Kaufman Interfaith Institute

The Most Persecuted Religion in the World?

Date: January 4, 2013

Over the past year, I have written of the intolerance that Christians have shown to Muslims in the U.S. From Missouri to Murphreesboro, Christians have demonstrated both a lack of charity and a denial of the right to religious liberty by setting fire to old mosques and opposing new ones. But Christians in the U.S. are rank amateurs compared to the Muslim persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

In early November, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Christianity is "the most persecuted religion in the world." Although met with predictable criticism, Rupert Short's recent research report for Civitas UK confirms Merkel's claim -- we may not want to hear it, but Christianity is in peril, like no other religion. While this is a contest no one wants to win, Short shows that "Christians are targeted more than any other body of believers." Short is the author of the recently published Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack. He is concerned that "200 million Christians (10 percent of the global total) are socially disadvantaged, harassed or actively oppressed for their beliefs."

Christianity is facing elimination in its Biblical homeland. Between a half and two-thirds of Christians in the Middle East have departed or been killed over the past century. Short attributes the intolerance and violence towards Christians to the rising Islamicization of Middle Eastern countries. Some of the oppression is government sanctioned and some government permitted; most is government ignored.

Short looks at the plight of Christians in the Middle East, country by country. When it comes to religious oppression, the devil, one might say, is in the details.

In the Salafist website, 'Guardians of the Faith', you can read that Muslims are superior to Egypt's Coptic Christians because "Being a Muslim girl whose role models are the wives of the Prophet, who were required to wear the hijab, is better than being a Christian girl, whose role models are whores" and "Being a Muslim who fights to defend his honor and his faith is better than being a Christian who steals, rapes, and kills children." Little wonder, then, that radical Muslims unleashed their fury on Christians in 2010, murdering 13 worshippers as they emerged from a service and later bombing a church in Alexandria which killed 20 and injured 70. We can only hope that Morsi's new government will see fit to stem the rapidly increasingly violence against Coptic Christians.

In 1990, there were over 1.2 million Christians in Iraq but by the end of 2003, there were fewer than 500,000; in 2013, there are fewer than 200,000 Iraqi Christians. In 2010, al Qaeda militants attacked a Baghdad cathedral, killing over 50 people and maiming many more. While Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites are deeply divided, they are united in their persecution of Christians. Bishops and priests have been kidnapped and tortured; churches are bombed, killing and injuring Christians. The message, sometimes sent in letter containing a bullet, has been delivered: "Christians should leave or die."

In 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti was murdered by the Pakistani Taliban for his opposition to Pakistan's anti-blasphemy laws. Bhatti, a Catholic, was Pakistan's Minister for Minorities. In fact, a death sentence is meted out to any Pakistani courageous enough to speak out in defense of religious minorities. Bhatti instructed his estate to publish a video upon his untimely death; in it he said, "I am living for my community and for suffering people and I will die to defend their rights. I prefer to die for my principles and for the justice of my community rather than to compromise. I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know... the meaning of the Cross and I follow him on the Cross." Speaking of justice -- Bhatti's two killers have never been charged.

We can move more quickly through the countries. Consider apostasy laws in Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Iran, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, Sudan and Malaysia. By apostasy, read "Muslim convert to Christianity." Of the plight of apostates, Ziya Meral, a London-based Turkish scholar, writes: "Apostates are subject to gross and wide-ranging human rights abuses including extra-judicial killings by state-related agents or mobs; honour killings by family members; detention, imprisonment, torture, physical and psychological intimidation by security forces; the denial of access to judicial services and social services; the denial of equal employment or education opportunities; social pressure resulting in loss of housing and employment; and day-to-day discrimination and ostracism in education, finance and social activities."

We have scarcely skimmed the surface of violence and intolerance to Christians in Muslims worlds. If it should continue at its present rate, Christianity will very soon be completely eradicated in its homeland. While the cultural loss is deeply worrisome, the lack of liberty, intolerance and violence in Muslim countries is even more worrisome. Reports by the Freedom House think-tank echo this concern: religious liberties are most threatened in Muslim-majority countries.

Christianity is not, as Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury reminds us, an import to these countries. The Christian communities that are now being threatened and even wiped out are nearly as old as the New Testament itself. Christians have called these countries home for two millennia; Christianity is not a Western imposition on historically Islamic countries.

It is not my place or purpose to defend Islam but the Quran explicitly states that there is no compulsion in religion and suggests no punishments for apostates. Sadly, portions of the Hadith and sharia law do suggest murder for apostasy. And while some take "jihad" to mean "jihad of the heart" and so to preclude violence against others, other passages in the Quran state that Muslims should fight against those who lack faith in Allah. Muslim defenses of liberty and tolerance must account for these difficult passages in their Holy Book and tradition. The challenge to Muslim leaders today is to offer a cogent answer to the question: Is Islam inherently intolerant and violent?

Why has the tragedy of Christians in the Muslim world been ignored? Short blames this on the media's fear that criticizing Muslims is tantamount to racism. I attribute it as well to secular media's lack of interest in and sometimes even scorn for religious belief.

Western media must overcome its fear of criticizing Muslims and its disinterest in religious belief. Religious liberties are the most fundamental human liberties -- they are indicators of a country's political willingness to allow people to choose their own way of life. In countries were religious liberty is conspicuously absent, one is likely to find a host of other liberties threatened as well.

Finally, the U.S. government must actively defend Christian liberty in Muslim-majority countries. While no U.S. politician worth his or her salt would deny the right to a Jewish state in the Middle East, so, too, no politician worth his or her salt should ignore the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Sadly, in the Middle East both Judaism and Christianity are threatened by Muslim extremists intent on violently recreating the world in their own image.

I am not an anti-Muslim extremist. I have partnered with like-minded Muslims, Christians and Jews in the path toward peace. I have come to admire the courage, wisdom and compassion of my many Muslim friends. And yet I worry that their clarion call to peace will be drowned out by shouts of radicalism.

The U.S. government, prodded by the U.S. media, needs to add its voice to those calling for peace, liberty and justice in Muslim-majority countries.

See all news