Persecution of Christians in the Muslim World

While most Muslim states have signed United Nations declarations on human rights, they usually add caveats stating these are accepted as long as they do not contradict Islamic law (shari‘a). Shari‘a is inherently discriminatory to non-Muslims and strongly influences the thinking and behavior of most Muslims, whether or not it has any formal place in a country’s legislation.

Christians face a variety of situations and attitudes in Muslim majority countries. The experience of Christians in stable moderate states like Jordan is quite different from that of Christians in Iran, Saudi Arabia or Sudan.

Root Causes of Persecution
The first generation of Muslims was a minority in the non-Muslim world it set out to conquer. For the Muslims, this created a sense of defensiveness and a fear of being overwhelmed by the conquered communities that persist today in spite of centuries of Muslim dominance. Even in modern secular Muslim-majority states, Islam and shari’a have such a hold on public perceptions that attitudes of contempt and practices of discrimination against non-Muslims are accepted as normal.

1. Traditional Muslim Attitudes as Set Out in the Shari‘a
Christians and Jews ruled by Muslims had the legal status of dhimmis (they were allowed to keep their own faith and given protection in return for submitting to Muslim rule). However they were considered subordinate and inferior, not a part of the mainstream community of the Islamic state. The limited rights belonging to non-Muslim communities in a Muslim state are set out in the shari’a.

Behind these restrictions lay the conviction that Muslims are superior to other religious groups, and that this is ordained by God. Therefore only Muslims are full citizens.

Shari’a restrictions on dhimmis included a ban on public displays of Christian symbols. Dhimmis were required to dress in distinctive fashion so as not to be mistaken for Muslims. They were not allowed to carry arms, have higher public positions than Muslims or insult Islam in any way. They could not give evidence in court against Muslims, and were not permitted to marry Muslim women. They could not build new churches except by special permission from the head of state. They had no political rights and had to pay a special poll-tax. These shari’a restrictions still influence public and government attitudes to Christians even in states with secular constitutions.

Any non-Muslims who sought equality with Muslims were considered to have broken the protection pact, and therefore could be attacked by military force. This is why modern Christian demands for a secular state with equal rights for all citizens regardless of religion are seen by some Muslims as a rebellion against God’s law. This opens the way for persecution.

2. Rising Power of Islamism
The post-colonial period has seen a rising tide of radicalism within Islam, often called Islamism. This has fuelled hostility towards Christians and has eroded the hard-won freedoms gained in the colonial and independence era. The Islamist program includes:

  • Islamization of Muslim-majority states by destabilizing secular regimes and replacing them with systems based on shari’a. In Iran and Sudan this has already taken place. Algeria and Egypt are examples of countries where violent attempts have thus far been thwarted, but the danger remains.
  • Implementation of shari’a. There is widespread and often violent agitation for implementation in most Muslim states and in countries with large Muslim minorities. This would herald a return to the traditional dhimmi status of Christians.
  • Destabilization of the border areas of Islam. This is carried out by radical Islamist movements with the aim of expanding the area of Muslim dominance. Examples include the Philippines, Thailand, Nigeria, Sudan, Indonesia and Ivory Coast. Sometimes the radical Islamists try to cleanse a region of Christians by killing them or forcing them to convert to Islam.

Christian Response to Pressures
Christians in Muslim lands face an identity crisis as they seek to be loyal to their nations while facing persecution by dominant Islam. Christian attempts to influence internal politics or to seek western pressure on their governments often backfire. They are seen as “proving” to Muslims that they are western collaborators who have forgotten their rightful subservient place in Muslim society.

Sources of Persecution
1. The State. In some countries it is the state that persecutes Christians through unjust laws; restrictions on church activities; and arbitrary arrest, torture and imprisonment. In several Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Sudan, the law specifies the death sentence for a Muslim who converts to another religion. In Iran the government has severely restricted the activities of Protestants, closing several churches and the Bible Society. Churches are forbidden to hold services in Farsi, the national language. Several Christian leaders have been abducted and killed, apparently by the secret services. One convert from Islam has been executed. (See below for examples from Saudi Arabia and Sudan.)

2. Radical Islamist Groups. Islamists are pressuring governments to become more Islamic; implement shari’a; and take a more negative stance towards Christians. Armed Islamist militias attack Christians to reinstate Muslim superiority and dominance in all areas. In parts of Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan and other states this has been an ongoing and intensifying process. Governments are often unwilling to defend their Christian citizens effectively because of the powerful influence of radical Islamists.

3. Communal and Mob Violence. Following incitement by radical preachers, mob violence has repeatedly erupted against Christians in various contexts where Christians had previously lived in relative peace with their Muslim neighbors. This has happened in Nigeria, Indonesia and Egypt, among others.

Types and Stages of Persecution
Disinformation about Christianity is widespread in the Muslim media and in mosques. Articles, radio, television broadcasts, sermons and pamphlets often parody the Christian faith and rob Christians of their good reputation. Offensive language, insults and unfounded accusations about Christians are often heard in public discourse. Traditional Muslim views of Christians as impure, unbelievers and second-class citizens are reinforced.

Public opinion fed with disinformation results in discrimination against Christians in education, employment, the judicial system and allocation of resources. Official and unofficial bureaucratic hurdles are placed before Christians seeking their constitutional rights. Appeals and complaints by Christians are typically ineffective and often counter-productive.

