At Large

Stop the Martyrdoms

Islamic religious persecutions should no longer be swept under the carpet.

By 3.31.08

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* Last year in Turkey five Islamic extremists bound, tortured, and killed three Christian religious workers.

* In Malaysia the nation's highest court ruled that a Christian convert could not change her official religious affiliation without a ruling of apostasy in Sharia court -- punishable by death or prison.

* Earlier this year Christian converts in Bangladesh were beaten and expelled by Muslim villagers.

* Last year in Sudan demonstrators demanded death for a British teacher -- convicted and then deported -- for allowing her students to name a teddy bear "Mohammed."

* In 2006 the Afghan government, which survives only because of allied military forces, sentenced a Christian convert to death, before allowing him to emigrate for reason of "mental illness."

* In Nigeria last year a Muslim mob murdered ten Christians, injured scores more, and destroyed nine churches in response to a claim that a Christian student drew a cartoon of Mohammed on the mosque wall at school.

* In Iraq in early March the body of kidnapped Chaldean Archbishop Paulus Faraj Rahho was discovered. Up to half of the prewar community of 1.2 or so million Iraqi Christians have fled abroad.

So it goes throughout the Islamic world. Not every Muslim hates Christians, Jews, and members of other faiths. And no, not every Muslim country persecutes religious minorities.

But pick any persecuting nation at random. There is a good chance that it will be Muslim, even if it is formally allied with the U.S. government.

YOU WOULDN'T KNOW that from the Western reaction. Right now, talk of interfaith dialogue and Muslim persecution is in the air.

Last November more than 300 Protestant leaders publicly asked for forgiveness for Christian sins against "our Muslim neighbors." Vatican officials and Islamic leaders have been meeting to plan an interfaith summit. President George W. Bush recently named a special envoy to the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, which is dedicated to combating "Islamophobia."

Fine. But the first item on every agenda should be the fact that most Islamic nations persecute their religious minorities.

This matters because persecution is an affront to any faith which claims to speak on behalf of a loving God. The hypocrisy of Muslim regimes that complain about the treatment of their co-religionists in the West while brutalizing members of minority faiths at home is more rank than usual. Consider the predictable protests in these very same Islamic nations against the online release of Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders's film criticizing Islam.

Pervasive hostility and violence towards Christians and Jews provides a flourishing environment for Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists. The fact that most Muslims may not share these attitudes is irrelevant if they remain silent in the fact of violent attacks on members of other faiths.

Westerners need to speak truth to Muslim power. "Islamic aggression, hatred, and intolerance must be confronted, named and shamed," argues Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern (ICC).

CHRISTIANITY HAS HAD its own ugly historical persecutions, of course. But these days governments in "Christian" nations increasingly refuse to acknowledge their religious heritage, let alone persecute minority faiths.

That is almost never the case in Islamic countries -- except, ironically, under ugly secular dictatorships in Syria and, formerly, Iraq. Even in Turkey Islamists are growing increasingly active.

In some majority-Muslim nations, like Kuwait, the government supports Islam but does not disturb other faiths. Christians generally don't proselytize, but are otherwise free. "We've never had any serious interference at all," Rev. Jerry Zandstra, a pastor at the National Evangelical Church, told me.

More often, however, Islamic governments enforce Islam. Keith Roderick of Christian Solidarity International speaks of "decades of violence, hatred, discrimination, and disenfranchisement."

Persecution is intense in many Islamic societies. Both the State Department and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) single out Muslim nations as among the most serious persecutors.

International Christian Concern has created "The Hall of Shame," half of whose members are Muslim states. Even the less brutal Islamic nations usually offer inhospitable terrain for Christians, Jews, and other religious minorities.

Where to start? Saudi Arabia is essentially totalitarian. As ICC explains, Riyadh "has a zero tolerance policy towards other religions."

The State Department is more diplomatic, but no less clear: "There is no legal recognition of, or protection under the law for, freedom of religion, and it is severely restricted in practice."

In theory, private worship in Saudi Arabia is okay, but "this right was not always respected in practice and is not defined in law." Even if the monarchy is committed to modernizing Saudi society, freedom of conscience is on no one's agenda.

