Dr. Andy Bannister, RZIM Canada
Introduction: Dying to Make a Difference
Dr. John Joseph was the Catholic Bishop of Faisalabad in Pakistan and a prominent human rights activist. On 6 May 1998, he travelled from his home to the city of Sahiwal to address a prayer meeting being held for victims of blasphemy cases. In Pakistan, the notorious 295-C law makes insulting Muhammad or the Qur’an a crime punishable by death. The law is often used to falsely accuse religious minorities, especially Christians, and Dr. Joseph was concerned about one Christian in particular, Ayub Masih. Arrested in 1996 for allegedly violating the blasphemy laws, Ayub Masih had been held in solitary confinement in a tiny cell, denied medical care, and frequently abused. In April 1998, he had been formally found guilty and had been sentenced to death. After addressing the prayer meeting, Dr. Joseph made his way to the courthouse to the spot where, during the trial, somebody had shot at Ayub Masih and tried to assassinate him. At about 9:30pm, Dr. Joseph took a pistol and took his own life. In a letter to a local newspaper, published after his death, he had written: “dedicated persons do not count the cost of the sacrifices they have to make”.
Bishop John Joseph wanted to draw attention to the dire situation facing Pakistan’s two million Christians. Everything else had been tried, but the international community seemed deaf to their plight. Frustrated, he concluded that only something so dramatic as his taking his own life would effect any change.
Sadly, it seems that his hope was misplaced. Although the international community is now more aware than ever of religious persecution, the situation is still bleak. It is presently estimated that some 200 million Christians in 60 countries live under daily threat of persecution. Between 2008 and 2009, 176,000 were killed. Some estimate that if nothing is done, then by 2025, an average of 210,000 Christians will be being killed each year.
Just last week, the Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need, launched its annual report on religious freedom worldwide. It concluded that 75% of all religious persecution in the world is currently directed at Christian minorities. Archbishop Warda of Erbil in Iraq spoke about the difficulties in his country and commented:
Persecution is such a regular occurrence that it comes as no surprise that more than half the Christians in Iraq have fled. A community once numbering over a million is now down to about 150,000. Canon Andrew White who runs St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad and is internationally known for his work on human rights and peace making, put it bluntly in an interview with CBS. Noting that the congregation at St. George’s were mainly women and children the interviewer asked, “where are the men?” White replied: “They are mainly killed. Some are kidnapped. Some are killed. Here in this church, all of my original leadership were taken and killed.
Religious Persecution: A Global Tragedy
Religious persecution doesn’t just effect Christians. In the last two millennia, some 200 million people have been killed because of their religious affiliation; those rates are not improving. Today, religious persecution occurs around the world in a wide variety of countries and contexts. One group who have also suffered tremendously are the Ahmadiyah Muslim sect. Considered heretical by mainstream Islam, the Ahmadiyah are banned and persecuted in many Muslim countries. For example, in Indonesia, the government passed a decree in 2008 requiring Ahmadiyah Muslims to “stop spreading interpretations and activities that deviate from the principal teachings of Islam”. Those kind of signals from the government simply encourage extremist groups. Thus it was on 1 February 2011 that a mob of 1,500 men attacked twenty Ahmadiyah members in a village in Western Java. They broke into the house where the group was meeting, ordered the men to strip naked, then videoed them being beaten with sticks, hoes and machetes, before torching the building. Three died and six were wounded.
We could easily fill an entire library with such tragic stories. As Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom or Belief wrote:
[Discrimination] based on religion or belief preventing individuals from fully enjoying all their human rights still occurs worldwide on a daily basis.
Where is Persecution Happening?
All of this is deeply troubling. As with most human rights abuses, it’s hard to discuss these things dispassionately: lives are broken, damaged and destroyed on a daily basis. But why is this happening? How can it be, in the twenty-first century, that hundreds of millions of people are living in fear and are not free to worship or express their religious beliefs in safety? Can we identify any patterns to religious persecution across the globe, any causes or trends that might help us formulate a response?
The answer to that question is yes. But let’s begin by taking a step back and asking where precisely it is that religious persecution is happening. Whilst persecution is a global phenomena, there are patterns that we can track.
Brian Grim and Roger Finke, two sociologists who have produced some of the most recent analyses of religious persecution, have used a number of studies to answer this very question: where is persecution happening. Their figures look like this:
|Muslim Majority||Other Majority (Atheist, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish)||No Religion with More than 50%||Christian Majority||World Average|
|>200 abused or displaced||62%||85%||33%||28%||43%|
If we look at even higher rates of persecution, the differences are also striking:
Persecution of more than one thousand persons is present in 45 percent of Muslim-majority countries and 60 percent of the “Other Majority” religion countries, compared to 11 percent of Christian-majority countries and 8 percent of countries where no single religion holds a majority.
These figures are consistently backed up by other studies. For example, Open Doors, a well-respected Christian agency that lobbies on behalf of persecuted Christians, publishes an annual “World Watch List”. Their 2011 report listed 51 countries of concern: 65% were Muslim-majority countries. Of the top ten human rights offenders, seven were Muslim-majority and two were communist atheistic states.
