Pope and cartoon of Mohammed
Pope and cartoon of Mohammed Israel news photo montage

Jews, known for centuries as the most persecuted minority, have been replaced in this role by Christians, according to Pope Benedict XVI, who hinted that he was referring to the Islamic tidal wave that is sweeping the world.

Carefully avoiding singling out Muslims for the mistreatment of Christians, however, the pope recently appealed to European nations as well as the Muslim world to protect what he called the most persecuted religion in the world.

Recent attacks on Christians in Egypt, Nigeria and Iran have claimed dozens of casualties. The pope stated, "This succession of attacks is yet another sign of the urgent need for the governments of the region to adopt, in spite of difficulties and dangers, effective measures for the protection of religious minorities."

Iran has a different explanation for attacks on Christians. Ghazanfar Rokn-Abadi, its ambassador to Lebanon, said his country is a model for religious freedom and that “250,000 Christians are living in Iran peacefully and safely.” He blamed the Jews for any physical attacks.

Responding to the report on the pope’s statements, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley declined to directly answer a reporter’s question, “Who do you think is doing this?”

“I’d be very wary at this point about making any sweeping statements about whether what’s happened in Iraq has a bearing on what’s happening in other countries such as Egypt or Nigeria,” Crowley said. “These are all being investigated.”

The International Christian Concern was more direct. ICC president Jeff King stated, "Anti-Christian hatred arising from Islam has flowed into 2011, as seen in the horrific attacks in Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq already this year," he said.

The ICC also noted that mainstream media rarely report the phenomenon of persecuted Christians despite its having becoming more common.

The most widespread persecution of Christians has been in the Middle East, where Israel is the only country that grants freedom to Muslims and Christians, as well as Jews, to freely practice their religion. Prior to the Six-Day War in 1967, when Jerusalem was reunited and Judea and Samaria were restored to Israel, Jordan's rulers closed all Jewish and Christian sites, except for high-profile official visits.

Christianity had been the dominant influence in Bethlehem until the first and second Arab intifadas, when Muslim rulers and clerics increasingly harassed Christians, forcing most of them to flee. The Palestinian Authority has blamed Israel for the Christian exodus, but research has documented the harrassment by Muslims.

In Egypt, the government did not take kindly to the pope’s call for "effective measures" to protect Christian minorities in the Middle East. Cairo recalled its ambassador to the Vatican, saying that "Egypt will not allow any non-Egyptian party to intervene in our internal affairs under any pretext.”

Despite witnesses saying that an off-duty Muslim policeman shouted “Allahu Akhbar´(Allah is great) as he shot and killed a Copt last week, Egypt claimed that the murderer acted because of “his personal state” and not because of “the religion of his victims.” The shooter aimed his pistol at women, presumed to be non-Muslims, who were not wearing a head covering.

Nevertheless, Egypt’s ambassador to the Vatican denied there was any persecution of Christians in his country. "Persecution is a big word," she said. "In order to prove that there is persecution, you have to be very careful. This is a legal term which should not be used casually.”

Western countries are in a state of denial, asserted Clifford D. May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

Writing in the Boston Herald on Saturday, he cited the bombing of Christian churches in Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria and the Philippines and Indonesia, the recent arrests of Christians in Iran, and the death penalty handed down to a Christian woman in Pakistan for insulting Islam.

“The reality is this: Within the Muslim world today are regimes, movements and individuals convinced that their religion justifies - and benefits from - the most heinous atrocities,” May wrote. “They are determined, ruthless and lethal - as Christians and other minorities across a broad swath of the world have been finding out."

"If we in the West fail even to speak up for them, can we really expect moderate Muslims to do more?"