The rise of Islamic extremism is putting increasing pressure on Christians in Muslim countries, who are the victims of murder, violence and discrimination. Christians are now considered the most persecuted religious group around the world. Paradoxically, their greatest hope could come from moderate political Islam.
February 26, 2010
Kevin Ang is cautious these days. He glances around, taking a look to the left down the long row of stores, then to the right toward the square, to check that no one is nearby. Only then does the church caretaker dig out his key, unlock the gate, and enter the Metro Tabernacle Church in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur.
The draft of air stirs charred Bible pages. The walls are sooty and the building smells of scorched plastic. Metro Tabernacle Church was the first of 11 churches set on fire by angry Muslims — all because of one word. “Allah,” Kevin Ang whispers.
It began with a question — should Christians here, like Muslims, be allowed to call their god “Allah,” since they don’t have any other word or language at their disposal? The Muslims claim Allah for themselves, both the word and the god, and fear that if Christians are allowed to use the same word for their own god, it could lead pious Muslims astray.
For three years there was a ban in place and the government confiscated Bibles that mentioned “Allah.” Then on Dec. 31 last year, Malaysia’s highest court reached a decision: The Christian God could also be called Allah.
Imams protested and disgruntled citizens threw Molotov cocktails at churches. Then, on top of everything, Prime Minister Najib Razak stated that he couldn’t stop people who might protest against specific developments in the country — and some took that as an invitation to violent action. First churches burned, then the other side retaliated with pigs’ heads placed in front of two mosques. Sixty percent of Malaysians are Muslims and 9 percent Christians, with the rest made up by Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs. They managed to live together well, until now.
It’s a battle over a single word, but it’s also about much more than that. The conflict has to do with the question of what rights the Christian minority in Malaysia is entitled to. Even more than that, it’s a question of politics. The ruling United Malays National Organization is losing supporters to Islamist hardliners — and wants to win them back with religious policies.
Those policies are receiving a receptive welcome. Some of Malaysia’s states interpret Sharia, the Islamic system of law and order, particularly strictly. The once liberal country is on the way to giving up freedom of religion — and what constitutes order is being defined ever more rigidly. If a Muslim woman drinks beer, she can be punished with six cane strokes. Some regions similarly forbid such things as brightly colored lipstick, thick make-up, or shoes with clattering high heels.
Expelled, Abducted and Murdered
Not only in Malaysia, but in many countries through the Muslim world, religion has gained influence over governmental policy in the last two decades. The militant Islamist group Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, while Islamist militias are fighting the governments of Nigeria and the Philippines. Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen have fallen to a large extent into the hands of Islamists. And where Islamists are not yet in power, secular governing parties are trying to outstrip the more religious groups in a rush to the right.
This can be seen in Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Indonesia to some extent, and also Malaysia.
Even though this Islamization often has more to do with politics than with religion, and even though it doesn’t necessarily lead to the persecution of Christians, it can still be said that where Islam gains importance, freedoms for members of other faiths shrink.
There are 2.2 billion Christians around the world. The Christian non-governmental organization Open Doors calculates that 100 million of them are being threatened or persecuted. They aren’t allowed to build churches, buy Bibles or obtain jobs. That’s the more harmless form of discrimination and it affects the majority of these 100 million Christians. The more brutal version sees them blackmailed, robbed, expelled, abducted or even murdered.
Bishop Margot Kässmann, who was head of the Protestant Church in Germany before stepping down on Feb. 24, believes Christians are “the most frequently persecuted religious group globally.” Germany’s 22 regional churches have proclaimed this coming Sunday to be the first commemoration day for persecuted Christians. Kässmann said she wanted to show solidarity with fellow Christians who “have great difficulty living out their beliefs freely in countries such as Indonesia, India, Iraq or Turkey.”
There are counterexamples as well, of course. In Lebanon and Syria, Christians are not discriminated against, and in fact play an important role in politics and society. And the persecution of Christian is by no means the domain of fanatical Muslims alone — Christians are also imprisoned, abused and murdered in countries such as Laos, Vietnam, China and Eritrea.
‘Creeping Genocide’ against Christians
Open Doors compiles a global “persecution index.” North Korea, where tens of thousands of Christians are serving time in work camps, has topped the list for many years. North Korea is followed, though, by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, the Maldives and Afghanistan. Of the first 10 countries on the list, eight are Islamic, and almost all have Islam as their state religion.
The systematic persecution of Christians in the 20th century — by Communists in the Soviet Union and China, but also by Nazis — claimed far more lives than anything that has happened so far in the 21st century. Now, however, it is not only totalitarian regimes persecuting Christians, but also residents of Islamic states, fanatical fundamentalists, and religious sects — and often simply supposedly pious citizens.
