Archive - July 2015

Dwindling Middle East Christians Make the New York Times Magazine
Christians in India continued . . .
Does Islamic Theology Matter When Conflict Is (Mostly) Political?
Islam’s Religious Freedom Problem Deserves a Closer Look
John Allen to John Kerry: Don’t Forget Egypt’s Christians

Dwindling Middle East Christians Make the New York Times Magazine

Not to be missed is journalist Eliza Griswold’s landmark piece in The New York Times Magazine on the fate of Christians in Iraq and Syria.  The fact that it appeared in the NYTM itself is news, for it helps to establish that the persecution of Christians is not a special interest or parochial issue.  Griswold combines riveting stories with factual and policy analysis in a compelling read.

Here is one strong passage:

The Arab Spring only made things worse. As dictators like Mubarak in Egypt and Qaddafi in Libya were toppled, their longstanding protection of minorities also ended. Now, ISIS is looking to eradicate Christians and other minorities altogether. The group twists the early history of Christians in the region — their subjugation by the sword — to legitimize its millenarian enterprise. Recently, ISIS posted videos delineating the second-class status of Christians in the caliphate. Those unwilling to pay the jizya tax or to convert would be destroyed, the narrator warned, as the videos culminated in the now-­infamous scenes of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians in Libya being marched onto the beach and beheaded, their blood running into the surf.

The future of Christianity in the region of its birth is now uncertain. ‘‘How much longer can we flee before we and other minorities become a story in a history book?’’ says Nuri Kino, a journalist and founder of the advocacy group Demand for Action. According to a Pew study, more Christians are now faced with religious persecution than at any time since their early history. ‘‘ISIL has put a spotlight on the issue,’’ says Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, whose parents are from the region and who advocates on behalf of Eastern Christians. ‘‘Christianity is under an existential threat.’’

Moving into the policy discussion, she writes:

This spring the U.N. Security Council met to discuss the plight of Iraq’s religious minorities. ‘‘If we attend to minority rights only after slaughter has begun, then we have already failed,’’ Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the high commissioner for Human Rights, said. After the conference ended, there was mounting anger at American inaction. Although the airstrikes were effective, since October 2013, the United States has given just $416 million in humanitarian aid, which falls far short of what is needed. ‘‘Americans and the West were telling us they came to bring democracy, freedom and prosperity,’’ Louis Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon who addressed the Security Council, wrote to me in a recent email. ‘‘What we are living is anarchy, war, death and the plight of three million refugees.’’

Of the 3.1 million displaced Iraqis, 85 percent are Sunnis. No one has suffered more at the hands of ISIS than fellow Muslims. Other religious minorities have been affected as well and in large numbers: the Yazidis, who were trapped on Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq last summer, as ISIS threatened them with genocide; as well as Shia Turkmen; Shabak; Kaka’i; and the Mandeans, who follow John the Baptist. ‘‘Everyone has seen the forced conversions, crucifixions and beheadings,’’ David Saperstein, the United States ambassador at large for religious freedom, said. ‘‘To see these communities, primarily Christians, but also the Yazidis and others, persecuted in such large numbers is deeply alarming.’’

On U.S. policy, she has this to say, quoting two ArcU contributors, Tim Shah and myself:

It has been nearly impossible for two U.S. presidents — Bush, a conservative evangelical; and Obama, a progressive liberal — to address the plight of Christians explicitly for fear of appearing to play into the crusader and ‘‘clash of civilizations’’ narratives the West is accused of embracing. In 2007, when Al Qaeda was kidnapping and killing priests in Mosul, Nina Shea, who was then a U.S. commissioner for religious freedom, says she approached the secretary of state at the time, Condoleezza Rice, who told her the United States didn’t intervene in ‘‘sectarian’’ issues. Rice now says that protecting religious freedom in Iraq was a priority both for her and for the Bush administration. But the targeted violence and mass Christian exodus remained unaddressed. ‘‘One of the blind spots of the Bush administration was the inability to grapple with this as a direct byproduct of the invasion,’’ says Timothy Shah, the associate director of Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project.

More recently, the White House has been criticized for eschewing the term ‘‘Christian’’ altogether. The issue of Christian persecution is politically charged; the Christian right has long used the idea that Christianity is imperiled to rally its base. When ISIS massacred Egyptian Copts in Libya this winter, the State Department came under fire for referring to the victims merely as ‘‘Egyptian citizens.’’ Daniel Philpott, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, says, ‘‘When ISIS is no longer said to have religious motivations nor the minorities it attacks to have religious identities, the Obama administration’s caution about religion becomes excessive.’’

