by Ian Harris Otago Daily Times June 12, 2015
Religious persecution is prevalent in two-thirds of the world’s countries. In most, Christians are the main targets.
Religion doesn’t do power well. When allied with the coercive power of the state, too often it becomes repressive. That was true of Christianity in Europe till secularisation clipped its wings, and it is true today of Hindu-fuelled nationalism in parts of India, Buddhist-fuelled nationalism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and doubly true of a militant version of Islam in much of the Muslim world.
The result is persecution of minority faiths on a scale most New Zealanders would find hard to credit. It is happening in two-thirds of the world’s countries. Christians are everywhere the main targets. And Islamic extremists are by far the worst offenders. Indeed, it is just 100 years ago that the rulers of Ottoman Turkey launched the first mass purge of a religious and ethnic minority of the 20th century. The purge became a massacre, the massacre a genocide – the term was coined to describe this atrocity.
Their unsuspecting prey was the three million Armenian Christians living in the east of the country. Over the next seven years around 1.5 million were executed or died of starvation, drowning, disease, and exhaustion in forced marches across the desert. Scores of thousands fled to sanctuary abroad. Most historians accept that this was a state-sanctioned campaign to exterminate a whole race, though Turkey remains in denial to this day. It also had a religious motivation, targeting Greek and Assyrian Christians as well.
Today the plague of persecution is again virulent. In too many countries, and in varying degrees, minorities live under constant threat of harassment or oppression solely because of their faith. Where the minority is ethnic as well as religious, as with the Karen Christians and Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, it is doubly disadvantaged.
In the Middle East, anyone who stands apart from the dominant political, racial or religious power can come under pressure – Baha’i, Jews, Yezidis, Christians, Muslims outside the regional mainstream. Pressures range all the way from petty curbs on meeting or building to the torching of churches and homes, forced conversions, confiscation of property, torture, rape, imprisonment and murder.
In the vanguard of current campaigns of religious cleansing are Muslim extremists who repudiate the tolerance of the golden age of Islam 1100 years ago. In recent months Boko Haram has kidnapped and forced the conversion and marriage of Christian girls in Nigeria. In Kenya, al-Shabab cold-bloodedly murdered 148 mainly Christian university students. In Libya, militias affiliated with Islamic State beheaded or shot 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt and 30 Ethiopian Christians.
For people claiming to draw their inspiration from “Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate”, these fanatics are a sickening distortion of what at its best is a noble faith, and do it immense disservice. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia acknowledged this by denouncing IS as “enemy number one of Islam”.
For most of the past 1800 years there has been a benign, generally tolerated Christian presence in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. During the past century the number of Christians has plummeted. Their proportion in Turkey’s population has dropped from around 32 per cent to 0.15, Syria’s from 40 to 10, Iran’s from 15 to 2, Iraq’s from 35 to 5. Many have fled to pursue their faith in freedom elsewhere.
Meanwhile Muslims in the secular West are quick to take advantage of every freedom those societies offer, and rightly so. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief; and freedom, either alone or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Some Muslim states reject this as a western concept of freedom, so in 1990 a conference in Cairo drew up an alternative, making all human rights subject to Islamic law. Freedom to change one’s religion disappeared. Saudi Arabia allows no churches and bans the Bible outright. The last church in Afghanistan was demolished in 2010.
Egypt and Pakistan had a hand in drafting the Human Rights Declaration, and wrote religious freedom into their constitutions. Today they often negate it in practice. Pakistan has a draconian blasphemy law which is used – and abused – to oppress. A Christian woman who touched the Qur’an “with unclean hands” was jailed for 25 years.
Words of Jesus, for Muslims one of Muhammad’s great precursors, come to mind: “By their fruits you shall know them.” What do the fruits tell us about the state of Islam today?