Where are Christians persecuted? How bad is the persecution? What can be done to stop it? These are among the questions a new book, Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians, seeks to tackle. Nina Shea, coauthor and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the international crisis of Christian persecution.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What can be done for the Christians in Egypt?
NINA SHEA: Religiously motivated violence against the Coptic Christians in Egypt, who number about 8 million, has been intensifying in recent years, and now their situation is particularly acute during this period of political turmoil. This spring even Cairo’s Orthodox cathedral was besieged, and several Copts inside attending a funeral ceremony were murdered by an enflamed mob. The attacks are incited by jihadist groups, Salafist imams, the Muslim Brotherhood, and even, at times, the security forces. Their situation has become ever more perilous since Morsi’s ouster, with assassinations and kidnappings for ransom of individual Copts, the torching of a Coptic neighborhood, and mob attacks on several churches, all documented over the past month. This is partly due to scapegoating, and partly due to the fact that Islamists with a religious-cleansing agenda take advantage of political disorder to provoke a mass exodus, as is occurring in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. should use its substantial diplomatic and economic leverage to ensure the Egyptian military protects the Copts and their churches, homes, and businesses, and that government authorities do not allow such crimes to be carried out with impunity. Furthermore, the U.S. should press Egypt to end its prosecutions of sharia apostasy and blasphemy offenses, so favored by Islamist groups; Egyptian mother Nadia Mohammad Ali, sentenced, along with her five children, to 15 years in prison for reconverting to Christianity, should be immediately pardoned and released. Sharia must not be enshrined in the new constitution. Congress did condition U.S. aid to Egypt this year on respect for religious freedom, but the Obama administration waived this sanction and gave the aid anyhow. The American people and church leaders should let their elected officials know that taxpayer dollars should not go to an Egyptian government that wages or tolerates religious persecution.
SHEA: Syria’s Christians are being targeted for religious cleansing in a shadow war conducted by Islamists alongside the major Syrian conflict. Because they are also caught in the middle of this larger conflict and lack defenses of their own, they are especially vulnerable. The best development would be a negotiated settlement to the conflict that provides for the protection of the religious minorities. The Obama administration has promised arms to the moderate rebel opposition but is finding it difficult to determine who qualifies. It must ensure that no arms or aid, from any source, goes to the Islamist rebel groups, of which there are “scores,” with more popping up each day, according to the State Department. It must ensure that desperately needed humanitarian aid reaches the Christian communities — in Iraq, American aid was withheld from the Christians and other non-Muslims by local authorities. Also, because the Christians fear religious persecution in refugee camps outside Syria, they have largely not registered as refugees with the U.N.; U.S. refugee aid is therefore not reaching them. The U.S. should channel some of its refugee assistance to the church organizations to which they have gone for shelter in Lebanon, Turkey, and elsewhere. In determining whether to accept Syrian refugees, it should take into account the fact that most Christian refugees are not U.N. registered and allow them to apply to come to the U.S. through another process.
LOPEZ: Do Christians need a homeland in the Middle East?
SHEA: Before the 7th century and the Islamic conquest of the Middle East, Christians formed the large majority of the populations there. A hundred years ago, they accounted for about 30 percent of the Middle East. Now they are down to less than 3 percent, with the largest of their communities found in Egypt and Syria, where they account for 10 percent of the national populations. They, along with their ancient churches and monasteries, are spread in villages and neighborhoods throughout these two countries and are not enclaved in any particular spot. Though the Middle East Christians are often members of distinct ethnic groups, such as Copts, Assyrians, and Armenians, they are not tribal. Many no doubt will come to the West to escape persecution. Hundreds of thousands already have. I’ve just heard that the city of Södertälje, Sweden, is home to more than 30,000 Assyrians and will soon be teaching Assyrian in its schools. Large communities of newly arrived Iraqi Chaldeans and Assyrians and Egyptian Copts are found in New Jersey, Michigan, California, Florida, and various other American states. Their exodus from the Middle East will mean, apart from purely religious concerns, that that region will be deprived of an historically important moderating influence and the experience of living among non-Muslims.
LOPEZ: Besides praying for them, what can an American actually do to help the plight of a Christian in Nigeria?
SHEA: The United States should designate as a terrorist group Boko Haram, the Islamist group killing Christians and burning and bombing scores of churches in Nigeria. This designation would lead to security training for Nigeria’s armed forces, blocking aid to the Islamist militants, and other policy changes that would help protect the Christians. Current U.S. analysis, as evidenced in State Department speeches, is that Boko Haram — whose name means “Western education is a sin” — has arisen because of “poverty” and “poor government service delivery,” and that “religion is not driving extremist violence in . . . northern Nigeria.” The policies that flow from that flawed analysis include allowing American funds to Boko Haram sympathizers and their families. This is a dangerous policy. Americans need to press their elected officials to voice concern for religious freedom, the security of Nigeria’s Christians, and the designation of Boko Haram as a terrorist group.
LOPEZ: Is that who we should be most worried about in your global picture of Christian persecution?
SHEA: We are most concerned about the current ascendancy of Islamism within the Muslim world. This phenomenon of politicized Islam entails persecuting and suppressing the religious “other,” including Christians — old churches and new churches, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, evangelical, and every other Christian tradition. It has led to ongoing, brutal religious cleansing campaigns in Somalia, Iraq, and Syria, and brutal purges in Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Egypt. Saudi Arabia bans all Christian worship, and its police hunt down those who dare to pray as Christians in private homes. A decade ago, Sudan’s Islamist government was pressing a forcible Islamization campaign that caused the deaths of some 2 million from the Christian and animist homelands in the central and southern parts of the country; that genocidal violence was ended, but now that same government is forcing Christians out of north Sudan. Such extreme intolerance is spreading, even in some moderate Muslim countries.