Gone is the era of tolerance, when Christians enjoyed a large degree of religious freedom under the protection of Muslim sultans as so-called “People of the Book” while at the same time medieval Europe was banishing its Jews and Muslims from the continent or even burning them at the stake. Also gone is the heyday of Arab secularism following World War II, when Christian Arabs advanced through the ranks of politics.
As political Islam grew stronger, devout believers’ aggression focused not only on corrupt local regimes, but also more and more on the ostensibly corrupting influence of Western Christians, for which local Christian minorities were held accountable. A new trend began, this time with Christians as the victims.
In Iraq, for example, Sunni terrorist groups prey specifically on people of other religions. The last Iraqi census in 1987 showed 1.4 million Christians living in the country. At the start of the American invasion in 2003, it was 550,000, and at present it is just under 400,000. Experts speak of a “creeping genocide.”
‘People Are Scared Out of Their Minds’
The situation in the region around the city of Mosul in northern Iraq is especially dramatic. The town of Alqosh lies high in the mountains above Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Bassam Bashir, 41, can see his old hometown when he looks out his window there. Mosul is only 40 kilometers (25 miles) away, but inaccessible. The city is more dangerous than Baghdad, especially for men like Bassam Bashir, a Chaldean Catholic, teacher and fugitive within his own country.
Since the day in August 2008 when a militia abducted his father from his shop, Bashir has had to fear for his and his family’s lives. Police found his father’s corpse two days later in the Sinaa neighborhood on the Tigris River, the body perforated with bullet holes. There was no demand for ransom. Bashir’s father died for the simple reason that he was Christian.
And no one claims to have seen anything. “Of course they saw something,” Bashir says. “But people in Mosul are scared out of their minds.”
One week later, militiamen slit the throat of Bashir’s brother Tarik like a sacrificial lamb. “I buried my brother myself,” Bashir explains. Together with his wife Nafa and their two daughters, he fled to Alqosh the same day. The city is surrounded by vineyards and an armed Christian militia guards the entrance.
Tacit State Approval
Bashir’s family members aren’t the only ones who came to Alqosh as the series of murders in Mosul continued. Sixteen Christians were killed the next week, and bombs exploded in front of churches. Men in passing cars shouted at Christians that they had a choice — leave Mosul or convert to Islam. Out of over 1,500 Christian families in the city, only 50 stayed. Bassam Bashir says he won’t return until he can mourn for his father and brother in peace. Others who gave up hope entirely fled to neighboring countries like Jordan and even more to Syria.
In many Islamic countries, Christians are persecuted less brutally than in Iraq, but often no less effectively. In many cases, the persecution has the tacit approval of the government. In Algeria, for example, it takes the form of newspapers reporting that a priest tried to convert Muslims or insulted the Prophet Mohammed — and publishing the cleric’s address, in a clear call to vigilante justice. Or a public television station might broadcast programs with titles like “In the Clutches of Ignorance,” which describe Christians as Satanists who convert Muslims with the help of drugs. This happened in Uzbekistan, which ranks tenth on Open Doors’ “persecution index.”
Blasphemy is another frequently used allegation. Insulting the core values of Islam is a punishable offense in many Islamic countries. The allegation is often used against the opposition, whether that means journalists, dissidents or Christians. Imran Masih, for example, a Christian shopkeeper in Faisalabad, Pakistan, was given a life sentence on Jan. 11, according to sections 295 A and B of Pakistan’s legal code, which covers the crime of outraging religious feelings by desecrating the Koran. A neighboring shopkeeper had accused him of burning pages from the Koran. Masih says that he only burned old business records.
It’s a typical case for Pakistan, where the law against blasphemy seems to invite abuse — it’s an easy way for anyone to get rid of an enemy. Last year, 125 Christians were charged with blasphemy in Pakistan. Dozens of those already sentenced are on death row.
‘We Don’t Feel Safe Here’
Government-tolerated persecution occurs even in Turkey, the most secular and modern country in the Muslim world, where around 110,000 Christians make up less than a quarter of 1 percent of the population — but are discriminated against nonetheless. The persecution is not as open or as brutal as what happens in neighboring Iraq, but the consequences are similar. Christians in Turkey, who numbered well over 2 million people in the 19th century, are fighting for their continued existence.
It’s happening in the southeast of the country, for example, in Tur Abdin, whose name means “mountain of God’s servants.” It’s a hilly region full of fields, chalk cliffs, and centuries-old monasteries many. It’s home to the Syrian Orthodox Assyrians, or Aramaeans as they call themselves, members of one of the oldest Christian groups in the world. According to legend, the Three Wise Men brought the Christian belief system here from Bethlehem. The inhabitants of Tur Abdin still speak Aramaic, the language used by Jesus of Nazareth.
