“I thank God for the book you are now holding,” scholar Eric Metaxas writes in the foreward of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians by Hudson Institute religious freedom scholars Lela Gilbert, Paul Marshall, and Nina Shea. As Metaxas elaborates, Persecuted “focuses on a scandalously underreported fact, that Christians are the single most widely persecuted religious group in the world today,” a “terrible trend…on the upswing.”
The authors chronicle in detailed fashion all manner of religious repression against Christians, such as laws inhibiting conversion to Christianity, state destruction of unapproved churches, torture of Christian dissidents, and often socially sanctioned vigilante violence. Among other countries, the authors focus on Marxist-legacy regimes such as China, Hindu and Buddhist hostility in South Asia, and majority-Muslim nations. The authors stress, however, that “it is in the Muslim world where persecution of Christians is now most widespread, intense, and, ominously, increasing.” With other religious communities facing persecution along with Christians, Philadelphia Catholic Archbishop Charles J. Chaputconcludes in the afterword that there is a “global crisis in religious liberty.”
The three-fourths of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians in the developing world face hostility from various quarters. Among atheist Marxist-regimes, for example, Christianity’s “claim that Caesar is not God challenges every authoritarian regime, ancient Romans and modern totalitarians alike, and draws their angry and bloody response.” South Asia’s predominantly Hindu and Buddhist countries, meanwhile, “have a reputation, in many cases well deserved, for peaceful religious coexistence with their stunningly varied neighbors.” Yet even here various “strong militant traditions” persecute Christianity.
Persecuted’s authors, though, note that Muslim persecution of Christians “is so widespread in fact that we have had to devote four chapters to it” out of the book’s ten. At a March 27, 2013 Hudson Institute Persecutedpresentation, Gilbert even suggested that any post-“Arab Spring” (a term for her always “in quotes”) writing would have given Egypt its own additional chapter. Here “identity cards make religious anonymity impossible.” While some individuals have won court recognition of their “reconverted” Christianity following a prior Muslim conversion, “no Muslim-born convert has yet won” similar recognition.
Such legal religious identity presents significant problems, given that sharia-based Egyptian family laws prohibit Christian men from marrying Muslim women, unlike the reverse. Female Christian converts seeking to marry Christian men might seek to circumvent the identity laws with forged documents, but this risks legal sanction and even police brutality. Upon discovery, authorities in such cases can even compel divorces. Two Egyptian women who had always lived as Christians, for example, faced penalties and annulled marriages because sharia still applied to them, as their father had merely forged documents upon reconverting to Christianity in the 1960s.
Other examples of Muslim oppression of Christianity, such as Saudi Arabia’s “continuous religious cleansing,” are well-known. Here “Muslim only”-designated roads lead to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, while under Saudi law Christian plaintiffs receive half the compensation of Muslim plaintiffs. Similarly in Iran, penalties for murdering Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians are less for murdering Muslims, while the murder of officially unrecognized believers, such as the Baha’i, carries no penalty.
What became South Sudan in 2011, meanwhile, suffered 2 million dead after the central Sudanese government in Khartoum in 1983 imposed sharia law over a country divided between Arab Muslims in the north and black African Christians and animists in the south. This was “one of the most protracted and brutal civil wars in world history…essentially over religious freedom.” Islamist violence in Nigeria in recent years has likewise claimed that country’s largest death toll since the 1960’s Biafra conflict.
Although Islam did not become Pakistan’s state religion until 1973, meanwhile, Islamic extremism there has become “daunting and intensifying.” Pakistan’s subsequently adopted “infamous blasphemy codes” have not yet resulted in any infliction of the mandated death penalty, but perhaps hundreds of accused have fallen victim to vigilante killings. Even exposition of basic Christian beliefs counter to Islam could lead to “potentially disastrous schoolyard talk,” such that Pakistani Christians grow up without learning their faith. Many of the accusations, though, stem from “self-centered reasons” such as personal grudges.
