Religious Freedom Coalition, By Andrew E. Harrod, PhD, Jan. 24, 2015
The “cancer of Christian persecution is metastasizing” in an “epidemic” that is “spreading at an unprecedented rate in modern times,” stated Open Doors USA president David Curry at a January 7 briefing in Washington, DC’s National Press Club. Curry’s presentation before an audience of about 30 of Open Doors’ 2015 World Watch List (WWL) depressingly reviewed ongoing Christian martyrdom, often at the hands of Marxists and Muslims.
The WWL, an Open Doors press release noted, is a unique annual survey of the persecuted church worldwide, praised by Curry as the most dependable study of its kind. Open Doors research is “meticulous,” concurred at the briefing religious freedom scholarNina Shea from the Hudson Institute. The WWL “ranks the top 50 countries where it is most dangerous and difficult to be a Christian,” the press release explained. An accompanying map displayed at the briefing and available online with the report showed these countries coded by color according to persecution severity.
“Approximately 100 million Christians are persecuted worldwide, making them one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world,” the press release observed. “This year, the threshold was higher for a country to make the list, indicating that worldwide levels of persecution have increased.” Curry noted that the number of Christians dying for their faith has more than doubled since last year’s WWL. “While the year 2014 will go down in history for having the highest level of global persecution of Christians in the modern era,” the press release elaborated, “current conditions suggest the worst is yet to come.”
Church destroyed in Aleppo, Syria by Sunni rebels associated with the Free Syrian Army
North Korea, with an estimated 70,000 Christians imprisoned according to the press release, headed the list for the 13th consecutive year and appeared blood red (“Extreme Persecution”) on the map. No other regime is so “militantly atheistic” as North Korea’s “Stalinist brand,” Shea observed, where the regime suppresses any competition to what Curry described as a “cult worship.” North Korea exemplifies in Shea’s words how “remnant Communist” countries like China (list place 29, colored green for “Moderate Persecution”) are one significant source of Christian persecution. Another threat came from “nationalist regimes,” Shea noted, such as the “Hindu fundamentalism” cited by the press release in India.
Shea’s third “Islamist” category,” however, was the largest threat in the WWL. “Islamic extremism is the main source of persecution in 40 of the 50 countries,” the press release noted, including India, where both Islam and Hinduism endangered Christianity from various quarters. “This relatively small but virulent strain of ideology,” Curry assessed, “has made the Middle East the most perilous region of the world for Christians.” “More than 70 percent of Christians have fled Iraq since 2003,” the press release calculated, “and more than 700,000 Christians have left Syria since the civil war began in 2011.” Bright red accordingly marked majority-Muslim countries in the Middle East and beyond on the WWL map, including Afghanistan and Iraq, two lands where the United States attempted with much blood and treasure to create stable, free societies.
For Shea, “intensifying persecution” of Christians in Muslim countries makes the word “so inadequate” that Shea prefers “religious cleansing” to describe a campaign of “total Islamization” eliminating non-Muslims. Under the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a “completion of religious cleansing” of Christians as well as Yazidis has occurred in western Iraq, Shea stated. Absent effective remedies, a “2,000 year-old church will be completely gone,” part of an “attack on the entire Christian presence in the region.”
Iraqi Christians have fled to Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, where Kurds have “put out a welcome mat” and demonstrated that not all Muslims are hostile. Unlike half a million Muslims who have fled ISIS there as well, though, the Christians lack regional allies and often avoid United Nations camps where international aid deliveries and refugee registration occur. Accordingly, Iraqi Christians are suffering a “humanitarian crisis so dire” that it is an “existential threat,” Shea warned.
Referencing Sudan and Iran’s Islamic republics, Shea worried about “extremist influences being mainstreamed” in society and government beyond jihadist groups like ISIS. The Iraqi government in the past, for example, marginalized Christians, who were therefore “dealt out of the deck” in the distribution of American aid. Governments in Muslim countries likewise often turn a “blind eye and deaf ear” to persecution of Christians by private actors.
