universal, attending an Easter service was an act requiring deep faith and true courage.   Christians are the most persecuted people of faith around the world, with persecution against Christians reported in 102 countries, according to the Pew Research Center .

Open Doors estimates that more than 7,000 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons worldwide in 2015.  That is almost double the number in 2014, and more than triple the 2100 martyred in 2015.  These numbers do not include the countries where persecution is worst, North Korea, Syria and Iraq, because no accurate records exist.  To fill that gap, a report to the State Department by the Knights of Columbus states that “The Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, many of whose flock lived on the Nineveh plain or in Syria, reports that 500 people were killed by ISIS during its takeover of Mosul and the surrounding region. In Syria, where the organization Aid to the Church in Need has reported on mass graves of Christians, Patriarch Younan estimates the number of Christians “targeted and killed by Islamic terrorist bands” at more than 1,000.

Melkite Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart of Aleppo estimates the number of Christians kidnapped and/or killed in his city as in the hundreds, with as many as “thousands” killed throughout Syria.“

The Islamic State (ISIS) is explicit in its intention to destroy Christianity by killing Christians who will not convert to Islam and making slaves of Christian women.  IS did so repeatedly during its takeover of the Nineveh Plain in Iraq.  Likewise in Syria, ISIS has decimated Christian communities.  After surviving for 2000 years since the Apostle Philip brought the gospel to Asia Minor, Christianity is rapidly disappearing in the Middle East.

Before the Iraq War in 2003, there were about 1 million Christians in Iraq out of a population of 25 million. By September 2014, only 300,000 Christians remained in the country.   Many were killed or driven out by ISIS, but the Moslem-dominated government of Iraq has itself allowed brutal repression and actively stolen the houses and property of Christians.

Likewise, in Syria Christians have been devastated by civil war and IS persecution.   Islamic State militants have ensured that large swaths of the country have now become “Christian-free zones.”

It is not just the Middle East.  According to the Guardian newspaper, “persecution increased in 24 countries last year, with Kenya, Sudan, Eritrea and Nigeria entering the top 10 of its country-by-country league table. North Korea has headed the list for the past 13 years; up to 70,000 Christians are held in gulags, with tens of thousands of people banished, arrested, tortured and/or killed,” repeating Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians for refusing to worship the insane leader of the state.

The story goes on and on, with documented killings of Christians for practicing their faith in dozens of countries and restrictions on the ability of our brethren to practice their faith in more than half the world.  From the abduction of 270 Nigerian schoolgirls, the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya, the killing of 147 people on a university campus in Kenya to the Palm Sunday bombing of the Coptic Church in Egypt, it goes on.   Yet there is practically a news blackout on such widespread persecution of Christians, especially when it is perpetrated by Moslem governments in addition to the obvious jihadis.

Commentators and politicians warn us not to characterize these atrocities as a battle of civilizations. They claim that many Christians suffer because of living in failed states where violence is endemic, which is true.  Boko Haram comes to mind.  Yet there is clearly organized persecution in Moslem countries that singles out Christians. Or, they say, it is just due to sectarian violence in which the U.S. has no national interest.  All these excuses cover up the explicit and undeniable intention of Islamic terrorists to establish a global Caliphate in which all Christians will be subject to Islamic law and Moslem domination, if they are even allowed options other than conversion or death.    

There also seems to be collective amnesia about the fact that this is not the first time we have faced this threat.  Our brethren who are dying for their faith show us what we could be facing here and now but for the Catholic heroes who turned the tide in a 300-year struggle between Christian Europe and the Moslem Ottoman Empire, a struggle that Moslem forces were on the verge of winning several times.  Their names included the Knights of Malta, Pope Saint Pius V, Juan Carlos of Austria, and King Jan III Sobieski of Poland.

In the 16th Century, Christendom was fractured as the Reformation split Catholic from Protestant states, and states of different Protestant sects fought each other.  Not only that, but the Venetians and others closest to the Moslem invaders were so intoxicated with the money they could make doing business with Islam that they discounted any possibility of war.

Islam saw its opportunity to reconquer the territory it lost after the victory of Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732.  The Ottoman Empire was the center of Islamic power in the 16th century, and its goal was to bring all of Europe as well as the Levant under Ottoman control and sharia law.

By 1560 the Ottomans controlled Africa all the way to Tunisia.  With its fortresses manned by an order of Crusader Knights, Malta remained the lone bastion in the Mediterranean.  In March 1560 a Turkish armada of 193 vessels and some 20,000 to 40,000 soldiers sailed from Constantinople.  Malta had a total of 9,000 defenders including 500 Knights Hospitallers, who became known as the Knights of Malta.  Turkish forces besieged the island from May until September, but the Knights held out and, aided by a relief force from Spain, drove the Turks away on September 11, 1565.  The last of the Crusader Knights won their last battle.

