The cries of oppressed Christians go unanswered
by Joe Bollig
Sadly, the rape and murder of 12-year-old Lubna Masih — targeted because she was Christian — is not a rare event in Pakistan.
The violent end of her life was yet another entry on a long list of violence and discrimination suffered by members of the Christian minority in that country.
Masih, a Catholic, was a student at Presentation Convent School in Rawalpindi. The city adjoins Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.
On Sept. 27, 2009, Masih left her home to buy milk. A group of five men suddenly grabbed her and forced her into a car. She screamed and fought, but no one tried to help her. She was taken to a cemetery where she was raped and murdered.
Her body was found hours later, and the police were notified. But there would be no justice for Lubna Masih and her family. The reason: The victim was a Christian and the criminals were Muslim.
Leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League (which governs the province and controls the city administration) and even members of Pakistan’s parliament pressured the family to accept a cash settlement to keep the matter out of court.
Lubna’s parents accepted, but not out of greed. Because they were terrified and had no confidence in the police, courts or government, they took the cash in the hope that even more violence could be avoided. In Pakistan, Christian victims usually experience ongoing victimization by the Muslim majority and the machinery of the state.
A story published in 2010 by the Vatican news agency Fides reported that violence against women in Pakistan — especially Christians — is rampant and on the increase.
For Christian women and girls, this violence consists not only of kidnapping and rape, but also forced marriage and forced conversion to Islam. A similar situation exists in Egypt, where the Christianminority Copts are targeted.
Persecution of Christians is not limited to Pakistan or Egypt. In fact, persecution of Christians — in various forms and intensity — is widespread across the globe . . . and in countries one might not expect. Paradoxically, Christian persecution elicits no widespread concern even in countries with Christian majorities.
The rape and murder of Lubna Masih could easily be a metaphor for the persecuted church: It cries out in anguish, but is mostly ignored.
Connecting the dots
The persecution of Christians is widespread but largely unnoticed by Christians in the relative safety of developed majority-Christian countries — like the United States.
Often news of persecution is buried or obscured by the daily news of strife, crime and conflict in many countries. Sometimes other reasons are given — land disputes, ethnic strife, or criminal activity. Other times the lack of awareness is simply a failure to connect the dots.
Fides News Agency publishes an annual report that includes the number of pastoral workers killed that year. In 2011, according to the report, 26 pastoral workers were killed — 18 priests, four religious Sisters, and four laypersons.
The annual number of pastoral workers’ deaths provided by Fides, however, is dwarfed by the huge number of lay Christians killed or attacked.
For example, simultaneous bomb attacks on three churches in northern Nigeria by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram on June 17 alone killed 21 and wounded more than 100.
The latest occurred on Oct. 28, when a suicide bomber suspected to be part of Boko Haram set off a car bomb during Mass at St. Rita Church in the northern Nigerian town of Kaduna. The blast blew out part of the outside wall and roof, killing seven and injuring 100. Three Muslims were beaten to death by angry Christian youths in retaliation — the type of religious conflict Boko Haram is trying to incite.
The true death toll of Christians from persecution — leaving aside all other incidents of harassment and violence — could be in the thousands or even tens of thousands annually. A report published by the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project helps provide a big-picture view.
The August 2011 Pew report called “Rising Restrictions on Religion” said: “Christians and Muslims, who together comprise more than half the global population, were harassed in the largest number of countries (130 for Christians).”
According to the report, “harassment of Christians, Muslims and Jews was highest in the Middle East-North Africa,” and that “restrictions on religion are particularly common in countries that prohibit blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion.”
Demographic figures also help to give an idea of the scale and intensity of antiChristian violence and discrimination.
For example, the 2011 report “Persecuted and Forgotten” by Aid to the Church in Need noted that the number of Christians in Iraq fell from 1.4 million in 1987 to possibly 150,000 in early 2011. The Christian population of Bethlehem has dropped from 85 percent in 1948 to 12 percent in 2012. Hindu extremists in the Indian state of Orissa caused the displacement of 50,000 people during the 2007 to 2008 outbreak of violence.
The so-called “Arab Spring” of 2011 to 2012 has imperiled minority Christians even further.
For example, the New York Times reported in a June 29 article, “Syria’s Threatened Christians,” that Islamic militants were expelling Christians from neighborhoods in the city of Homs. About 80,000 Christians used to live in the city, but now about 400 remain, the article reported.
Bishop Antoine Audo, SJ, the Chaldean Catholic bishop of Aleppo, said many Christians have lost everything and have fled their homes. He reported that in Homs, all the churches were targeted for desecration.
Christians of all denominations are the targets of vandalism, looting and car bombings in Syria. More recently, a car bombing in the Christian section of Bab Touma left 13 dead. On Oct. 29, a car bomb killed 11 and injured many more in a Christian and Druze neighborhood in Jaramana, a suburb of Damascus.
