Although seemingly ubiquitous at home, Christianity faces horrific repression in much of the world. Somalian refugee, former Dutch Parliament member, and self-described atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote “The War on Christians,” The article ran as the cover story of a February issue of Newsweek, breaking the media’s general silence on the issue. In it, she argues that “the severity of Islamophobia pales in comparison with the bloody Christophobia currently coursing through Muslim-majority nations from one end of the globe to the other.” While the media reports on isolated incidents of Christian persecution like the Christmas-day church bombings in Nigeria, Hirsi contends, they often ignore the larger worldwide trend.
In 2009, the nonpartisan Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported 7 out of 10 people live where they could face government restrictions or societal hostilities based on religious beliefs. Christians faced persecution in more countries (130 out of 198) than any other religious group. For tens of millions, this means torture, rape, murder, imprisonment, and execution. (See Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide.)
In Silenced, authors Marshall and Shea write that blasphemy is a crime in most Muslim nations, punishable by persecution or death. In Pakistan’s legal code, Section 295-C calls for death of those who “defil[e] the name of Muhammad.”
Of course, not all Muslims adhere to coercion as a fundamental of their faith. The former prime minister of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, argues such blasphemy codes actually defile Islam. In the forward to Silenced, he writes, “Those who would punish others in God's name are guilty, of the Muslim equivalent of mortal sin—taking on the role of God.”
In spite of this, even Wahid’s “liberal” country of Indonesia has seen a nearly 40% rise in violence against religious minorities in 2011. Although the constitution guarantees religious freedom, Persecution.com reports, “In the last two years, at least 59 churches have been attacked, burned or vandalized.”
These brutal strikes against Christians are not purely Islamic phenomena. The FARC rebel group in Colombia often murders those considered a threat to their agenda, including pastors and evangelists. In 2007 and 2008, Hindus in the eastern Indian state of Orissa attacked Christians—killing 3,000, destroying 4,000 homes, displacing 50,000, and forcing thousands more to convert to Hinduism or be attacked at water sources.
Using what influence we have left, American media and political leaders must continue to advocate for human rights. That means condemning not just Islamophobia, but also Christophobia.
President Obama is not unconscious of this responsibility. In response to a Twitter campaign and extensive lobbying, the White House on February 23 released a statement which “condemns in the strongest possible terms” Iran’s reaffirmation of the death sentence for pastor Youcef Nadarkhani.
But what is desperately needed is a broader denunciation of religious persecution as a catastrophe for human rights. Last October, Georgetown University professor Thomas Farr called global persecution “a parade of horrors” and suggested how the federal government can improve its response: by mandating training on protecting religious freedom for Foreign Service officers, and “making explicit connections between freedom and counterterrorism…[since] religiously tolerant societies make poor breeding ground for terrorists” (emphasis mine). This kind of rhetoric is essential, he says, since “humanitarian appeals for the oppressed have failed.”
The very mention of “tolerant societies” bespeaks political correctness. Yet, when applied to a taboo topic, these words could be revolutionary. Let’s spread this message through powerful grassroots, and share it with our elected officials and the media. A White House statement in defense of one Iranian pastor is one thing, but what about the 70% of the world’s population facing government restrictions and social hostilities simply based on what they believe? They cannot be ignored any longer. What will our next Twitter campaign be? #toleranceoverterrorism or #stopChristophobia?
© Abigail R. Eustace, 2012