Last fall, Obama did refer to Christians and other religious minorities by name in a speech, saying, ‘‘we cannot allow these communities to be driven from their ancient homelands.’’ When ISIS threatened to eradicate the Yazidis, ‘‘it was the United States that stepped in to beat back the militants,’’ Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the National Security Council, says. In northeastern Syria, where ISIS is still launching attacks against Assyrian Christian villages, the U.S. military recently come to their aid, Baskey added. Refugees are a thornier issue. Of the more than 122,000 Iraqi refugees admitted to the United States, nearly 40 percent already belong to oppressed minorities. Admitting more would be difficult. ‘‘There are limits to what the international community can do,’’ Saperstein said.

Eshoo, the Democratic congresswoman, is working to establish priority refugee status for minorities who want to leave Iraq. ‘‘It’s a hair ball,’’ she says. ‘‘The average time for admittance to the United States is more than 16 months, and that’s too long. Many will die.’’ But it can be difficult to rally widespread support. The Middle East’s Christians often favor Palestine over Israel. And because support of Israel is central to the Christian Right — Israel must be occupied by the Jews before Jesus can return — this stance distances Eastern Christians from a powerful lobby that might otherwise champion their cause. Recently, Ted Cruz admonished an audience of Middle Eastern Christians at an In Defense of Christians event in Washington, telling them that Christians ‘‘have no better ally than the Jewish state.’’ Cruz was booed.

Does Islamic Theology Matter When Conflict Is (Mostly) Political?

During a recent lecture at the University of Edinburgh, Aurangzeb Haneef, a Ph.D. student from Pakistan, presented three reasons why the theological questions of tolerance and intolerance remain vitally important for Muslims, even when secular factors such as politics and history are core components of today’s “mess” of violence as well as oppressive narratives framed by religious rhetoric.

His own observations as a Muslim about Islam today offer much also for other believers engaged in their own intra-faith struggles at the edge of, and in the midst of, violence.

The stakes are high.  Haneef explains,

Precious lives are being wasted in the name of God to fight wars that have nothing to do either with God or religion…

So, asks Haneef,

If all of this is contextual, if the problems are really political in nature, and the main reason for an extreme manifestation of Islamic scriptural sources is this very messy social, political, and historical context, then is theology or religion still relevant? I mean we’re all talking about political context, and in such a political context, religion acquires a certain narrative, so is religion really irrelevant?

Some would say religion is irrelevant, or even a distraction, in the quest for solutions. He continues,

Tariq Ali, a Pakistani British writer and self-proclaimed atheist would give you an overview which is very similar to mine, but will conclude that theology is irrelevant, he would say that all this discussion on scriptural interpretation, Quran, and peace building, is a theological distraction. The real reasons are political, and so we must focus on fixing the political mess, and religion will automatically fix itself, that’s what he says.

I agree that the main problem is political, I also agree that the main conflict or set of grievances are political in nature, I also agree that it can be a distraction [if] we ignore the political context and if we try to find solutions only within religion but we’re not doing that here, I’m not doing that here.

Haneef presents 3 reasons why engaging theology is relevant, indeed necessary, in these situations.

I think that engaging with theology is neither irrelevant nor a distraction. In fact religious discourse has become so much distorted and extreme because of its political context that it has become an essential part of the problem, therefore it cannot be left alone and this is the first reason.

Second reason for engaging with religion is to be able to preserve what is called by an Islamic legal scholar, Khaled Abou al-Fadl, as the moral integrity of the Islamic religious tradition. What does it mean? It means that while interpreting one must recognize the overall moral thrust of the Quran, which is that of goodness, mercy, harmony, justice, and peace. No interpretation can violate this overall moral thrust. Therefore even when violence is allowed in the Quran, it is heavily regulated, and only as a last resort, in self-defense in order to reestablish the disturbed balance.

The third reason for engaging with religion is to be able to challenge the authority of those pseudo-scholars who speak in the name of Islam, so that one is not gullible to the extremist religious discourse.

And these are just some of the reasons.

Therefore religion needs to be part of the solution as well.

The video of Aurangzeb Haneef’s entire lecture, “Theology of Tolerance and Intolerance: Qur’anic Hermeneutics of Peacebuilding,” is available here, thanks to a video provided by the Islamic Society of Edinburgh University.

Islam’s Religious Freedom Problem Deserves a Closer Look

I just published a piece at “The Monkey Cage” at The Washington Post titled, “Are Muslim Countries Really Unreceptive to Religious Freedom?”  It draws from the research for a book that I am writing on Islam and religious freedom.

