In some parts of the world, Herod's massacre of the innocents is a living tradition. On Christmas Day in Iraq, 37 people were killed in bomb attacks in Christian districts of Baghdad. Radical Islamists mark — and stain — the season with brutality and intolerance.
The violence, of course, is not restricted by the calendar. In recent months, we've seen Coptic Christians gunned down in Cairo and churches burned. Thousands of Syrian Christians have fled to Turkey. "Where we live," said one refugee, "10 churches have been burned down. … When the local priest was executed, we decided to leave."
Across North Africa and the greater Middle East, anti-Christian pressure has grown during the last few decades, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. This persecution has gained recent attention from the archbishop of Canterbury and the pope. "We won't resign ourselves," says Pope Francis, "to a Middle East without Christians."
The most passionate advocate has been Prince Charles — an often underestimated, consistently thoughtful figure. "For 20 years," he said in a recent speech, "I have tried to build bridges between Islam and Christianity and to dispel ignorance and misunderstanding. The point though, surely, is that we have now reached a crisis where the bridges are rapidly being deliberately destroyed by those with a vested interest in doing so."
The growth of this persecution is sometimes used as a club against the very idea of democracy promotion. Middle East democracy, the argument goes, often results in oppressive Sunni religious ascendancy. Majority rule will bring the harsh imposition of the majority faith.
But this is the criticism of a caricature. Democracy promotion — as embraced by the National Democratic Institute or the International Republican Institute or Freedom House — is about human liberty protected by democratic institutions. Securing institutional respect for minority rights is particularly difficult in transitioning societies, as we've recently seen. But clinging to authoritarianism further hollows out civil society, making the results even more chaotic and dangerous when a dictator falls. And even marginally more favorable dictators can't be propped up forever, as we've also recently witnessed. So it matters greatly whether America and other democracies can help pluralism survive and shape the emerging political order.
This is a priority for both humanitarian and strategic reasons. As William Inboden of the University of Texas notes, there is a robust correlation between religious persecution and national-security threats. "Including World War II," argues Inboden, "every major war the United States has fought over the past 70 years has been against an enemy that also severely violated religious freedom." The reverse is equally true. "There is not a single nation in the world," he says, "that both respects religious freedom and poses a security threat to the United States."
There are a number of possible explanations for this strong correlation. The most compelling is that religious freedom involves the full and final internalization of democratic values — the right to be a heretic or infidel. It requires the state to recognize the existence of binding loyalties that reach beyond the state's official views.
It took many centuries for Christendom to achieve this thick form of pluralism. Whether the Islamic world can move toward its own, culturally distinctive version of this democratic virtue is now one of the largest geopolitical questions of the 21st century.
Some argue that Muslim theology — emphasizing fidelity to its conception of divine law — makes this unlikely (or impossible). Others point to past centuries when Muslim majorities and rulers coexisted with large Arab Christian populations — a thin form of pluralism in which Christians were second-class citizens but not subject to violent intolerance. Every major religious faith contains elements of tribal exclusivity and teachings of respect for the other. The emergence of social pluralism depends on emphasizing the latter above the former.
Promoting democratic institutions is no easy task in the midst of revolution and civil war. But even limited levers — stronger condemnation of abuses, conditioning aid on the protection of minorities, supporting moderate forces in the region — are worth employing when the stakes are so high. America, however, seems strangely disengaged. "One of America's oddest failures in recent years," argue Economist editors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, "is its inability to draw any global lessons from its unique success in dealing with religion at home. It is a mystery why a country so rooted in pluralism has made so little of religious freedom."
A recovery of that emphasis might begin with a simple commitment: not to resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians.
Michael Gerson's column is distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group.