Pope Benedict XVI spoke out last Thursday on behalf of “the right to change religion,” saying that this right “should be guaranteed not only legally, but also in daily practice.”
This was an unmistakable reference to Islam, since traditional Islamic law mandates the death penalty for apostates from Islam, in accordance with Muhammad’s command: “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.”
Many Muslims take this dictum quite seriously today. In August 2007, Mohammed Hegazy, an Egyptian convert from Islam to Christianity, was forced by sentences of death pronounced against him by Islamic clerics to go into hiding. An Afghani, Abdul Rahman, was arrested in February 2006 — for the crime of leaving Islam and becoming a Christian. And converts from Islam to Christianity are not the only ones being victimized. In March 2007, Islamic gangs knocked on doors in Christian neighborhoods in Baghdad, demanding payment of the jizya. Christians all over Iraq live increasingly in an atmosphere of terror. Women have been threatened with kidnapping or death if they do not wear a headscarf; liquor store owners in Iraq have likewise been threatened. A onetime Iraqi liquor store owner now living in Syria lamented that “now at least 75% of my Christian friends have fled. There is no future for us in Iraq.”
That may be true of Christians all over the Islamic world. In Egypt, Coptic Christians have suffered discrimination and harassment for centuries, and their plight is increasing. In June, rioters in Alexandria vandalized Christian shops, attacked and injured seven Christians, and damaged two Coptic churches. Police allowed the mob to roam free in Alexandria’s Christian quarter for an hour and a half before intervening. The Compass Direct news service, which tracks incidents of Christian persecution, noted: “In April 2006, Alexandria was the scene of three knife attacks on churches that killed one Christian and left a dozen more injured. The government appeared unable or unwilling to halt subsequent vandalism of Coptic-owned shops and churches…” In August, two Coptic rights activists were arrested for “publishing articles and declarations that are damaging to Islam and insulting to Prophet Mohammed on the United Copts Web site.” Last February, rumors that a Christian man was having an affair with a Muslim woman — a violation of Islamic law — led to the destruction of several Christian-owned shops in southern Egypt.
In Pakistan the situation for Christians is no better. Fr. Emmanuel Asi, chairman of the Theological Institute for Laity in Lahore and secretary of the Catholic Bible Commission of Pakistan, said in August 2007 that Christians are frequently denied equality of rights with Muslims and subjected to various forms of discrimination. Jihadist aggression, he said, “at any time” can bring “every imaginable kind of problem” upon Pakistan’s Christians. As in Egypt, Christians in Pakistan have suffered from mob violence and threats. Christians (as well as Hindus) in Peshawar in northern Pakistan received letters in August from a jihadist group, telling them to convert to Islam by August 10 or “your colony will be ruined.” Even after the deadline passed, the Christians continued, according to Compass Direct, “to live in fear, canceling church activities and skipping services.” They had good reason to be worried, since jihadists have attacked Pakistani churches in the past; in one attack in October 2001, eighteen Christians were murdered during a worship service.
Human rights groups and many Christians in the West have been strangely silent about Muslim persecution of Christians. Many American Christians are surprised just to discover that there are ancient communities of Christians in Islamic lands at all. Extending a helping hand to them necessarily involves difficult issues of American relationships with Islamic countries, which is enough to make the task too daunting for most. Meanwhile, today’s fashionable anti-Christian rhetoric (see Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Chris Hedges, etc.) makes it difficult for many to see Christians as victims at all.
And so Islamic jihadists and Sharia supremacists continue, with ever increasing confidence and brutality, to prey on the Christians in their midst. It is the persecution that almost no one dares name.