Our suffering brothers and sisters

Figuring out how to respond to events in which Christians suffer, in countries where Muslims are the majority or have regions with strong Muslim populations, is a great challenge.

I've long held the conviction that we ought to raise our voices far more clearly for Christians who suffer for their faith, especially in places where Islam is dominant (not neglecting other settings too, where religions such as Hinduism are dominant).

We have witnessed the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a coalition of 57 Muslim states, approaching the United Nations to argue for stronger guidelines to counter what they maintain is Islamophobia. They want to call on all states to enact laws to counter it, including, if possible, the use of deterrent punishments (I'm using language from the OIC's documents).

There is no equivalent to this from nations of the world in which Christian faith is the dominant belief. Yet the evidence is absolutely clear that Christians suffer far more in Muslim-dominated countries than Muslims do in countries in which Christianity is dominant. One of the most egregious examples, probably, is the comparison of the situation of Christians in Egypt to that of Muslims in Europe or North America.

In Egypt, any effort by Coptic Christians to build a church requires permission from the country's president to go ahead, even though Coptic Christians make up about six per cent of the population, number about five million and have lived in Egypt for centuries. Muslims in the west have built thousands of mosques against few barriers in recent decades. Last fall a church in a Cairo suburb, built after five years of applications, was vandalized and set on fire by a mob agitated toward it by the sheikh of a nearby mosque.

In late July seven Christians, including three women and two children, were burnt alive when their houses were set on fire by Muslim demonstrators in Gojra, Pakistan. The attacks, carried out by a mob numbering in the hundreds, resulted in the destruction of at least 50 homes and followed allegations that a copy of the Qur'an had been burned at a Christian wedding.

Also in late July, attacks by Muslim militants in northern Nigeria killed an estimated 80 people and destroyed seven churches.

Last May a Christian named Ishtiaq Masih got off a bus, stopped at a roadside tea stall in Punjab, failing to notice a sign that stated it served Muslims only. After giving him tea the shop owner saw the cross Masih had on his necklace. He called on his employees to punish the Christian, and a group of men beat him to death.

Iraq's Christian population—in a situation exacerbated by the Iraq war—has dwindled from 1.5 million in 1990 to 400,000 today. Christians have frequently been intimidated. Last fall, for example, at least 14 Christians including a 15-year-old boy were murdered in Mosul after leaflets had been circulated threatening Christians with death unless they converted to Islam.

Many Christians in parts of the world where we assume the right of people to change their belief don't know how to respond. Should we remain quiet? Should we attempt friendly dialogue? Should we merely pray? Should we speak up?

In a surprising turnabout, a British Muslim leader is urging Christians to become far more outspoken in addressing the treatment of Christians in Muslim nations. Dr. Muhammed Al Hussaini says that the persecution of Christians is happening because the church hierarchy here "simply doesn't care." The Christians who are persecuted are neither "white nor wealthy" and white Christians are ignoring them. "We can rely on that in the Muslim community," he says, as he rails against the injustices done by Muslims to Christian minorities. He urges Christians to address such injustices with Muslim leadership around the world.

The Anglican bishop of Rochester, England, Michael Nazir-Ali, agrees. "What churches here need to learn is that these people are their brothers and sisters in the Lord," he says. "We are all one in Christ Jesus."

For years I've followed the situation of Christian believers in countries where they are often persecuted minorities, much of it through a courageous British ministry called the Barnabas Fund led by Patrick Sookhdeo, a former Muslim. Christians in our comfortable and safe settings can learn to speak uncomfortable truth graciously from ministries such as this. We should see such intercession as a privilege we cannot neglect.

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About the author

Harold Jantz is a Winnipeg journalist and editor. He is at jantz@mts.net.