BRUTAL STATE REPRESSION also is evident in Iran, which targets Jews, Baha'is, Sufi Muslims, and Zoroastrians as well as Christians.

The ICC reports: "The 1990s [in Iran] were a time of severe persecution. Spies infiltrated congregations, and church buildings were seized or closed. Seven Christian leaders were martyred and others have had to flee for their lives."

Sudan's decades of civil strife and war have killed well in excess of a million people, many of them Christians, who are most populous in the South. Christians suffer discrimination and occasional persecution elsewhere in the country as well. Sharia is enforced in the North. Islam must be studied, even in private Christian schools, and conversion from Islam is punishable by death.

Pakistan makes ICC's Hall of Shame. Islamabad's blasphemy law criminalizes criticism of Islam and often penalizes Christians. Christian women are vulnerable under the Hudood Ordinances, which treat rape victims as adulteresses unless they can produce four male Muslim witnesses stating the contrary.

Pakistani mob attacks on Christians and Christian churches are rarely punished. Converts risk death, making foreign flight the only escape for some families. A Methodist pastor, Rev. Emanuel S. Khokha, told me that Muslims "blame us because Christians are linked to America. They blame us for Israel and the problem with the Palestinians. And they blame us because we are Christians."

Indonesia traditionally leavened Islam with tolerance, but recent government rules make it virtually impossible for Christians to build churches in majority-Muslim areas, i.e., most of the country. Three Sunday school teachers were convicted of the "Christianization" of Muslim children in a trial highlighted by mobs demanding the women's death.

Churches and Bible schools have been bombed and torched. In October 2005 a crowd beheaded three Christian school girls. The wife of the pastor of an evangelical church on Java lost a leg in a bombing in 2001, and a year later their home was burned down. As one Indonesian minister told me, being a Christian "is difficult" there.

Christians suffer in other Muslim lands -- Brunei, for instance, as well as Gaza and the West Bank, Turkmenistan, Egypt, and Bangladesh. The amount of violence varies, but Islamic persecution of Christians, Jews, and other religious minorities is widespread.

Particularly shocking is persecution in both Afghanistan and Iraq, which were supposed to have been liberated by allied forces. Kabul's threatened execution of Christian convert Abdul Rahman in 2006 gained worldwide attention. Discrimination and persecution are increasingly evident. Acknowledges the State Department: "Condemnations of conversions from Islam and censorship increased concerns about citizens' ability to freely practice minority religions."

In Iraq, the government does not actively persecute, though Baha'is and Wahabbi Sunnis face some legal disabilities. But the collapse of Iraqi civil society has left Christians particularly vulnerable to criminal violence.

Even worse, Islamic extremists are consciously destroying the historic Christian community. Carl Moeller of Open Doors USA observes, "Christians are targeted specifically for being Christians."

There is occasional good news. A few years ago Indonesia's Moluccan Islands were aflame in a conflict that killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands. The Crisis Centre Dioceses of Ambonia celebrated the conflict's end "based on mutual understanding and readiness to forgive."

BUT THE MOLUCCAN ISLANDS' reconciliation was the outlier in the otherwise tragic and intractable problem of peaceful religious co-existence in Muslim lands.

There is no good foreign policy answer to religious persecution. As bad as it is, persecution isn't the same as terrorism when it comes to justifying military intervention. And enthusiasm for humanitarian warfare died in the rubble left by Iraqi IEDs and car bombs.

Increased private dialogue might help. Before Pope Benedict XVI visited Turkey, Ali Bardakoglu, head of Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs, warned would-be jihadis: "We Muslims condemn all types of violence and terror, regardless of whoever commits it against whosoever."

His remarks should be repeated in mosques around the world. Today a shocking number of Muslims choose violence and terror, and even more choose acquiescence to violence and terror. Although Christian persecution of Muslims belongs to history, "Muslim persecution of Christians and other religious minorities remains a present evil," notes Jim Jacobson of Christian Freedom International.

Only after suffering through significant sectarian injustices did Christians of all stripes learn to tolerate those who believed and thought differently. Millions of Muslims living in the West have benefited from that transformation. Islamic lands should similarly transform themselves.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).