Christmas and the New Year were marked by two bloody and ominous attacks on Christian worshippers in Iraq and Egypt. On December 30th, in Baghdad, at least two Christians were killed and nine wounded in a string of six attacks on Christian homes. The areas targeted were predominantly Christian areas, and the homes attacked were specifically Christian homes. And, on new Year's Eve, an even more lethal attack resulted in the massacre of over 20 Egyptian Coptic Christians in the ancient city of Alexandria.
The old year ended and the new one opened with bloodshed that tragically points to attempts to systematically annihilate the ancient churches of the Middle East.
The word "genocide" - not one which should ever be used lightly or for rhetorical effect - is the correct terminology when a campaign sets out to annihilate an ethnic, religious, racial or national group.
A legal definition of genocide is found in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Article 2 defines genocide as "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part."
Consider that definition when assessing first the appalling situation in Iraq - brought home to us by the 31st October attack against the Syrian Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad in which 58 were killed. At the time of the October attacks in Baghdad the perpetrators also threatened violence against Egypt's Coptic Christian communities - a threat which came to pass on New Year's Eve. They have vowed to eradicate Christian believers in the region.
The international community may not yet be willing to recognise these events as part of a genocidal campaign but unless they wake up to the nature of these atrocities it will only be a matter of time before the definitions catch up with the realities. No doubt hand wringing "statesmen" will then claim they had no idea how bad the situation had become.
The violence against Egypt's Copts is hardly new but it has been intensifying - with barely a murmur of protest.
The Alexandria attack sharply underlines the vulnerability of Egypt's Christians. The bomb attack outside the al-Qidiseen church ("Church of the Two Saints") took place as worshippers were leaving a midnight service to celebrate the New Year. It is said that if the Mass had ended two minutes earlier the number of fatalities would have been massive. According to the official figures at least 21 were killed and 79 were injured.
The injured also include eight Muslims. The church and a nearby mosque suffered extensive damage from the blast
Initially the authorities believed a car bomb was used, but now they believe a suicide bomber was responsible. The attack prompted angry clashes between Christians and local Muslims during which the mosque opposite the church was further damaged. The police used tear gas to disperse the crowds.
The al-Qidiseen church was one of three churches which were attacked in April 2006 by a man wielding a knife, killing one person and injuring 17 others.
The massacre has been widely denounced by political and religious leaders in Egypt, including the Grand Mufti and other Muslims. This is to be welcomed, but the Egyptian Government's own role hardly stands up to scrutiny or examination. It is alleged that the authorities withdrew their security officials from the vicinity of the church about an hour before the attacks took place.
These attacks are part of a worsening pattern, sanctioned by the authorities, which I have observed since the publication, in 1992, of my report for the Jubilee Campaign, on the discrimination faced by Egyptian Copts. Having also served as honorary President of The UK Coptic Association I have also seen regular reports of the worsening situation. It disturbs me greatly that there seems considerable global indifference to the escalating violence against the Copts.
Egypt's Copts make up some 12 million from a population of 80 million Egyptians and they face major human rights violations and are being increasingly persecuted. It is hard to believe that this is happening to them in 21st Century Egypt, which prides itself on being a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The events in Alexandria find an echo in the drive-by massacre of churchgoers leaving midnight mass on Coptic Orthodox Christmas Eve on January 6, 2010, in Nag Hammadi. Six Copts were killed and nine others were seriously injured. Later, in Giza on November 24, 2010, the State's own forces opened fire on peaceful Coptic protesters, worshipping in St. Mary and St. Michael's Church.
In between those two incidents there were attacks on churches, collective punishment of Copts, abduction and, in collusion with the State, there have been incidents of Coptic minors being forced to convert - an increasing phenomenon. Increasing, too, have been demonstrations, which have been staged over fifteen consecutive weeks, by radical Islamists - demonstrations which have targeted the Coptic Church and its head, the saintly Pope Shenouda.
These demonstrations have been fanned by radical Muslim clerics and the Egyptian media, based on allegations that the church is abducting Christian girls who converted to Islam and locking them up in monasteries, and of stockpiling weapons in monasteries for later use against Muslims, espousing sectarian hatred and violence against the Copts.
On November 18th the US Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that "This kind of rhetoric goes too far and stokes the fire of extremists looking for ammunition to justify violent acts against religious minorities". USCIRF has placed Egypt on its watch list for religious freedom that requires close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the government.
The number of violations against the Copts for the year 2010 are not yet published, but, from January 2008 to January 2010, there were at least 52 incidents of sectarian violence or tension-about two incidents a month-which took place in 17 of Egypt's 29 governorates.
The vast majority of such sectarian incidents were waged by Muslims against Copts, taking the form of "collective revenge". This springs from an irrational conviction that all Christians should be made to pay for any grievance caused by a random Christian, in no way related to the original cause of the complaint.
According to the US International Religious Freedom Report 2010 published on December 17, "The status of respect for religious freedom by the government remained poor, unchanged from the previous year."
The killings in Alexandria and Baghdad underline the urgency and gravity of the situation. - and the need for all of us to speak up for the persecuted ancient churches.
A letter to the Egyptian and Iraqi Ambassadors in London, to the Foreign Secretary William Hague, and to your own local MP, urging them to demand protection and security for the ancient churches might help to save lives and prevent the escalation of these traumatic events into the full scale genocide which threatens to unravel.
Professor Lord David Alton of Liverpool, House of Lords, London. The Universe Catholic Weekly