Forgetting the Persecuted

Report Highlights Problems in Middle East

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, MARCH 27, 2011 (Zenit.org).- A report recently published by Aid to the Church in Need gives a round-up of how Christians are being persecuted in many countries. In particular it looked at the very difficult conditions in the Middle Eastern countries.

In his foreword to the report, "Persecuted and Forgotten? A Report on Christians Oppressed for their Faith: 2011 Edition," the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, commented that "Calvary is not a name that belongs only to archaeology and antiquity."

"It is a contemporaneous reality that describes, to differing degrees, the suffering of many churches in the Middle East where to be Christian means accepting that you must make a great sacrifice," he added.

In his introduction the report's author John Pontifex contrasted what he termed the cold-blooded brutality often experienced by Christians with the indifference of the West.

"This failure to acknowledge the crimes against Christianity could not be more tragic, coming at a time when in key countries the violence and intimidation of the faithful have manifestly worsened," he commented.

There is a rising tide of violence in many Muslim countries, Pontifex noted. In part he attributed this to Christians being a form of surrogate victims of radical Islamists who take out their hostility to the West in this form.

It is also the express wish of some extremists to completely wipe out Christianity from their nations, Pontifex stated.

Shootings

The report then goes on to a survey of over 30 countries. Egypt is the country with the largest Christian population in the Middle East, at around 10 million. The high number has not prevented a surge in violent acts against them in the last couple of years.

There have been high profile incidents such as the shootings in January 2010 at an Orthodox Coptic Christmas Midnight Mass, and the car bomb exploded outside the Church of Saints, a Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria in January this year.

As well, the report observed that conversion to Christianity is still prohibited by law, in spite of the fact that the Constitution guarantees freedom of belief and religion.

In spite of the legal difficulties due to the fact that converts are unable to get their identity cards changed to reflect their new status Aid to the Church in Need said that the number of conversions is increasing.

Another problem for Christians in Egypt is that permission for the construction of new churches, or renovations to existing ones, is often denied. Official permission for new churches can take up to 30 years to obtain and needs the personal approval of the President.

Passing on to Algeria, the report noted that in recent times there has been an upsurge in court cases and acts of intimidation against Christian converts, based on accusations of proselytism which is supposedly in contravention of the Constitution.

Even though Islam is the official state religion, Aid to the Church in Need pointed out that the Constitution also defends the right to freedom of thought and religious practice, within certain limitations.

One of the problems in Algeria is that 95% percent of Christians in Algeria are foreigners. As a result they are seen as outsiders and are often viewed with suspicion.

In Iran, while Christianity is recognized by the state, its legal status is precarious, the report said. Members of religious minorities are, in effect, second-class citizens. Moreover, they are not allowed to spread their beliefs or manifest them outside places of worship.

The legal standing of the Catholic Church was an issue that Pope Benedict XVI took up in a letter to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in November last year. The Pope called for talks on the status of the Church in Iran.

Conversions

Apostasy, or renouncing Islam, is prohibited by law and when reports of conversions become public there are arrests of Christians or churches are attacked.

According to recent reports the number of native Assyrian Christians has dwindled from around 100,000 in the mid-1970s to just 15,000 today.

Iraq is another country where the number of Christians has greatly diminished. According to Aid to the Church in Need the country's bishops estimate that numbers have declined from almost 900,000 to perhaps fewer than 200,000.

The exodus was further spurred after the October 31st siege of Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation Syrian Catholic Cathedral last year and the massacre of at least 52 people.

Between 2003 and 2010 more than 2,000 Christians are thought to have been killed by violence, many targeted primarily because of their faith, according to the report.

The Christian population of the territories in the Holy Land has also plummeted. The report explained that when the pope visited in May 2009 Archbishop Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, published statistics showing that Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem have declined from 53% in 1922 to less than 2% today.

If trends continued, he added, today's figure of 10,000 could halve within a decade. Similarly, he noted that Christians in Bethlehem declined from 85% of the population in 1948 to 12% in 2009.

Moreover, the report said that the Israeli government has made it harder for foreign priests, religious, and seminarians to get visas. And visas are now valid only for one year instead of two.

Christians also face difficulties in areas under the Palestinian National Authority, both in the West Bank but more especially in the Gaza Strip, according to the report. Since Hamas took over Gaza in June 2007, Christians have been pressured to conform to Muslim practices such as women covering their head in public.

Christian homes, shops and churches have been attacked almost on a daily basis, the report added.

Death

The report is by no means limited to the Middle East. Further afield, in Afghanistan, it described how in the summer of 2010 a group of former Muslims had to flee to India after being condemned to death following their conversion to Christianity.

Overall, in the past year there was a dramatic deterioration in attitudes towards non-Muslims, with Christians forced to keep a very low profile in order to avoid being accused of proselytism. Unfortunately, according to the report, the situation is likely to further worsen.

Neighboring Pakistan is another hotbed of hostility to Christians. Many of the problems arise from the law on blasphemy.

Offences against the Qur'an receive a sentence of life imprisonment and insults against the Prophet Mohammed can be punished by death. The report cited data from the Catholic Church's National Commission for Justice and Peace, saying that between 1986 and 2010 there were 210 accusations against Christians.

The accusation of blasphemy is also used by people as an excuse for personal vendettas. According to the report since 2001 at least 50 Christians have been killed by those using the blasphemy laws as a pretext.

Indonesia is a country that has seen a rise in Islamic fundamentalism since early 2009, the report stated. In recent times there have been multiple acts of violence, ranging from church buildings burnt to the ground, to authorities cancelling Easter services at very short notice under pressure from extremists.

Out of 32 provinces in the country Aceh is the only one completely governed by Islamic law -- Shariah. The report noted, however, that local authorities in 16 provinces have passed Shariah inspired legislation.

The report also deals with other countries from North Korea to Cuba to Venezuela. It did, nevertheless, provide ample evidence that Christians face a very real threat from Muslim extremists, one that only too often receives little attention, let alone any solution.