Christians often find it difficult to get jobs in the civil service, security forces and higher education. Christians may be excluded from the political system. They often do not get merited promotion. Legal discrimination based on shari’a means that in some states the witness of a Christian in court is worth less than that of a Muslim. Therefore, compensation is less for Christians than for Muslims. Blasphemy and apostasy laws are sometimes used to threaten Christians with the death penalty or imprisonment.

Outright Persecution
The effects of disinformation and discrimination are cumulative and mean that persecution can be practiced without public outcry or opposition.

1. Repression. In many Muslim states it is difficult or impossible to repair churches or to build new ones. Churches may be closed down. Christian schools, hospitals, clinics and orphanages may be nationalized or their work obstructed by bureaucracy and legal hurdles. Christians often face threats, intimidation, loss of employment and other forms of harassment.

2. Violence. In certain contexts violence is perpetrated on Christians and their property. These raids may be implemented by Islamist extremists, security forces, paramilitaries or mobs. Christians are arbitrarily arrested, beaten, jailed and tortured.

Examples of Persecution
The “Pancasila” state philosophy established a fairly tolerant modern state identity. However, Islamic revival has seen the growth of radical groups demanding an Islamic state under shari‘a and the formation of Islamist militias such as Laskar Jihad and Jema‘ a Islamiyya.

The loss of majority Christian East Timor (1999-2002) was a source of deep shame in Indonesia. It generated a desire for revenge against the West (which had supported East Timor’s demands for independence). Indonesian Christians were accused of separatist sentiments and of being allies of the “Christian” West.

Central Sulawesi, the Malukus and Papua have been infiltrated by thousands of radical Indonesian and foreign militias. Militant Islamists have engaged in brutal ethnic cleansing of Christian regions in which perhaps as many as 30,000 have been killed. Forcible conversions of Christians to Islam, including forced circumcisions, were carried out. Christian women were raped. The security forces in these regions have often been complicit in violence against Christians.

Although almost equal in number, Muslims and Christians are unevenly distributed. There are three belts: the Muslim majority north; the Christian majority south; and the middle belt where Christians and Muslims are approximately equal. Ethnic, religious and regional differences combine to form an explosive mixture.

Nigerian politics have been mainly dominated by Muslims since the 1960s. The rapid spread of Christianity and the election of Christian president Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999 caused Muslims to fear losing their supremacy. This was coupled with growing Islamist infiltration. The imposition since 1999 of full shari‘a in twelve states was seen by some Muslims as a license to discriminate against Christians. There has been much inflammatory preaching resulting in mob violence and riots. Muslim leaders stated that shari‘a would not apply to non-Muslims, but in reality, gender segregation, Islamic dress and other Islamic practices are being forced on them.

During Obasanjo’s first four years in office (1999-2003), over 10,000 people (mainly Christians) were killed in the anti-Christian violence.

Historically the Christian Copts (now approximately 12% of population) were dhimmis in an Islamic state. Christians face great difficulties in obtaining permits to repair churches. To build a new church still requires presidential permission, which is slow and difficult to obtain. Islam is taught in all state schools to all pupils, but Christianity cannot be taught to Christian children. Coptic teachers cannot teach Arabic. Copts are encouraged to convert to Islam, but Muslims who convert to Christianity face harassment and severe persecution.

There has been a rising tide of violence by radical Islamists against Copts – riots, destruction of property, killings, abductions and forced conversions.

Saudi Arabia
The Saudi government enforces a strict and puritanical form of Islam called Wahhabism. Non-Muslims are not allowed any public expression of their faith, and many have been arrested simply for meeting for prayer in private homes. No church buildings, pastors, Bibles or crosses are allowed. House church leaders and believers have been harassed, arrested, abused, beaten by religious police, imprisoned and finally deported. Filipinos, Sri Lankans and others from the developing world are especially targeted.

North Sudan is dominated by Muslim Arabs, and the Khartoum government has tried hard to Arabize and Islamize the mainly African Christian and animist South. This led to a civil war which raged from 1983 to January 2005.

The 1989 coup brought to power an Islamist government that declared a jihad against the South. It is estimated that the civil war caused the death of two to three million people and led to the displacement of a further four to five million. Many atrocities were reported, including the aerial bombardment of civilians and of humanitarian facilities; deliberate denial of international assistance; abduction and enslavement of women and children; and rape. Large refugee camps sprouted around Khartoum, where Southerners (mainly Christians) lived in the most primitive conditions due to intermittent harassment by authorities. While peace treaties bring hope for a better future, only time will tell whether they will be implemented.

The Christian community (3% of the population) is mainly descended from low-caste Hindus who have converted to Christianity. They form the poorest class and do menial jobs. Poverty and discrimination restrict their access to education, employment and to justice in the courts.

The notorious “Blasphemy Law” decrees death for anyone who “defiles” the name of Muhammad. This law has been abused by Muslims seeking to settle personal grudges against Christians. There is no penalty for false accusations of blasphemy, and law courts have a tendency to believe Muslims rather than Christians. Many Christians have been accused of blasphemy, and some accused have been murdered by zealous Muslims.

Since the American attack on Afghanistan in 2001, armed militant Islamists have attacked churches and other Christian institutions and murdered many Christians. In 2002 alone, more than forty Christians were killed and more than 100 injured in such attacks.

Editors Note: The Persecuted Church was one of the Issue Groups at the Lausanne 2004 Forum for World Evangelization. The paper produced by this group, led by Patrick Sookhdeo, may be read here.

Patrick Sookhdeo is international director of Barnabas Fund. Born in Guyana, Sookhdeo holds a doctorate from London University and doctorates from Baptist and Episcopal seminaries in the US. He is an author and lecturer.