LOPEZ: Are Christians the most persecuted religious group? Why?
SHEA: We say that Christians are the most widely persecuted. That is, wherever there is religious persecution, for example in China and Vietnam, and in Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, persecuted groups vary; but there are, everywhere, Christians among them. There are three main reasons for the persecution. In some extremely secular countries, particularly atheistic communist and post-communist regimes such as North Korea, China, and Turkmenistan, Christians are viewed by authorities as a threat because their ultimate allegiance is to God. In some Muslim countries — Saudi Arabia, which bans all churches, is a prominent example– their beliefs or even their mere presence is viewed as a blasphemy, an offense against Allah. In other areas, such as parts of India and Burma, which are majority Hindu and Buddhist, respectively, Christians are seen to disturb authorities’ nationalistic goals.
LOPEZ: Can we ever know the numbers of Christians suffering persecution? It’s not as if persecutors are keeping headcounts and issuing press releases.
SHEA: The numbers are soft, mainly because we lack documentation from the persecuted communities and their churches. Christians killed for their religious identity and beliefs probably numbered a couple of thousand over the past year, with many of those from Nigeria and Syria. But many thousands more are persecuted short of martyrdom, through physical assaults, maiming, rape, imprisonment, torture, kidnappings, banning or thwarting of religious practice, etc. (The discrepancy in numbers often occurs because of definitional differences of who is a martyr. We use the standards of the International Religious Freedom Act, and do not count those who die or are killed for reasons unrelated to religion; for example, the many Christians killed in the tragic but essentially non-religious Congo conflict.) Behind the Iron Curtain, underground human-rights groups, labor unions, intellectuals, and religious leaders kept records of atrocities and smuggled them to the Free World. In Latin America, during the 1980s dictatorships, the Catholic Church played an important role in documenting human-rights abuses. There is a great need for human-rights training and for record keeping of religious persecution in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and elsewhere today. This would be a terrific project for Notre Dame University, a law-school clinic, or some other institution with the capacity to partner with various churches abroad and teach such human-rights documentation workshops to talented and committed lay people.
LOPEZ: Are we the persecutors, when, let’s say, we’re keeping Muslim prisoners indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay and force-feeding those on hunger strikes?
SHEA: No, Guantanamo Bay prisoners were captured on the battlefield, and they are not being held because they are Muslim. In fact, the U.S. provides Qurans and respects prayers and Ramadan fast restrictions for such prisoners.
LOPEZ: How many former Soviet states are doing better on the religious-freedom front?
SHEA: Of the 15 republics that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have religious freedom. The rest have varying degrees of religious repression, with the Central Asian countries of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan ranking among the world’s worst persecutors. Russia itself, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan are assessed as severe religious-freedom violators. Belarus is recognized to violate religious freedom but not as severely as those others, according to USCIRF assessments. Typically in these countries today, the Orthodox Church is favored, while other churches and religions are severely restricted or repressed.
LOPEZ: Was Belarus better off under the Soviet Union?
SHEA: No. Soviet bloodshed against religious believers and the destruction of their churches was egregious and systematic. Belarus is considered to be the most religiously repressive country on the European continent today, but it achieves this through a web of regulations and restrictive laws regarding which churches can be built, what literature can be read, and who can preach. It is restrictive, but it is not designated among the world’s worst persecutors, as a “Country of Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act, by either the State Department or the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
LOPEZ: What do you hope people learn from your book?
SHEA: Today, religious persecution is acute and among the world’s most massive human-rights crises. And it is often ignored, by the secular media, political leaders, even religious leaders. Christians who suffer for their religious faith should not do so in obscurity in today’s global world but should be known, especially within Western churches, which still tend to speak of religious persecution as something that only happened in past centuries. Pakistan’s Shahbaz Bhatti, who was gunned down in 2011 for his life’s work of defending persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in his home country; Pastor Saeed Abedini, currently imprisoned in Iran for supporting Christian communities there; Asia Bibi, a mother on Pakistan’s death row for “blasphemy”; Bishop Ma, in detention for the last year in China for denouncing government control over the churches — they should be household names in the West. Their heroic examples are inspirational. Their stories should remind all our citizens how critically important religious freedom is, how central it is to our other freedoms, and how it needs to be defended.
My coauthors, Paul Marshall and Lela Gilbert, and I also hope that our readers will use their rights as citizens to press their own governments to champion religious freedom in foreign policy. Lives could be saved, prisoners could be freed, if only our leaders felt pressure to speak up. It’s shameful that in 2010, while the U.S. had over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and we supported President Karzai’s government in every possible way, the last remaining church in Kabul saw its 99-year lease cancelled and was shut down. Now our diplomats and contractors, in order to worship in community as Christians there, must do so secretly, like in Saudi Arabia, the only other country without a single church. The U.S. State Department knew about this church closure and reported on it, but failed to speak up. This betrays our fundamental ideals as a nation. It says we care about trade and security, but not about the most fundamental rights we claim to cherish. By contrast, a decade ago, the Christians and African traditional believers of southern Sudan were facing genocidal religious persecution. As a direct result of deft and persistent diplomacy, led by the United States, that violence was stopped. The State Department now reports that in South Sudan, religious freedom is upheld in law and practice. This great diplomatic achievement came about through grassroots pressure, mainly from American churches.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor at large of National Review Online.