Cited by Persecuted, one 2011 online report on Pakistani education from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) where Shea was previously a commissioner indicates just how dangerous such Islamic blasphemy concepts can be. Of 250 surveyed Pakistani school teachers, all “believed the concept of jihad to refer to a violent struggle, compulsory for Muslims against the enemies of Islam,” with only 10% of the total referencing “nonviolent struggle” as well. The “overwhelming majority” of these teachers “appeared to hold the view that the call to jihad falls directly upon the individual, as do decisions regarding when and against whom jihad is appropriate.” These Pakistani teachers apparently have not yet seen the My Jihad advertisements from the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ (CAIR) Chicago chapter.
Muslim countries often considered “moderate” and “even nominally secular” states “favor Islam and repress Christianity and other non-Muslim religions.” Malaysia’s High Court has ruled that Malaysian Muslims may not abandon Islam, and converts have even had to attend reeducation camps. Laws there also mandate burial according to Islamic ritual if a sharia judge so rules, something only requiring one witness to verify that the deceased was a Muslim. Another 1986 law prohibits Christians from using the word Allah for God, even though Arabic-speaking Christians have used this word for centuries along with Christians in neighboring Indonesia.
The authors find that religious tolerance is “very real” among Indonesians and they often say with pride that “Islam came to us on a breeze, not with a bullet.” Yet the 10-13% of Indonesia’s population that is Christian faces pressures from vigilantes, local governments, and society at large. Indonesia’s Criminal Code Article 156(a) against dissemination of religious hatred or defamation, for example, “has been enforced almost exclusively in cases of alleged heresy or blasphemy against Islam.”
“Beginning with the apostles,” meanwhile, “the church flourished for fourteen centuries in what today is Turkey, before suffering conquest, genocide, brutal population exchanges, pogroms, and many other persecutions.” Later, “Turkey became a radically secular republic that stifled religion across the board.” Politically ascendant in recent years, Islamists in Turkey have been able to exploit this situation to repress Christians. While Muslim women may now wear headscarves in public, Christians, with the exception of each denomination’s leader, may not publicly wear Christian attire. Although the 1971 state closure of the Halki Greek Orthodox Theological School and other measures prevent Christian theological training in Turkey, Muslim theology is mandatory in state schools.
Accordingly, Turkey’s Christians “confront a dense web of legal regulations that thwart the ability of churches to survive.” One Turkish Christian leader wishing to remain anonymous described the .15% of Turkey’s population who are Christian as an “endangered species.” Another Turkish Christian leader described favorable comparisons of religious freedom in Turkey with Saudi Arabia or Iran as “damning with faint praise.” Not surprisingly, Turkey became one of USCIRF’s Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) in 2012.
Even Afghanistan and Iraq, ruled by American-backed regimes, offer little in the way of religious refuge for Christians. Afghan government areas, for example, “are better for Afghan Christians than those controlled by the Taliban, but that is not saying much; conditions there are among the world’s most repressive.” The destruction of Afghanistan’s last church in 2010 put that country in the “infamous company of hard-line Saudi Arabia as a country that will not tolerate any churches.” Two-thirds of Iraq’s 1.5 million Christians, meanwhile, have fled in an “acute crisis” under a post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi government ruled by Islamic provisions in its constitution and often ill-disposed to Christians facing Islamist attacks.
Against developments such as the Afghan church destruction the American government “took no effective measures.” Rather, Barack Obama’s administration has often reacted to Islamist attacks upon Christians with “vague and generic condolences.” The “watershed” November 1, 2010, Islamist terrorist attack on Baghdad’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church during Sunday worship, for example, appeared in a White House press release as “senseless.” Yet this attack discussed by Shea previously online “was all too sensibly a deliberate and horrific act of religious cleansing against Christians targeted for their faith.”
As Shea discussed at the Hudson Institute, rather than “trying to be nice, trying to be liked” among Muslim countries, American policy seek “just the opposite effect” of past human rights successes brought about by political pressure. Maintenance of religious freedom in general is important because its link to political stability “could not be clearer.” In the Middle East in particular, Christian minorities in the words of Lebanese Christian scholar Habib Malik have functioned as “moderators” and “mediators”, forming according to Persecuted a “bridge to the West” with its individual rights and modern education. Without Christians and other non-Muslims, the “Muslim Middle East loses the experience of peacefully coexisting with others” and “will become even more radicalized and more estranged from the West.”
Andrew E. Harrod is also a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School.