The title question of the WaPo piece wades into a culture war:

The West’s cultural war over Islam has entered an intense new phase since the rise of the Islamic State. The debates are familiar: Is Islam inherently violent and intolerant, or is it peaceful, diverse and often the victim of Western domination? A good criterion for answering the question is religious freedom – the civic right of persons and religious communities to practice, express, change, renounce and spread their religion. Whether the adherents of one religion can respect the beliefs and practices of another, or whether they respond to this otherness by violence or discrimination, is at the heart of these debates.

A global view looks grim:

An aggregate, satellite view does indeed show a dearth of religious freedom in Islam. A comparison between the world’s 47 or so Muslim-majority countries and the rest of the world – derived from measurements developed by sociologists Brian Grim and Roger Finke and undergirding the Pew Forum’s rankings on religious freedom – shows that Islam clearly has considerably lower levels of religious freedom than the rest of the world and Christian-majority countries. In their 2011 book published on the same data – “The Price of Religious Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century – Grim and Finke show that 78 percent of Muslim-majority countries have high levels of government restrictions on religious freedom, compared with 43 percent of all other countries and 10 percent of Christian countries.

But a closer look reveals more complexity – and hope:

Do these aggregate scores prove that Islam is indeed generally inhospitable to religious freedom, then? No. Zooming in from a satellite view to a more fine-grained view reveals far greater diversity. First, it shows that 12 out of 47 Muslim-majority states fall into the category of “low restrictions on religious freedom,” meaning that they are essentially religiously free. Even among the other 35 Muslim-majority states, which have moderate, high or very high levels of restriction, there are significantly different patterns of repression, which yield different conclusions about Islam. There are two patterns in particular, namely “Islamist,” which represent 21 of these countries, and “secular repressive,” which represent 14 of these countries.

The piece comes out of a workshop on Islam and International Order hosted by the Project on Middle East Political Science.  For the other short pieces to come out of the workshop, see here.

John Allen to John Kerry: Don’t Forget Egypt’s Christians

Ace reporter of global Catholicism John Allen wrote an insightful column last week on the U.S. State Department’s recently released annual report on human rights.  He takes the department to task for ignoring the plight of Egypt’s persecuted Christians.

The document cites only one instance of a Christian suffering discrimination, involving a man charged under anti-blasphemy laws for “liking” a Facebook page critical of Islam. Yet Christians are the largest and most embattled minority in Egypt, forming 10 percent of a population of 83 million, and any account of the human rights situation that fails to feature their hardships is seriously incomplete.

In general, religion is undervalued throughout the State Department report. It lists seven categories of human rights problems, treating religious freedom as a mere sub-heading under “respect for civil liberties.”

Granted, the State Department is correct to be concerned about all threats to personal freedoms and civil rights. Granted, too, a special American focus on Christians might simply make things worse, feeding suspicions that the Western powers are leading a 21st century crusade against other faiths.

In fairness, the report does give prominence to anti-Christian persecution in a few other nations, including threats from ISIS in Iraq.

Still, if the suffering of Egyptian [Christians] . . . isn’t worthy of serious American concern — especially since it comes in a country that’s the second-largest recipient of US military and economic aid in the world — then it’s hard to know what such an outrage might look like.

Things have gotten worse, not better, since the fall of the Morsi government, and they don’t look likely to improve any time soon:

Far from better days after the fall of a Muslim Brotherhood government in July 2013, Botros says that today things are “ten times worse” in Egypt than they were, for instance, under former ruler Hosni Mubarak just a few years ago.

“We thought the police would start a new era with the people,” he said, “but it hasn’t happened.”

Ibrahim, the human rights expert, echoes that impression. He identifies five broad categories of threats faced by Christians in Egypt:

  • Physical assaults on churches and other Christian properties
  • Difficulties in obtaining permits to build or repair churches
  • Kidnappings for ransom
  • Selective enforcement of anti-blasphemy laws
  • Forced displacements, especially from rural villages

Only the first, Ibrahim said, has improved under Sisi. Statistically speaking, he said, incidents in other categories are actually on the rise.

Further spikes in violence could be on the near-term horizon. Last month, an Egyptian court sentenced Morsi to death for his alleged involvement in a prison break, and just two weeks ago the sentence was confirmed.

Mina Thabet, another human rights observer with the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, believes that if those sentences are actually carried out, it could spark another wave of anti-Christian rage.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.