The Ottoman fleet returned to Turkey, but 6 years later launched an even more massive assault on Christian Europe.   On October 7, 1571 the fleet of the Catholic League, lead by the charismatic 24-year-old Don Juan of Austria defeated the Turkish fleet that was sailing to capture Cyprus and then continue to Rome.

Pope Saint Pius V (1504-1572) was in some ways like Pope Francis, in that he was austere and dedicated to reforming the Vatican bureaucracy and religious orders, educating laymen, and caring for the poor.  But he was also a traditionalist and a consummate diplomat, who brought together the forces of the papal states, Venice, Genoa, the Savoyards, Spain and Sicily to form the Holy League.  After the massacre of the inhabitants of Famagusta by the Ottoman troops to which they surrendered, Pope Pius appointed young Don Juan to lead his fleet.

The Ottoman fleet held 328 ships, 208 of which were galleys, 77,000 fighting men and sailors, and 50,000 Christian slaves manning the galleys.   The Catholic League had 206 galleys, 40,000 free Christian oarsmen and sailors, and 28,000 soldiers.  Don Juan attacked when he sighted the Ottoman fleet, and putting a wedge of heavy gunships in front of his fleet, he inflicted significant damage before the Ottoman fleet could engage.  The battle then turned into a ship-to-ship melee, and appeared to be going against the Holy League on its left flank until the wind changed and pinned the Ottoman fleet against the shoals.  The slaves in the galleys revolted, and the Ottomans abandoned their ships.  In the middle, the commander of the papal galleys rammed the Ottoman flagship, and Catholic forces stormed the flagship and killed the Turkish commander.  With victories in the center and left, the Holy League fleet turned on the remaining Ottoman ships and drove them off.

The Sultan lost 170 of his 208 galleys and 12,000 Christian slaves were freed.  The Ottoman navy was gone, ending the threat by sea.  But the threat by land remained.

On September 11 and 12, 1683 King Jan III Sobieski of Poland broke the Ottoman siege of Vienna, and the 300-year struggle between Christendom and the Moslem invaders was ended.  The Turkish invasion was again aided by fighting between Catholics and Protestants in the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, leaving few troops to defend against the Turks.  Prior to the battle, Grand Vizier Ali Mustafa’s army of 150,000 had fought its way from the Bosporus and only Vienna stood between him and his goal of Rome.  The city of Vienna, defended by 15,000, refused his promise to leave the city unharmed if its citizens would convert to Islam, and the siege began on July 14.   

During the Turkish buildup for this invasion, Pope Innocent XI brokered a mutual defense treaty between the Hapsburg Empire and Poland.  As it happened, the Turks attacked Vienna and King Jan III Sobieski of Poland honored his obligations.  He commanded the combined army of about 70,000 troops against an Ottoman Army twice his size.  The defenders of Vienna were starved and exhausted, and Sobieski attacked immediately on arriving at Kahlenberg Mountain.  The battle was ended by the largest cavalry charge in history, when the Polish Winged Hussars (heavy lancers) routed the Turks.  Europe remained free of the Moslem threat for over 300 years.

Many lessons come from this history: the meaning of 9/11 to Islamic terrorists, the constant impetus in Islam to reconquer Europe and the Mediterranean, the inability of the West to unify against its greatest threat, the blindness caused by pursuit of business with despots, the role of the Church in holding an adequate alliance together, and the remarkable victories of faithful men.

The history of Christendom is not just a history of martyrs, of whom there are more every day. It is also the history of heroes who defended and saved Western Civilization. As well as praying for the intercession of the new martyrs, let us pray that such heroes will continue to step forward and protect us.

David Montgomery was formerly Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting. He also served as assistant director of the US Congressional Budget Office and deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Energy. He taught economics at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University and was a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.

Letters to Editor

  1. Peter Hartjens says:

    What a terribly sad world you live in.

  2. Carol Voyles says:

    Thank you for this timely reminder of the history of Christendom. It clearly reflects our very human trait of tribalism, and reminds us of the chaos that results when we either become intolerant or an ideology is taken to extremes.

    Christianity would ideally stand as an impenetrable bastion against our baser tendencies. History tells us the battle is likely to continue.

  3. Matt Daley says:

    The media is indeed quite “selective” in its coverage. For example, one seldom hears the talking heads analyze the merits of lack thereof of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, apart from the occasional denunciation of Huntington as a racist.

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