In particular, Saudi Arabia, a “towering figure within Islam” with oil resources, regional Gulf predominance, and control over Islam’s holy sites, has been “very counterproductive” by “spreading an ideology of hatred.” Thus Saudi textbooks demonize non-Muslims and advocate “violent jihad” in Islam’s name. As a result, “Saudi Arabia did create its own monster” in ISIS, a group Saudi Arabia has now attacked with air strikes, Shea observed.
Shea identified five “red flags” that characterize the “crime against humanity” of “religious cleansing,” elements taken together that are “greater than the sum of their parts.” “Forcible conversion,” for example, presented Christians with Islamic law’s traditional trinity of choosing between death, conversion to Islam, or acceptance of “medieval dictates” in a “second-class citizenship.” Nigeria’s Boko Haram “ruthlessly…applied” these alternatives during door to door searches of villages. Laws also punished blasphemy and apostasy in Muslim countries such as Pakistan, whose “strictest black letter law” in this matter gave a “license to kill” to Muslim vigilantes. Targeted assassination of Christian leaders, abductions, and targeted attacks on churches completed Shea’s list.
Like Curry, though, Shea assured that “prominent Muslim voices” and the “majority of Muslims” oppose religious persecution. Shea asserted that Middle Eastern Christians “have long coexisted with the Muslim majority” in the region. By contrast, Shea described as “extremists” the perpetrators of the Paris Charlie Hebdo jihad attacks on the very day of her remarks.
Yet the widespread, often state-based Muslim persecution of Christians noted by Shea and the WWL seemed to belie Shea’s confidence and suggest problems larger than a radical minority. Various Middle Eastern Christians, meanwhile, have consistently contradicted Shea in discussions with this reporter (see here, here, and here). In their experience, faith-based Islamic repression of Christians has marked the region since its eighth century Arab-Muslim conquest.
Queried about Muslim religious tolerance advocates, Shea cited interfaith activist Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal from Jordan and Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The latter, Shea noted, has “not encouraged any kind of eradication of Christianity” in his country and has “condemned the attacks on the churches.” Shea, however, professed ignorance when this reporter mentioned past criticism of Sistani as a “false moderate.” Sistani, for example, has supported sharia in Iraq, has advocated executing homosexuals, and has expressed anti-Semitic, anti-Christian sentiments against these non-Muslims and their “impurity.”
Similarly asked about moderate Muslims, Curry responded that “I don’t have any names off the top of my head.” “We have not yet seen a major movement of moderate Muslims to condemn the teachings and ideologies” of groups like ISIS, Curry stated, his professions of a “relatively small” Islamic extremism notwithstanding. Moderate Muslims “themselves will become a target” of jihadists by advocating for Christians and other persecution victims.
Shea bemoaned Christian persecution as an “ignored human rights crisis” in America among policymakers while “even our religious leaders are far too quiet” on the matter. “The world still does not get it,” Curry concurred, and called the WWL a “wakeup call” for Christians to notice a “genocide going on.” No country on the WWL has improved in recent years, Curry stated in an interview, “it’s only gotten worse.”
Shea criticized that secularized American leaders struggle to comprehend a “strong religious belief” in an “extremist version of Islam.” Voice of America reporter Jerome Socolovsky, previously criticized for obligingly benign views on Islam, similarly seemed to exhibit at the event such incomprehension. Socolovsky asked Shea whether American domestic respect for Islam, shown by opposition to mosque vandalism or interfaith events like the National Cathedral’s Muslim prayer service, could influence Muslims worldwide. Shea countered that “there is no comparison” between Muslims protected by American law and often brutal Christian persecution abroad. “Gestures” like those at the National Cathedral would also not “make a difference whatsoever” among ISIS jihadists and others.
The Nigerian Damaris Atsen gave personal witness at the briefing to the trials and tribulations of modern persecuted Christian faith. Boko Haram terrorists in March 2010 seized her husband riding home from work and stomped him to death by the road, leaving Atsen widowed with four children, “gifts from the Lord.” Romans 8:35 (“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”) “always encourages me” that the “spirit of the Lord is there” during her times of mourning, she said. “I have to forgive,” she added while discussing her husband’s murderers. “If I do not forgive, the Lord will not forgive me.” “Pray for Nigeria,” she concluded.