As a member of Amnesty international, I receive e-petitions concerning various issues around the world. On the 19th of February I received a request form Amnesty to sign an e-petition urging the African Union to take action to prevent further massacres of Muslims who were being slaughtered indiscriminately by militias in the Central African Republic. I, of course, signed the petition and sent it off. After I had done so I reflected on the fact that I have never received such a request to sign an e-petition or write letters regarding Christians experiencing persecution or slaughter by Muslim militias in African countries, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. This concerned me, so I wrote to Amnesty asking if I had missed such requests, or if there was some imbalance. It has been 2 weeks so far and I have not received a reply.
I spoke to my colleagues about this and one passed on to me the 2013 report on Christians oppressed for their faith by the Catholic Charity, “Aid to the Church in Need,” or ACN. ACN is an international Catholic charity under papal jurisdiction, which yearly offers financial support to more than 5,000 projects worldwide. They support the poor and persecuted Church, be it Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, with pastoral relief and material assistance. The organisation was founded in 1947 and today raises around $US 70 million dollars annually, which it distributes to the Church in need in 144 different countries around the world. The money they distribute comes entirely from private donations, and they receive no public or official Church monies whatsoever.
In their full report, which is available at www.acnuk.org/persecution, it is clear that Christians have fallen victim to widespread and intense acts of violence motivated in part at least by religious hatred. Furthermore, in the period under review in the report, 2011-2013, evidence both first and second hand suggests that the violence and intimidation in question is now more serious than in preceding years. The majority of incident reports listed in the ACN report are provided by sources other than ACN, including other Christian charities and media organizations both religious and secular.
Christians most certainly have not always been the primary target of attack, nor has a religious agenda clearly stood above and beyond all other motives driving aggressors. People of all faiths and none have suffered during a period of revolution, civil war and international upheaval that has been dubbed the ‘Arab Spring.’ But Christians in these countries are disproportionately vulnerable to attack, and have often become the primary victims in the emergence of theocratic states where minority groups – most especially Christians – have no place, except perhaps as third-class citizens.
Even before the Arab Spring began, an event which has had devastating consequences for Christianity, leading human rights researchers and commentators declared something long suspected but not yet proven – that is until now: that Christianity is the world’s most persecuted religion. In October 2010, a report issued by the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE) concluded that at least 75% of all religious persecution was directed against Christians. In November 2012 German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared before a synod of the country’s Lutheran Church that: “Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world.”
By far the greatest concern is the Middle-East, where the Arab Spring has placed unparalleled pressures on ancient Christian communities whose capacity to weather storms of violence and institutionalised discrimination has been tested to a degree not seen in modern times. The result has been an exodus of Christians in response to the violence, including bombing of churches, physical attacks on Christians’ homes and shops, kidnapping (especially of women and in some cases, clergy), as well as public statements in the media and by militant groups, specifically aimed against Christians. Raphael I Sako, the new Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad specially warned his faithful that if emigration continues then Iraq, a country whose Christian population stood at 1.4 million – larger than the number of practicing Christians in Britain – now stood on the verge of decent into obscurity.
Syria, so recently the country of choice for Iraqi Christians seeking sanctuary, has now become the nightmare that the refugees thought they had left behind. While not the only group to be effected by the civil war, violence against Christians was a factor hard to ignore. The murder of popular priest Fr. Fadi Haddad of Qatana near Damascus in October of 2012 was followed in April 2013 by the kidnapping of 2 Archbishops from Aleppo. As the months dragged on with no news, fears increased that the prelates were dead. But it was not just the hierarchy who suffered. ACN met Syrian Christian refugees in Jordan who reported being told: “Don’t celebrate Easter or you will be killed like your Christ.” By the summer of 2013, Syrian refugees were thought to have topped 2 million, a significant proportion of them Christians. Those willing to give their story described to ACN desperation to seek a new life in the West.
In Egypt, already disenfranchised by the Islamist agenda of President Mohammed Morsi, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Christians’ hopes of a fresh start after his fall from power in July 2013 were soon dashed. Violence against the country’s Coptic Christians in August 2013 saw nearly 80 churches and other Church establishments attached in the single-biggest blow to the Middle East’s largest Christian community, standing at about 10 million. Already, 200,000 Christians had left the country since the fall of President Mubarak in February 2011. Many more are sure to leave and those who remain are likely to struggle to play a meaningful role in the development of a country whose future hangs in the balance.
