On Saturday, the world’s Christians will join in prayer and celebration of the birth of Jesus. For too many of them, this worshipful act will take place under the threat of imprisonment, torture or execution.
“Christians are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote in the Vatican’s annual Peace Day message. The pontiff chose not to single out the most notable perpetrators of this persecution, but previous Vatican statements and numerous human rights surveys point the finger at Muslim-majority countries. In most of them, Islam is the official state religion and source of law. In those places, there is no appreciation for the Western practice of freedom of worship. Indeed, free exercise is the very thing that can lead to violence.
The case of Asia Bibi – a 45-year-old Pakistani Christian mother of five sentenced to death in November for allegedly blaspheming against Muhammad – has gained wide press attention. Less noticed is the case of the Rev. Wilson Augustine, a 25-year-old Pakistani Christian evangelist who was beaten with clubs and belts and set on fire for preaching the Gospel in villages near the town of Sargodha. In Egypt, there is rising violence against members of the ancient Coptic Christian community, which existed in the country centuries before Islam was founded. In January, six Christians were killed when three Muslim gunmen opened fire on worshippers attending a Coptic Christmas Mass. In another case, a Christian named Farouk Attallah was killed by four Muslim men who were outraged that his son was romantically involved with a Muslim girl. They were arrested, but the case was thrown out for “lack of evidence.”
In many Muslim countries, Christians face institutional discrimination regarding marriage and inheritance laws, taxes, government employment, and time, place and manner of permitted worship. Conversion to Christianity is frequently a capital offense, and in Saudi Arabia, Christian worship of any kind is banned. Those carrying Bibles or other religious materials are subjected to police harassment and confiscation of the dangerous devotional items. Dissenters from these Shariah-based violations of religious freedom face charges of blasphemy and stringent punishments. According to an October study by Freedom House, such blasphemy laws reach well beyond their purported purpose of protecting religious dogma and are used to stifle all manner of expression and political dissent.
Christians have found few vocal defenders in U.S. official circles. The State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom report offers a compendium of the types of oppression Christians around the world face, but even given this wealth of official information, President Obama has refused to highlight Christian suffering, even while being widely outspoken about much less compelling cases of purported discrimination against Muslims. Among the cases noted in the State Department report is that of Maher el-Gohary, an Egyptian Christian convert from Islam who is being persecuted for his beliefs. More than a year ago, his then-15-year-old daughter, Dina, wrote an emotional appeal to Mr. Obama asking him to use his influence to save her father. There was no response.
Another Christian convert from Islam, Ashraf Thabet, faces charges of “defamation” and has lost his wife, children and business because of his newfound beliefs. For these tortured believers and other Christians around the world, it will be best to keep this holy night a silent night. For these persecuted souls, there is no room at the inn.
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