Islamist insurgent attacks on Iraqi churches in recent years have not only killed scores of Christians, but also terrorized Iraq's dwindling Christian population. Since 1991, its number of Christians has plummeted by two-thirds to 340,000.
Seven church bombings this year alone in Nigeria have killed hundreds of Christians. In Iran, leaders of the Central Church of Tehran, an Assemblies of God congregation, told its members on May 6 that government authorities are demanding a list of their names and identification numbers. Providing such information presents a major risk for Christians in a nation where conversion from Islam carries the death penalty.
In Pakistan, blasphemy laws empower false accusations against Christians, resulting in dozens of wrongful imprisonments. And in Egypt, after a rising number of military and Islamist mob attacks on Coptic Christians, last month a judge dismissed all charges against a group of Salafi Muslims who cut off the ear of Ayman Anwar Metry, a Christian who refused to say the Shahada, the Islamic creed for conversion.
These are but a sampling of violent acts against Christians that occur daily, especially in the Middle East and Central Asia. But while Christians are the world's most persecuted faith group, word simply hasn't gotten out. The media only reports a fraction of these accounts. Typically the persecutors go unpunished.
Tragically, such attacks on Christians are often written off as political violence or common crime. Or if the media does include truth of the faith-related basis for a believer's persecution, far too often the response in today's world of rising disasters and global mayhem is an apathetic "so what?"
That's why Open Doors USA and the Simon Wiesenthal Center partnered to present a special press conference earlier this month at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where credentialed media representatives learned about religious persecution. I addressed the media with Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the Wiesenthal director of interfaith affairs.
Of the once vibrant Iraqi and Egyptian Jewish communities, eight Jews remain in Iraq and roughly 100 in Egypt. "The limitation of religious freedom within minority populations has become a political tool of all kinds of regimes," Adlerstein said, "one that will continue to wreak havoc with the lives and existence of entire communities in many parts of the world.
"Spirituality is an important part of life, so important that it must be considered part of the essential basket of ingredients that make for human freedom."
Additionally, Open Doors USA and the Wiesenthal Center held the conference to provide traction for the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act of 2011, sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), that calls for a special envoy for religious liberty to the Middle East and Central Asia. While the House of Representatives passed the bill, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) is holding up its passage in the Senate, where it is called S 1245. We hope all Virginia supporters of freedom, regardless of faith, will contact Webb's office, urging him to release this bill for a vote.
At a separate event, Thomas Farr, Ph.D., head of Georgetown University's religious freedom program, addressed the "so what" factor of discrimination against and killing of Christians and other minority groups. Farr said: “Everyone should support religious freedom around the world and in the U.S., even if they are not religious.”
“Religicide” – the annihilation of a group based on their faith – should cause worldwide outrage. But beyond humanitarian concerns, everyone should care about this, because religious freedom is a powerful measure of global threat.
Simply put, societies that protect the right to free religious exercise are not security risks. Countries intolerant of non-official religious beliefs foster environments that jeopardize our national security. It's in the best interests of the United States -- and the world in general -- for Egypt, as an example, to be stable, embracing religious liberty and protecting its faith minorities. An Egyptian society closed to faiths other than Islam and fostering extremism endangers the entire world.
Some 20 journalists attended our press conference. This excellent turnout represented a shift in our capacity to spread the word about this vital issue. But unfortunately, not only must I spend too much time briefing the media on the general contours of persecution, explaining what can be done to protect freedom and lives, all too often I have to explain this issue to unaware Christians.
My hope is that one day, when I bring up the issue of persecution to a general audience, they will respond: "Yes, I read about this. We know about this. What can we do?" I think we're getting there.
Dr. Carl Moeller is president and CEO of Open Doors USA, an affiliate of Open Doors International, a worldwide ministry which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians living in the most dangerous countries around the globe since 1955. For more information, visit www.OpenDoorsUSA.org.
Publication date: May 17, 2012