The world is much more familiar with the genocide committed against the Armenians by Ottoman troops in 1915 and 1916, but tens of thousands of Assyrians were also murdered during World War I. Half a million Assyrians are said to have lived in Tur Abdin at the beginning of the 20th century. Today there are barely 3,000. A Turkish district court threatened last year to appropriate the Assyrians’ spiritual center, the 1,600-year-old Mor Gabriel monastery, because the monks were believed to have acquired land unlawfully.
Three neighboring Muslim villages had complained they felt discriminated against by the monastery, which houses four monks, 14 nuns, and 40 students behind its walls.
“Even if it doesn’t want to admit it, Turkey has a problem with people of other faiths,” says Ishok Demir, a young Swiss man with Aramaean roots, who lives with his parents near Mor Gabriel. “We don’t feel safe here.”
More than anything, that has to do with the permanent place Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, Catholics and Protestants have in the country’s nationalistic conspiracy theories. Those groups have always been seen as traitors, nonbelievers, spies and people who insult the Turkish nation. According to a survey carried out by the US-based Pew Research Center, 46 percent of Turks see Christianity as a violent religion. In a more recent Turkish study, 42 percent of those surveyed wouldn’t accept Christians as neighbors.
The repeated murders of Christians come, then, as no surprise. In 2006, for example, a Catholic priest was shot in Trabzon on the Black Sea coast. In 2007, three Christian missionaries were murdered in Malatya, a city in eastern Turkey. The perpetrators were radical nationalists, whose ideology was a mixture of exaggerated patriotism, racism and Islam.
Converts in Grave Danger
In even graver danger than traditional Christians, however, are Muslims who have converted to Christianity. Apostasy, or the renunciation of Islam, is punishable by death according to Islamic law — and the death penalty still applies in Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Mauritania, Pakistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Even in Egypt, a secular country, converts draw the government’s wrath. The religion minister defended the legality of the death penalty for converts — although Egypt doesn’t even have such a law — with the argument that renunciation of Islam amounts to high treason. Such sentiments drove Mohammed Hegazy, 27, a convert to the Coptic Orthodox Church, into hiding two years ago. He was the first convert in Egypt to try to have his new religion entered officially onto his state-issued identity card. When he was refused, he went public. Numerous clerics called for his death in response.
Copts make up the largest Christian community in the Arab world and around 8 million Egyptians belong to the Coptic Church. They’re barred from high government positions, diplomatic service and the military, as well as from many state benefits. Universities have quotas for Coptic students considerably lower than their actual percentage within the population.
Building new churches isn’t allowed, and the old ones are falling into disrepair thanks to a lack both of money and authorization to renovate. When girls are kidnapped and forcibly converted, the police don’t intervene. Thousands of pigs were also slaughtered under the pretense of confining swine flu. Naturally all were owned by Christians.
The Christian Virus
Six Copts were massacred on Jan. 6 — when Coptic celebrate Christmas Eve — in Nag Hammadi, a small city 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the Valley of the Kings. Predictably, the speaker of the People’s Assembly, the lower house of the Egyptian parliament, called it an “individual criminal act.” When he added that the perpetrators wanted to revenge the rape of a Muslim girl by a Copt, it almost sounded like an excuse.
The government seems ready to admit to crime in Egypt, but not to religious tension.
Whenever clashes between religious groups occur, the government finds very secular causes behind them, such as arguments over land, revenge for crimes or personal disputes.
Nag Hammadi, with 30,000 residents, is a dusty trading town on the Nile. Even before the murders, it was a place where Christians and Muslims mistrusted one another. The two groups work together and have houses near each other, but they live, marry and die separately. Superstition is widespread and the Muslims, for example, fear they could catch the “Christian virus” by eating together with a Copt. It comes as no surprise that these murders occurred in Nag Hammadi, nor that they were followed by the country’s worst religious riots in years. Christian shops and Muslim houses were set on fire, and 28 Christians and 14 Muslims were arrested.
Nag Hammadi is now sealed off, with armed security forces in black uniforms guarding roads in and out of the city. They make sure no residents leave the city and no journalists enter it.
Three presumed perpetrators have since been arrested. All of them have prior criminal records. One admitted to the crime, but then recanted, saying he had been coerced by the intelligence service. The government seems to want the affair to disappear as quickly as possible. The alleged murderers will likely be set free again as soon as the furor has blown over.
More Rights for Christians?
But there are also a few small indications that the situation of embattled Christians in Islamic countries could improve — depending on the extent that nationalism and the radicalization of political Islam subsides again.
One of the contradictions of the Islamic world is that the best chances for Christians seem to crop up precisely where a major player actually comes from the political Islam camp. In Turkey it is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former Islamist and now the country’s prime minister, who has promised Turkey’s few remaining Christians more rights. He points to the history of the Ottoman Empire, in which Christians and Jews long had to pay a special tax, but in exchange, were granted freedom of religion and lived as respected fellow citizens.
A more relaxed attitude to its minorities would certainly signify progress for Turkey.