What could be the cause of these kind of figures? As Grim and Finke dig deeper and compare statistics from a wide range of countries, they quickly draw a conclusion. The common denominator, the common link — whether the country in which the persecution is occurring is Muslim or atheist, Hindu, Buddhist, or no-majority-religion — is religious regulation. There is a direct correlation between attempts by a state to control, regulate or restrict religious activity and religious persecution. Restriction on or regulation of religion is a surprisingly common phenomena. According to the Pew Forum:
[N]early 70 percent of the world’s 6.8 billion people live in countries with high restrictions on religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities.
There are two ways that a state can attempt to control religious activity or restrict religious freedom within its borders. First, a government can use the full force of the state, for example by passing laws, arresting or harassing worshippers or religious leaders. So, for example, in China, the communist government has just marked the start of the Christian season of Lent by bulldozing churches and rounding up Christians, something it does every year, to remind them of the consequences of daring to be a religious believer in the officially atheistic People’s Republic.
As well as using all the apparatus of the state, a government can also encourage or allow social pressure build up to make it hard for the members of a minority religious community to practice their faith. For example, in 2006 an Afghan man, Abdul Rahman, was arrested for apostasy. The Afghan government, cognisant of the negative publicity the story was gaining as it spread around the world, were minded to release him. Senior Islamic clerics got wind of this and warned that they would incite people to kill him unless he reverted to Islam. When Abdul Rahman was released, thee days later, hundreds of clerics and students marched in the streets crying “Death to Christians!”
Social pressures and state pressures on religious freedom often work together, mutually reinforcing one another. A tragic example of this occurred in Pakistan this year. On 4 January, the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was getting into his car at a market when one of his own bodyguards opened fire and shot him 26 times. Why? The bodyguard was angry that Mr. Taseer was opposed to Pakistan’s blasphemy law and had appealed for the pardon of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who had been sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Muhammad. A few months later, another politician, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minority Affairs Minister and the only Christian in Pakistan’s cabinet, was gunned down, again because of his well-publicised opposition to the blasphemy laws.
Those tragic stories illustrate the way that social pressures and government pressures on religious minorities work together and cause persecution. If the Pakistan government had the courage to remove the 295-C blasphemy law, this would remove much of the fuel from the fire that popular Islamist movements are trying to light.
How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sharia?
This connection between social restrictions, government restrictions and violent religious persecution also help to illuminate a phenomena we saw earlier: the extremely high rate of religious persecution in Muslim-majority countries. As Brian Grim and Roger Finke put it:
Religious persecution is not only more prevalent among Muslim-majority countries, but it also generally occurs at more severe levels.
The problem is simply this. Built into Islam is a ready-made system of religious law, Sharia. Because a whole codified body of religious law is readily available, governments in Muslim-majority countries face an ever present temptation to draw upon or incorporate aspects of Sharia into their legal systems. Unlike many Western bodies of law, Sharia is far more wide-ranging and includes regulations that encompass morality and religion and many of its stipulations have implications for religious minorities.
Many Muslim countries have incorporated Sharia law, or aspects of it into their legal system and constitutions. Those that haven’t face a growing popular pressure to do so. A 2006 Gallup survey of ten Muslim-majority countries found that 79% wanted Sharia in some form. Indeed, 66% of Egyptians and 60% of Pakistanis said they wanted Sharia as the only source of legislation. Even an astonishing 40% of British Muslims said they wanted Sharia.
The implementation of Sharia law is directly connected to the problems of religious freedom and religious persecution in Muslim-majority countries, the states where persecution rates are among the highest in the world. But here we enter a very difficult area of discussion. When it comes to talking about Islam and these kind of issues, there are two traps one can fall into. One is to be overly critical, lumping all Muslims together as a group, not appreciating the wide diversity and ranges of opinion within the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. But if being overly critical is one error, the other is to be overly timid and to not ask any difficult questions or to raise any controversial issues.
How can we best navigate between these two pitfalls? I have been researching, teaching and writing on Islam for fifteen years now and do so unapologetically as a Christian. For me, I’ve found an observation made by Anglican vicar and human rights activist, Mark Durie, very helpful. Mark speaks of the need to hold two things together — love and respect for the other but also truth. He writes:
Love for the other and truth are two attributes to be held together, the one complementing the other. Truth without love can be harsh and even cruel, but love without truth can be equally as dangerous as, lacking discernment, it steers the soul into shipwreck after shipwreck.
We also need to be willing to recognise something that’s often neglected in these discussions. The importance of different worldviews. Just as different political ideologies can produce vastly different societies, even next door to one another — compare communist North with capitalist South Korea — so different religious worldviews exert very different influences. The Qur’an does not produce the same kinds of societies as the Judeo-Christian worldview whilst Buddhist, Hinduism or Marxist-Atheism produce different results again.
But when it comes to religious persecution, it is vital to stress that the problem is not Muslims. The problem is Sharia. To misquote Rogers and Hammerstein: how do you solve a problem like Sharia?
