Global persecution of Christians, especially in the Muslim world, is one of the most overlooked human rights disasters of the 21st century. Christian activists are demanding that the State Department add a new envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East, but their campaign is stymied by those concerned about government redundancy.
Christians United for Israel, Coptic Solidarity, the North American Religious Liberty Association and other groups are fighting for the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act of 2013. They believe that the crisis warrants a specially-focused diplomatic post.
Ironically, one of the supporters is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a member of the Shoulder-to-Shoulder interfaith coalition that is allied with the Islamic Society of North America, a U.S. Muslim Brotherhood entity.
The opposing side is Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Senator Mike Lee (R-UT). Their position is that this is already the duty of the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, who also heads the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.
Their argument is that adding to the bureaucracy isn’t the proper solution. If the U.S. is failing to address Christian persecution, it’s a failure of policy and leadership and not the configuration of the government.
At the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama spoke out against persecution of Christians, calling for the release of a Christian missionary held in North Korea for 15 months and a Christian pastor in Iran that’s been imprisoned for over 18 months. He also criticized blasphemy and defamation laws that are used to suppress religious freedom.
However, words have not been met with action.
The perpetrators of the persecution do not face serious consequences for their actions. It is not a significant part of American global diplomacy and international relations and the American public is not educated about the scale of the problem.
About 100 million Christians around the world live in a state of persecution because of their faith, according to the Open Doors organization. It is estimated that a Christian is killed every five minutes. The Pew Research Center finds that Christians are the most persecuted religious group, facing oppression in 110 countries.
And the problem is getting worse. A whopping 76% of the world’s population lives in countries where religious freedom is highly suppressed. That’s 5.3 billion people. About 20% of humanity lives in countries experiencing religious violence, more than double the percentage in 2007.
A diplomatic post that condemns oppression of Christians would be an improvement, but we must be realistic about what such a figure can accomplish. Condemnations have been made, albeit at a quieter volume than deserved.
The new envoy would only have an impact if he focuses on the core source of that oppression and if he is backed by an administration that is willing to strain diplomatic relations to stand against it. That source is the governmental aspects of Sharia, a politically-sensitive fact that our leadership is loath to admit.
The top 10 countries most hostile to Christianity are (in order): North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Maldives, Pakistan, Iran and Yemen. Nine out of the top 10 are Muslim-majority countries. Of the top 50 countries, 42 are Muslim-majority or have large Muslim populations.
The most common denominator is Islam and, specifically, the commandments of Sharia. These aren’t ethnic conflicts where Christian and Muslim armies are battling. The motivation is the institution of Sharia-based governance.
For example, Pakistani minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of the cabinet, was murdered in 2011 for opposing blasphemy laws inspired by Sharia. His brother recently fled the country due to death threats.
There are two main premises behind Islamist preaching that is stoking persecution of Christians. The first is that Islam is under attack and Christians, even civilians, should be seen as agents of the West. This is the thinking behind Al-Qaeda-type terrorist attacks on churches.
Other Islamists oppose violent targeting of Christian civilians, but still support Sharia governance. They may not want to bomb a church, but they do want restrictions in accordance with Sharia that make Christians second-class citizens.
The blasphemy laws that oppress Christians and other non-Muslims stem from an interpretation of sacred Islamic texts. For example, Quran 5:72 says, “They do blaspheme who say: “(Allah) is Christ the son of Mary.” And again in 5:73: “They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One Allah.” Blasphemy is prohibited under Sharia.
Apostasy, or the decision of a Muslim to leave his Islamic faith, is punishable by death under Sharia. Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Yousef al-Qaradawi amazingly said in a television interview, “If they left apostasy alone, there wouldn’t have been any Islam. Islam would have been finished right after the death of the Prophet.”
In the interview, he used Islamic scripture to endorse laws against blasphemy and apostasy. He cited the Sahih Bukhari hadith collection that recorded Mohammed as saying, “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.” Qaradawi also cited the hadith of Ibn Abbas that said the same thing and the hadith of Ibn Masud, who said that Muslims can only be killed if they are guilty of murder, adultery or apostasy.
Having an additional official monitoring persecution of Christians would be positive, but it will only bear fruit if the ideological source driving that persecution is identified and confronted.
The Institute on Religion and Democracy contributed to this article.