Patrick Cockburn: The fires of religious fury are easily lit but hard to put out

Christian communities in the Muslim world that date back 2,000 years are finally being extinguished
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The Independent Online

In the Pakistani town of Gojra in Punjab just over a year ago word spread among Muslims that a local Christian had burned a copy of the Koran. It was untrue, but within hours a mob had started setting fire to Christian houses in Gojra. In one of them, a man, a woman and four children were burned to death.

The persecution of Christian communities across the Muslim world has escalated rapidly since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Christians are often seen as the natural allies of western occupiers and, as a minority, are highly vulnerable to retaliation.

In one case in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul a few years ago US soldiers damaged a mosque with their vehicle and Sunni Arab insurgents retaliated by bombing two churches.

Christian communities that date back 2,000 years are finally being extinguished. Their numbers in Iraq are estimated to have dropped by 50 per cent to about 400,000 since the US-led invasion of 2003. The Iraqi variant of al-Qa'ida has targeted them along with Shia Muslims. In Baghdad Christians are too few to have their own militia to protect them as they do in Christian villages around Mosul. And last night's statement from Pastor Jones comes too late for St George's church in Baghdad, where four people were reported killed.

After Pope Benedict appeared to endorse a Byzantine emperor's denunciation of Islam in 2006, gunmen murdered a nun in Kirkuk who was more than 90 years old. The appearance the same year of Danish cartoons denigrating the Prophet similarly led to a deepening of hostility between Christians and Muslims.

Foreign intervention in the Middle East over the last century has had catastrophic consequence for Christians. The British-backed invasion of Anatolia by the Greek army in 1919-22 ended with the massacre and expulsion of the Greeks.

The ebb-tide of empire left Christians exposed in countries like Iraq. But under Saddam Hussein Christians were not persecuted and senior members of the regime, like the foreign minister Tariq Aziz, were Chaldean Christians.

Persecution of Christians in Pakistan, where they are 2-3 per cent of the 170 million population, increased from October 2001 with the US bombing of Afghanistan. Across the world there are local antipathies between Christian and Muslim that do not need much encouragement to turn to violence.

The 149 million Nigerians are divided almost equally between Muslims and Christians, the former in the north and the latter in the south. The last decade has seen frequent clashes and massacres, and earlier this year some 500 Christians were shot and hacked to death in just three villages in central Nigeria.In Egypt also there have been periodic clashes. In a town called Naj Hammadi near Luxor six Christians were shot outside a church at Christmas after a 12-year-old Muslim girl was raped by a Christian.

Incidents like this are not unheard of, but the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, and the consequent pervasive anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, has strengthened Jihadi Islam and made it more dangerous to be a Christian.