In Part 2, we’ll consider why Sharia is such a problem and how one ought to respond to it.
See David G. Littman and René Wadlow, ‘Blasphemy legislation in Pakistan’s Penal Code’, United Nations Economic and Social Council, 14 July 1998, UNHCHR website.
- BBC News 7 May 1998, ‘Despatches: Karachi’: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/88890.stm.
- Ayub Masih was finally released, five years after his arrest: See ‘Religious Prisoner Profile: Ayub Masih (Pakistan)’, Religious Prisoners Congressional Task Force, http://www.house.gov/pitts/initiatives/humanrights/prisoners/masih.htm.
- For example, in 1998 the United States passed the International Religious Freedom Act, mandating the US State Department to publish an annual report tracking religious freedom in some two hundred countries around the world. Much of the data is available online at http://www.thearda.com/.
- Figures from the World Evangelical Alliance. See http://www.m-b-t.org/2010/03/25/how-many-christians-are-killed-for-their-faith-every-year/. See also ‘200 million Christians in 60 countries subject to persecution’, Catholic News Agency (19 June 2007) http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/200_million_christians_in_60_countries_ subject_to_persecution/
- Terry Murphy, ‘New report reveals 75 percent of religious persecution is against Christians, Aid to the Church In Need 16 March 2001, http://www.acnuk.org/news.php/205/ukinternational-new-report-reveals-75-percent-of-religious-persecution-is-against-christians (accessed 19 March 2011).
- ‘Time is Running Out for Iraq’s Christians, Says Archbishop’, Assyrian International News Agency, 19 March 2011, http://www.aina.org/news/20110318234137.htm (accessed 20 March 2011).
- ‘Vicar: Dire Times for Iraq’s Christians’, CBS 60 Minutes (2 Dec 2007) http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/11/29/60minutes/main3553612.shtml.
- See Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) 19, figure 1.2.
- Elaine Pearson, ‘Indonesia: For Ahmadiyah, the Official Line Kills’. The Jakarta Globe (Indonesia), 24 Feb 2011. Online at http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/02/24/indonesia-ahmadiyah-official-line-kills.
- Asma Jahangir, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief”, Human Rights Council, Tenth Session, Item 3.
- Grim and Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied, 21.
- Ibid., 22.
- ‘Open Doors 2011 World Watch List Top 10 Focus’, http://www.opendoorsca.org/images/homepage/wwwltopten.pdf (accessed 19 March 2011).
The Muslim-majority states listed were Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, the Maldives, Yemen and Iraq. The two communist, atheist states were North Korea and Laos. (The tenth country they listed was Uzbekistan).
- ‘Global Restrictions on Religion’, 17 Dec 2010, http://pewforum.org/Government/Global-Restrictions-on-Religion. aspx (accessed 20 March 2011).
- Brett M. Decker, ‘Beijing’s Fear of Faith’, The Washington Times, 14 March 2011, http://www.washingtontimes.com/ news/2011/mar/14/decker-beijings-fear-faith/ (accessed 19 March 2011).
- ‘Punjab Governor Salman Taseer assassinated in Islamabad’, BBC News Online, 4 January 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12111831 (accessed 19 March 2011). See also Mohammed Hanif, ‘How Pakistan responded to Salmaan Taseer’s assassination’, The Guardian, 6 January 2011, http://www. guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/06/pakistan-salman-taseer-assassination (accessed 19 March 2011).
- Grim and Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied, 169. See also Paul Marshall, ‘The Range of Religious Freedom in 2008: Results of a Global Survey’, International Journal for Religious Freedom 2.1 (2009) 31.
- An excellent introduction to and survey of Sharia law is Joseph Schacht, Introduction to Islamic Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964).
- A 2007 University of Maryland poll found similar figures. See Toni Johnson and Lauren Vriens, ‘Islam: Governing Under Sharia’, Council on Foreign Relations, 10 Nov 2010, http://www.cfr.org/religion/islam-governing-under-sharia/p8034 (accessed 19 March 2011).
- Dalia Mogahed, ‘Islam and Democracy’, Gallup World Poll, http://media.gallup.com/MuslimWestFacts/PDF/ GALLUPMUSLIMSTUDIESIslamandDemocracy030607rev.pdf (accessed 19 March 2011). The study found the rates for Jordan were 54% and for Bangladesh, 52%.
- Patrick Hennessy and Melissa Kite, ‘Poll Reveals 40pc of Muslims want Sharia Law in UK, The Telegraph, 19 Feb 2006, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1510866/Poll-reveals-40pc-of-Muslims-want-sharia-law-in-UK.html (accessed 19 March 2011).
- See ‘The Future of the Global Muslim Population: Projections for 2010-2030’, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 27 Jan 2011, http://pewforum.org/The-Future-of-the-Global-Muslim-Population.aspx for current and future Muslim demographics.
- Mark Durie, The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom (Australia: Deror Booksdero, 2010) 231.
- Ibid., 16.