Religious persecution

Amina Rasul

Posted on January 10, 2014

RECENTLY, I received an invitation to attend an international conference organized by the Universal Peace Federation, an organization founded by Reverend Sun Myung Moon. The controversial Reverend Moon was born and grew up in North Korea. Converted to Christianity, he became a pastor. Persecuted, he escaped to South Korea where he founded the Unification Church, and eventually found his way to the United States where he became very influential, founding the ultra-conservative newspaper, The Washington Times.

The invitation stated that because of the growing tensions in the world that threaten peace, “There is an urgent need for innovative and active involvement especially coming from the religious sector.”

It made me think about the problem of persecution and the role of religion. Surfing the world wide web for news on religious persecution, I found over 8 million results. The first one was a definition by Wikipedia: “Religious persecution is the systematic mistreatment of an individual or group of individuals as a response to their religious beliefs or affiliations or lack thereof.”

Scanning the next 10 pages, I was amazed to find that almost all -- except one -- were articles about the persecution of Christians. I suspect that if I had the time and inclination to skim all the pages, 99% would be about Christian persecution. I wondered whether this was because Christians are the most persecuted globally or because Christians have the best access to media and academe and are therefore best situated to report about their persecution.

I found an interesting watch list, released Jan. 8: The World Watch List (WWL), a ranking of 50 countries where persecution of Christians for religious reasons is most severe. Guess what country is No. 1? If you guessed a Muslim dominant country, you are wrong. No. 1 is North Korea, Rev. Moon’s home country. Somalia is second and Syria is third. I wondered why the organization chose only the 50 countries and not do all countries...

The WWL is a product of Open Doors, a US-based group that was organized in the 1950s to smuggle Bibles into Communist Eastern Europe. According to Open Doors, at least 2,100 Christians died because of persecution in 2013. Most were killed in Syria, where civil war has raged over the last two years.

According to Open Doors, “Overwhelmingly, the main engine driving persecution of Christians in 36 of the top 50 countries is Islamic extremism.”

I wondered how many Muslims have been killed for their faith? How many Buddhists?

Last March, in Rakhine, Myanmar, one dispute between a Buddhist and the owner of a Muslim-owned gold shop resulted in a Buddhist mob killing over 40 Muslims, burning mosques and homes, and displacing thousands. There had been more incidents, pressing Myanmar President Thein Sein to condemn the violence in Rakhine state. However, critics say his security forces have not done enough to contain the violence and the radical monks who have fanned hatred and fear of the Rohingya Muslims, Myanmar’s threatened minority.

As for Buddhists persecuted and killed for their belief, I searched the web and was amazed that I couldn’t find any news. In fact, when I searched for “number of Buddhists killed,” the news and articles were mostly about Buddhists killing Rohingya Muslims. Strange.

What about the persecution of Muslims in countries where they do not belong to the dominant Muslim faith? Is that classified as religious persecution or is it just labeled as the result of civil war? What about Muslim Palestinians killed? Politics, not religion?

Back to the World Watch List, I found it interesting that 14 of the countries -- Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, Turkmenistan, Oman, Algeria, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco, Tajikistan, Djibouti and Indonesia -- were listed as having improved (note: dropped down in the list).

Five of our neighboring countries are on that list: Vietnam (18), Laos (21), Myanmar (23), Brunei (24), and Malaysia (40). I am amazed that peaceful Brunei is ranked so close to Myanmar, where Muslims have been massacred by Buddhist mobs. As far as I can recall, no one has ever been killed in Brunei because of faith.

I wondered how Open Doors prepared its list and what indicators it used. It seems to me that there is something amiss in surveys such as the one conducted by Open Doors. If I did not know the reality of Brunei Darussalam (Abode of Peace), I would not want my Christian friends to go there -- based on the watch list. I think a list such as the WWL can fan fires -- or even start them -- as it creates the impression that Christians are the most persecuted. And oppressed in a country like Brunei.

Having said that, it cannot be denied that Christians are persecuted. I, myself, have written about this. However, other faiths have not escaped persecution for their beliefs. A list ranking countries based on freedom of religion, to my mind, is the more relevant list.

There is one such survey, conducted by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. The USCIRF has a watch list of countries “which require close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments.” The top 10 countries cited are Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikstan, Turkey, and Venezuela.

Meanwhile, I was quite happy to read about Muslim Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who was elevated to the British House of Lords in 2007. The Baroness, daughter of Pakistani immigrants, is the highest ranking Muslim in Britain’s government. Speaking at Georgetown University last November, she acknowledged: “Large numbers of those who live in a minority situation around the world are persecuted.”

While commenting about the persecution of Christians, she stressed that “Our response to this global crisis must not itself be sectarian.” The Baroness added, “It must not be a case of Christians defending Christians, Muslims defending Muslims, or indeed faith groups defending faith groups.”

I totally agree with her when she pointed out that “The challenge appears to be that certain bits of the world want to talk about Islamophobia in the West and other bits of the world want to talk about freedom of expression and persecution of Christians. So it is very polarizing, and it’s about trying to find that middle way.”

(I hope UK Ambassador Asif Ahmad can invite her to visit us).

At the end of the day, A Common Word says it all: if you love God or the Good, you must love your neighbor. Rather than fight each other in conflicts where there can be no victor, the document urged Muslims and Christian to “vie with each other only in righteousness and good works.” It asked both religions to be good neighbors “be fair, just and kind to another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill.”

As H.R.H. Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan stated when he spoke before the UN General Assembly to propose the global celebration of interfaith harmony week:

“The misuse or abuse of religions can thus be a cause of world strife, whereas religions should be a great foundation for facilitating world peace. The remedy for this problem can only come from the world’s religions themselves. Religions must be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

I hope the Universal Peace Federation will have a successful conference and engage religious leaders to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.