Egyptian crucifixion of Christian by Islamists
By Peter Berger
Both Roman Catholic and Evangelical Protestant media have for years been drawing public attention to the persecution of Christians in many countries. Secular media have been less attentive; some have ascribed this to an anti-Christian bias; I rather doubt this—more likely it comes from the fact that many otherwise well-informed journalists are less informed on religious matters. Outside the denominational media, two individuals have done more than anyone else to cover this phenomenon: Paul Marshall (of the Hudson Institute) and Brian Grim (of the Pew Research Center). All the data I have seen indicate that Christians are at present the most persecuted religious group world-wide. Grim recently testified about this before the European Parliament: He stated that Christians are directly harassed by governments in 102 countries and by “social actors” (read lynch mobs) in 101 countries. There has also been decent coverage by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the independent agency set up with government funding, in addition to the bureau within the State Department that reports on religious freedom worldwide every year.
In its 2013 report the Commission has a list of 8 countries (which include China) designated “countries of particular concern” (CPCs, who are reported as such to the President and the Congress, for possible US government actions). The 2013 list includes 3 Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. There is an additional list of countries heading toward CPC status, including 4 Muslim-majority or heavily Muslim countries: Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria (its northen part), and Pakistan. It is fair to conclude that Christians have most to be afraid of from actions by Muslims, be it by courts, government policies, or by mobs of enraged Muslims encouraged by police inaction.
Rather than commenting on the Commission report country by country, I will look at a one day of reporting, on July 31, 2013, in Law and Religion Headlines, the online publication out of Emory University that I have found very useful as a reliable source of information on these issues. That date’s issue includes the following stories about persecution of Christians by Muslims in different countries.
One story comes from Pakistan (whose population is 96% Muslim, 2% Christian, cited by the Commission for “systematic, egregious intolerance toward minority faith groups”, which, by the way, includes attacks by Sunnis on Shia Muslims). An Adventist Christian was sentenced to life imprisonment for “blasphemy” against the Prophet Muhammad. In the perverse legal system of Pakistan, this sentence could actually be construed as lenient—the law provides a sentence of life imprisonment or death (given the condition of Pakistani prisons, there may not be much difference between these two sentences). The case in this story is not an isolated event. Prosecution for “blasphemy” is constant threat against Christians in Pakistan (as it is in other Muslim-majority countries). Just what is defined as “blasphemy” is very vague. It might, for example, include a simple statement by a Christian that, according to his faith, the Quran (which Muslims believe is “the seal of prophecy”) does not supersede the New Testament. The issue is not limited to Pakistan. It should be noted that Muslim states and organizations have lobbied for the introduction of blasphemy laws in countries that do not have them now, including even Western democracies.
Another story comes from Saudi Arabia, where the editor of social media propagating liberal values was sentenced to 7 years in prison plus 600 lashes (severe whipping is a common penalty in Saudi law). Oddly, he was also convicted of “disobeying his father” (a crime in Saudi Arabia). Apparently the editor is not a Christian. But the liberal values he advocates of course go against the fierce establishment of Wahhabi Islam in the Kingdom, enforced by the feared “religious police” (mandated to “promote the good and suppress evil”). Put simply, religious freedom in Saudi Arabia is nil. No Christian worship is permitted, no Christian clergy are admitted, neither is any Christian literature. Foreign Christians are allowed to huddle together in embassies or private homes.
Northern Nigeria has for some time been a particularly dangerous territory for Christians. The country is about 50% Christian (mainly in the south) and 50% Muslim in the north, where a slow-burning civil war between the two religions has been going on. The aggression has come from the Muslim side, though Christians (with some help from the central government) have been organizing to defend themselves. Boko Haram is a radical Muslim organization (“boko” is a term designating any Western influence, including through Christianity; “haram” is an Islamic term for “forbidden”). Activists linked to Boko Haram have been staging ongoing murderous attacks against Christian churches, homes and individuals; an estimated 3,600 lives have been lost to this carnage since 2009.
Let me add some other Muslim countries here. Saudi Arabia and Iran are already listed as CPCs in the Commission report. The state of freedom of religion in Iran is roughly the same as that in Saudi Arabia. Christians here too are threatened with prosecution for “blasphemy” and attempting to convert Muslims; Christian pastors are lingering in prison. Christians are not the only victims. Jews, while in theory protected as “People of the Book” have been prosecuted for allegedly being Israeli agents. The most savage persecution (including executions and multiple violations of civil rights) has been directed, since the beginnings of the Islamic Republic, against Baha’is (a nineteenth offspring of Shia Islam that still constitutes a sizable minority in the country, as well as having some 5 million adherents worldwide).
Egypt and Iraq are included in the Commission’s list of countries heading toward CPC status. Since the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring (increasingly making that phrase doubtful), Muslim activists have been attacking Christians, especially the Coptic minority (which consists of about 10% of the Egyptian population).
Iraq affords a specially depressing picture: In addition to the increasingly bloody civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians have been repeatedly attacked by Muslim terrorists. Iraq used to be the home of some of the most ancient Christian churches—Orthodox, some in communion with Rome; and so-called Oriental churches (those who dissented from the Christological decisions of the early ecumenical councils). Christians have emigrated in large numbers, and the Christian presence in Iraq is rapidly dwindling. This situation is getting worse with the departure of American troops, and the increasingly anti-Sunni policies of the Maliki government.