The common link, in many cases, for the problems faced by Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, is militant Islamism, which specifically seeks to eradicate the presence of Christianity wherever the faith is to be found. In broader terms the same applies to many parts of Africa. Here the specific threat to Christians posed by Islamism is brought into sharp relief as a result of its emerging as part of a mix of problems – political, economic and social. The most obvious case of this is Nigeria. In April 2011, the Christian Association of Nigeria reported that 430 churches were attacked in violence associated with the Presidential election that brought Goodluck Jonothan, a Christian from the south, to power. 65,000 people were forced from their homes and 800 people lay dead. The perpetrators of the violence, militant group Boko Haram (which means “Western Education is Forbidden”), declared what they described as “a war on Christians.” A Boko Haram spokesman said: “We will create so much effort to end the Christian presence in our push to have a proper Islamic state that the Christians won’t be able to stay.” In Boko Haram’s home region of north-east Nigeria, the Church was crushed. By the summer of 2013 it was reported that half of the churches in the 37-parish Diocese of Maiduguri had been damaged or destroyed within one year. Research for the year to October 2012 showed that, of the 1,201 Christians killed for their faith worldwide, 791 were from Nigeria.
Then there is Tanzania, where armed Islamists have fired on churches and priests in the island of Zanzibar in a cycle of violence that only made the headlines when suspected Islamists threw acid on 2 British 18-year old girls caught singing during Ramadan.
In the Central African Republic, where Amnesty International’s e-petition sought to prevent the massacre of Muslims, in July 2013 (less than 6 months after seizing power in a coup), fundamentalist militia group Séléka mounted attacks on 14 Christian villages, leaving 15 dead and rendering nearly 1,000 homeless.
In the Asian sub-continent, notably Pakistan and Afghanistan, there has been a long history of militant, fundamentalist Islam, whose spread represents perhaps the most significant threat to religious freedom worldwide. Armed, trained, highly motivated and with a hugely sophisticated communications system, such militant Islamist groups are clearly able to tap into significant financial resources, and searching questions need to be asked about where such funding comes from and how strategies can be developed to reduce it.
Of course not all Islam is anti-Christian. In spite of vigorous efforts to radicalise many communities where Islam is predominant or in ascendance, many – if not most – local people remain resistant to extremism and want to live in peace and prosperity with their neighbours. This is evidenced by the Muslims who in the summer of 2013 stood shoulder to shoulder with Egypt’s Christians and repulsed advancing extremist mobs bent on destroying churches as well as Christians’ homes and businesses.
Indeed, Islamists have not been the only threat to Christians. Whenever religion is seen as part of a homogenous national identity, then all adherents of other faiths are regarded as foreign and seen as threatening the norm. This has been the case in both Sri Lanka and Burma. Despite significant political reforms in Burma throughout 2011 and 2012, the ongoing repression of religio-ethnic groups continues in the northern tribal areas. “When the Burma army come to the villages, they torch the churches but don’t touch the pagodas. They want us to be Burman, to be Buddhist, and to follow their orders,” said Hkanhpa Sadan, Joint Secretary of the Kachin National Organisation. In India, Hindutva radicals (Hindutva is a right-wing form of Hindu nationalism, which – broadly speaking – regards India as a Hindu country which should not tolerate other religions or cultures), has visited violence against Christians including facial mutilation, destruction of churches, Bibles, crucifixes, cars and other transport as well as desecration of graves. In some states the local government has been found to be complicit in the violence.
Militant Islamism is also not the issue of concern in the country where persecution of Christians is at its worst, namely North Korea. Investigations of Human Rights Watch and the United Nations found that people caught praying – especially if it involved foreign organisations – were likely to be executed. In China reports indicated a significant increase in government interference in the religious life of Catholic communities. Priests and religious have been forced to undergo ‘re-education’ programmes.
Pope John Paul II called religious liberty the ‘litmus test’ for the respect of all other human rights. As such there are wider implications for religious tolerance and fundamental human rights for the worldwide community. ACN offers support in terms of food, medicine and other help. But aid is one thing – combating ignorance and misinformation is quite another. Time and again the bishops and other project partners with whom the charity works in more than 130 countries worldwide, call on the charity to do more to raise awareness around the world about the plight of Christians who suffer. It is in this respect that I write this blog article – in the hope to further raise awareness so that you, my reader, may do what you can to spread the word and perhaps help mobilise pressure to change attitudes and help these innocent victims of hatred and intolerance.