Christians are frequently the targets of kidnapping for ransom. If it isn’t paid, the victim is killed. Father Fady Haddad, the pastor of St. Elias Orthodox Church in the suburb of Qatana, Damascus, was kidnapped while trying to negotiate the ransom of a kidnapped parishioner. His body was found on Oct. 25.
“There is a true exodus in Syria,” said Sarkis Boghjalian, the New York-based national director of the American office of Aid to the Church in Need. “[One bishop said] 80 percent of Christians have fled, because of religious-motivated violence, from his hometown. People want to stay, but security and violence is a concern for them.”
Worldwide persecution of Christians happens on a huge scale, and “what it amounts to is a human rights disaster of epic proportions, and action is urgently needed at all levels,” concluded the report of Aid to the Church in Need. “Silence and inaction are inexcusable.”
Diverse, complex and pervasive
Why do Catholics and other Christians face such severe persecution?
The reasons and sources are diverse, said Boghjalian.
“The root cause could be religious fundamentalism,” he said. “It could be extremists who are willing to take advantage [of social unrest]; it could be regimes like those of Cuba, Vietnam or China — dictatorships. So the motivations are quite broad.”
Sometimes religious persecution is blended into ethnic conflict, land disputes or even crime.
As has happened repeatedly in Pakistan, a Muslim neighbor may want to buy some land from a Christian neighbor. The Christian refuses and is then accused by the Muslim of blasphemy, which is illegal. Under this pretext — and with the tacit support of the police, courts and government officials — the Muslim seizes the land.
Christians have also suffered under Pakistan’s oft-misused blasphemy laws through motives of revenge, jealousy, and settling personal scores.
One notorious case is that of Asia Noreen Bibi, a Christian woman from Punjab Province, who was sentenced to death on Nov. 8, 2010, under Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
Bibi, a poor farmworker, was asked to get water for some Muslim workers. Some refused the water because they considered it “unclean,” having been drawn by a Christian. An argument arose, and later a co-worker accused her of blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed. A mob attacked her and her family, and Bibi was arrested and put on trial. She was convicted and remains in prison. It has been reported that an imam has offered money for her assassination and another has threatened a mob attack if she is pardoned or released. Her family has gone into hiding.
Sometimes the church is seen as an ideological threat to the state — such as in China, Vietnam and North Korea — that must be neutralized. Sometimes the motivation is opportunistic — an attack on a weak minority as a means to power. Such is the case now in Syria.
“[Christians in Syria] are living in fear,” said Boghjalian. “Imagine this: You’re living peacefully, and suddenly in 48 hours you have to make a decision about where you will go. You have to let go of your community. You’re not even part of the war, but suddenly you are a target.”
“Other forces take advantage of the power vacuum,” he continued, “and say, ‘This is our opportunity to push out the Christians, the Catholics, out of their homes and schools and institutions. Let’s grab their assets, but also make it so they’ll never come back.’”
According to the 2011 Pew report, the region of the Middle East and North Africa had the largest percentage of countries in which government restrictions on religion increased. According to Pew, the nations with very high government restrictions on religion, in descending rank, were: Egypt (and rising), Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, China, Maldives, Malaysia (and rising), Burma/Myanmar, Eritrea and Indonesia.
There is also “social hostility,” defined by the 2011 Pew report as “acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations and social groups.” This includes “mob or sectarian violence, harassment over attire for religious reasons and other religion-related intimidation or abuse.” Countries with very high social hostilities involving religion were: Iraq, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Indonesia, Nigeria (and rising), Bangladesh, Israel and Egypt.
Government restrictions can be highly visible, as, too, are instances of bombings, riots and ethnic cleansing.
Persecution of the “social hostility” variety has a lower profile — beatings, theft, discrimination in employment or in education, clergy being spat upon, denial of public services, insult, pressure to convert, economic discrimination and restrictions on participation in civil society.
What can be done?
Various organizations — Catholic, Protestant, and secular human rights organizations — have advocated on behalf of individual Christians and groups of Christians. They’ve launched letter writing campaigns and advocacy efforts with various governments, including the United States.
Assistance can come in the form of advocacy and financial support. Often, the persecuted ask simply not to be forgotten.
Once a man traveled to China with funds to support seminarians of the underground Catholic Church in China.
The man was supposed to meet a bishop at a park and pass the cash to him. But when he arrived, another man, not the bishop, was there.
“I am not the bishop,” the other man said. “He is under so much surveillance that he could not come.”
The traveler said he had an envelope for the bishop.
“Don’t leave the money,” said man. “I didn’t come to take it. I have a message from the bishop: Pray for us. We find strength in your prayers. We will make ends meet by the end of the day. We want the West to know that we exist, that we are not disappearing, that we have your support.”
The persecuted church needs prayers and it needs to be remembered, said Boghjalian. It also needs financial support through organizations — like Aid to the Church in Need — that have the expertise and contacts to help persecuted Catholics.
“It takes two sides of the coin,” he said. “One side is educating the public, the Catholic audience. [The other] is for priests to speak up. They have to speak up. They have to be the voice and be involved in getting that information [out]. That’s very important, proactively championing that awareness.”