Let me also mention two other countries – Syria and Palestine. The Assad regime in Syria has (for its own reasons) been protective of Christians, who have tended to support it in the current civil war. With the growing presence of radical Islamists in the rebel forces, the situation of Christians in Syria is becoming ever more precarious, and large numbers are emigrating. Palestinians within the State of Israel have little to fear from the Israeli government, which is solicitous of its Christian citizens, partly because Evangelical Christians are the most reliable Gentile pro-Israel constituency in America; the government is greatly interested in keeping their good will, at least if they don’t try to convert Jews too openly (some of them, alas, try do this). Of course Palestinian Israelis suffer from the same discriminations as their Muslim fellow-citizens, but that has ethnic rather than religious sources. It is different in the Palestinian Territories, where radical Islamism (especially as advocated by Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip) is threatening Christians. Here too there has been strong emigration, from all groups within the Christian community—Orthodox, “Oriental”, Catholic, Protestant. Not long ago the mayor of Bethlehem, commenting on this emigration, envisaged a near future when there would be no more Christians in the city of Jesus’ birth.
I’m sorry to say that, when it comes to the persecution of Christians, Muslims head any credible list. But they are not alone. Open Doors International, an Evangelical online monitor of these developments, lists India among 50 countries where life is difficult for Christians. Hindu militants have been attacking Christian worship services and pastors, and have been driving Christians from urban homes and villages, with agencies of the state (including the police) often standing by passively. Christians are also threatened by possible prosecution for engaging in “forcible conversions” of Hindus, which is illegal and defined so vaguely that even the most innocent conversations with Hindus can cause prosecution. The overall political background is that Hindu nationalists are an important constituency of the BJP, the major opposition party. Thus Hindu nationalists, with their ideology of hindutva (Hindu religion as the core of Indian civilization), are most influential in states with BJP governments.
China has a complicated system of regulating religion. The Communist party, still officially committed to Marxist atheism, is now, I think, more motivated by an essentially Confucian attitude to religion. The attitude is similar to a policy of disease control: Religion is at its core superstitious and potentially dangerous; if it cannot be eradicated, it must be tightly controlled. The regime insists that, if they are to be allowed, religious communities must be registered with the state. Many do; some refuse. Among the latter are so-called Protestant “house churches”, and an ‘underground” wing of the Catholic Church, which insists on primary allegiance to Rome. Unregistered churches are always under the threat of harassment or prosecution. National policies toward Christians keep changing, but there are differences between regions in that immense country. Open Doors Internatiomnal reports on the case of the Shouwang Church, a large unregistered Protestant congregation in Beijing. It was denied a permit for a place of worship, was forced to conduct services outdoors, which led to police harassment and some arrests.
Russia continues to be an interesting case in terms of religious freedom, or rather, restrictions on it. The Russian Orthodox Church, while not quite re-established as the state religion, has moved ever closer to the government, especially under the Putin administration. (Putin, truthfully or not, has claimed to have been secretly baptized by his grandmother, and likes to be seen devotedly crossing himself while attending Orthodox services.) While the Russian Orthodox Church enjoys distinctive privileges, protection is given to other religions with long roots in Russian history, notably Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Roman Catholicism, and Protestants with a similarly long presence in Russia (notably the Baptists). But the Moscow Patriarchate was annoyed when the Vatican set up Catholic dioceses on Russian territory. Its particular ire has been directed against Evangelical Protestants, especially Pentecostals, who have been actively seeking converts (in the words of an official of the Patriarchate, “stealing Orthodox souls”). The government, in the old tradition of collaboration (sinfonia) between state and church, has obliged the Patriarchate by harassing and prosecuting unregistered groups.
I feel that I should not end this report without mentioning allegations of violations of religious freedom in Western democracies—the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada (which sometimes tries to show its difference from the big brother to the south by being more politically correct than this neighbor). In the US, there have been two sources pushing the alleged violations: those with very strict interpretations of the First Amendment (I call them Kemalists, with a “disease control” attitude similar to that of Kemal Ataturk, the father of the Turkish Republic) who tie up the federal courts with demands to remove Christmas crèches from public properties, and some members of the gay movement, going after alleged “homophobes” in the name of laws against “hate speech”. There have been similar efforts in the UK and in Canada (most recently, after the British Parliament legalized same-sex marriage, a gay couple moved to sue a local Anglican parish for refusing to host its wedding service). In the US, of course, the Catholic Church unleashed a campaign for religious freedom in response to the Obama administration seeking to force Catholic institutions to include contraception in their employees’ health insurance plans. Most recently this issue has taken a new turn: Corporations owned by Evangelical Protestants, who freely advertise their faith on company products, have claimed exemption from the contraception mandate on First Amendment grounds. Some court decisions thus far have gone in both directions. But one court refused to accept the claim, because the law governing corporations make a sharp distinction between the corporation as a “legal person” and the persons of the individuals holding shares: The “legal person” is a fiction, not a real person, who can claim the right of free exercise. These are the questions that make lawyers happy, and rich.
I would not want to trivialize the issue as it has been raised in Western democracies. These are real issues, and my sympathies are generally with those (including Catholic bishops and Evangelical business people) who fiercely defend a broad understanding of the First Amendment. American law has long been accommodating toward citizens claiming exemptions on religious grounds—refusing to take oaths on the Bible, to salute the flag, to serve in the military. I would hate to see a change in this propensity to respect minority religious values. At the same time, it seems to me a sense of proportion is to be recommended here. I’m sure that Christians in any of the countries mentioned in the above stories, would love to exchange their experiences of persecution for the comparatively mild violations in Western democracies.
When it comes to domestic law in the US and in Western and Central Europe, I would have considerable confidence in the courts and their diligence in defending religious freedom. I am less confident in the ability of these countries advocating religious freedom in other parts of the world. Foreign policy must operate under the iron laws of national interest. Diplomats are in the business of having coffee, tea or drinks with tyrants. Once the issues touching directly on national interest have been discussed, it is not easy to say, “by the way you should be nicer to your religious minorities”. But I would not want to denigrate the work of such agencies as the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. There are limits to Realpolitik in a democracy, whose citizens want their values to be heard in the halls of power.