Christians face waves of persecution


Arab Spring has partly fuelled rise of discrimination and violence against Jesus's followers

Islamist militants claim responsibility for a Christmas Day bombing of a Christian church in Nigeria that killed 28.

Islamist militants claim responsibility for a Christmas Day bombing of a Christian church in Nigeria that killed 28.

Photograph by: Afolabi Sotunde, Reuters, Vancouver Sun

One of the increasing challenges in Canada is to try to agree on how far Canadians should be expected to go in order to meet the religious and cultural needs of non-Christians, especially Muslims.

It's an issue which has become highly sensitive in other countries as well, particularly in some European states like France where the government recently passed legislation prohibiting the wearing of veils by women under certain circumstances, even going so far as to levy fines on violators.

In Canada, the issue has ranged from whether Muslim women should be permitted to cover their faces during court cases to controversies over allowing public institutions, including schools, to provide space for Muslims to pray. Recently, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney imposed regulations prohibiting immigrants taking the oath of allegiance at citizenship ceremonies from covering their faces. In most respects, resolving such matters has been done through peaceful means, even though solutions might not always resolve differences between Muslims and non-Muslims.

However, how non-Muslims them-selves are being treated far removed from Canada is becoming a growing concern.

According to reports, Christians are being increasingly harassed, intimidated and even subjected to persecution and violence, including murder, in a number of foreign countries.

Paradoxically, one development which has unexpectedly worsened the situation for some Christian communities in the Middle East has been the dramatic Arab Spring revolutions which, while welcomed by many for overthrowing or weakening repressive and corrupt regimes, have also unleashed anti-Christian actions and violence against Christian communities.

In Egypt, following the forced resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak, numerous Muslim leaders and aspiring politicians began openly calling for restrictions to be imposed on Coptic Christians (and Jews), including no further construction of churches or repairing already existing churches. Several churches have been attacked, as well as businesses and homes belonging to Christians. Many Muslim clergy have called for Christians to be given a lower status than Muslims in accordance with the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

A number of candidates for the two political parties that did best during recent elections, representing the religious views of the Muslim Brother-hood and ultra-fundamentalist Salafi movement, have called for alcohol to be banned, women to wear mandatory head coverings and to sit separately from men.

A Muslim Brotherhood leader purportedly asserted that only "drunks, druggies and adulterers" oppose the implementation of Shariah law.

Since the fall of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, somewhere between 600,000 and one million Iraqi Christians have fled due to violence against them.

Christians in Syria, who've benefited from the Assad government's secular nature, are increasingly fearful they might confront the same fate as Iraqi Christians if Bashar Assad is overthrown.

In Ethiopia, despite the fact the number of Christians and Muslims are about equal with 40 per cent each of the population, Muslim gangs have regularly burnt down churches, sometimes allegedly aided by Muslim police.

In November, five Christians in Algeria were jailed for "proselytizing," "unauthorized worship" and "insulting Islam."

On Christmas Day the extremist Islamic group Boko Haram in northern Nigeria planted bombs in the town of Damaturu and outside a church near the capital of Abuja. A shoot-out between Boko Haram and security forces resulted in 28 deaths, with 90,000 local people forced to flee the area.

The same group carried out a suicide attack in August against the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, with 20 or more reportedly killed.

Last Tuesday a Christian couple and their one-year-old baby were shot dead.

Pakistan's small Christian community - only 1.6 per cent of the population - is regularly under attack, some targeted in order to seize their land by intimidation and threats of death.

A recent United States government commission report stated that Pakistani school textbooks foster intolerance of Christians, as well as Hindus and all non-Muslims, while most teachers view religious minorities as "enemies of Islam." According to the report, "Religious minorities are often portrayed as inferior or second-class citizens who have been granted limited rights and privileges by generous Pakistani Muslims, for which they should be grateful."

Pakistan is not alone in how it portrays Christians and other non-Muslims.

Israel, for instance, has been complaining for decades that Palestinian school textbooks describe Jews in highly negative terms as being evil and a threat to all Muslims.

Critics of Saudi Arabia have made the same criticism of textbooks published there.

Interestingly, while Western governments, including Canada's, haven't hesitated to criticize restrictions placed on Christians by China, there's been only muted criticism of Saudi Arabia's total ban on Christian churches and other non-Muslim religions in that pivotal Gulf state. Saudi oil wealth clearly outweighs strong criticism of its human rights record.

Although Christianity's own historical record is nothing to be proud of, including forced conversion of conquered people, the depredations of Crusaders in the Holy Land, plus intolerance of even other Christians, its defenders say the church itself has evolved considerably in modern times in its openness to other faiths.

Many believe that there is no reason to think most Muslim adherents will themselves remain immune to acknowledging the rights of other faiths and living in peace with them.

In this regard, it is noteworthy that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has announced it is determined to protect Coptic Christian churches during their religious celebrations in January and called upon the military authorities to ensure proper protection was afforded to Coptic churches.

Some understandably may regard this action as a relatively encouraging step at a time when many are concerned over what direction Egypt will take when religious groups like the Muslim Brotherhood dominate parliament.

Others, however, may adopt a wait-and-see approach regarding such seemingly positive gestures, especially in view of the known antipathy of other Muslim groups toward Christians, particularly the Salafis whose political party will be the second largest in parliament and who favour strong restrictions against Christians and non-Muslims.

In any event, the situation for Christians in many foreign countries is likely to remain a major issue of concern for many Canadians and those in the international community who support religious freedom for every-one, whether Christian or Muslim.

Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator.

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Islamist militants claim responsibility for a Christmas Day bombing of a Christian church in Nigeria that killed 28.

Islamist militants claim responsibility for a Christmas Day bombing of a Christian church in Nigeria that killed 28.

Photograph by: Afolabi Sotunde, Reuters, Vancouver Sun


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