January 19, 2010
The end of 2009 brought horrifyingly fresh reminders that the threat to the West from Islamic extremists may get worse before it gets better.
On Nov. 5, 2009, Islamist Nidal Hasan, a U.S. Army major, allegedly went on a rampage and killed 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas. On Christmas Day Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the son of a wealthy Nigerian banker, nearly succeeded in blowing up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit. Only the quick thinking and heroism of a police woman and fellow Northwest passengers, respectively, kept these incidents from taking hundreds of more lives.
In many parts of the world, however, Christians face these kinds of threats on a daily basis. And there is no one to rescue them.
In the largely Muslim northern African state of Mauritania, 35 followers of Jesus Christ were arrested and tortured for their faith last July. In August, authorities there arrested 150 Christians from sub-Saharan Africa. African Christians weren't the only ones to suffer from persecution in the nation of 3.1 million people. In June, a Christian aid worker from the United States was murdered by terrorists for her suspected evangelism.
Mauritania has the dubious distinction of moving up the farthest on the 2010 Open Doors World Watch List, an annual ranking that tracks persecution of Christians worldwide. Officially listed as 100 percent Muslim, Mauritania jumped from No. 18 to No. 8 on the list, which was released on Jan. 6.
There was not a lot of good news last year for Christians living in the Muslim world. According to the World Watch List, eight of the 10 worst persecuting nations have Muslim majorities, and 35 of the worst 50 are controlled by Muslims.
Such anti-Christian acts by Muslim majorities are ultimately self-defeating, because Christians tend to have a disproportionate positive impact on these societies. In Jordan, for instance, Christians constitute just 3 percent of the population but control a third of that country's economic production.
Despite these facts, religious liberty, particularly for Christians living in their midst, is not high on the agenda for many of these governments. A recent Pew Research Center report found that nearly 70 percent of the world's 6.8 million people live in countries with high levels of restriction on religion. These repressive governments often seek scapegoats for internal problems and controversies. And Christians are often convenient—and extremely vulnerable—targets.
Iran, known as a state sponsor of terrorism and believed to be pursuing nuclear weapons, targeted increasing numbers of Christians last year. Open Doors received reports that Iranian authorities arrested 85 Christians last year, possibly to distract citizens from the unrest and protests that are spreading across the country. Iran moved from No. 3 to No. 2 on the World Watch List.
Early last year two young Iranian Christian women, Maryam Rustampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh, were arrested and put into Tehran's notorious Evin prison for their beliefs. The former Islamic believers refused to recant their Christian faith. Facing international protests, the regime eventually released the women, though the two are at risk of re-arrest at any time.
The situation in many parts of the Muslim world is getting worse for Christians. Christians in Yemen faced tougher conditions even though the country remained at No. 7 on the World Watch List. In general, a potent brew of religious extremism and nationalism is creating an environment where Christians are singled out. Many are accused by radicals of being associated with the "Christian" West.
This ugly, religiously enhanced nationalism is not strictly a Muslim phenomenon, of course. We see versions of it in predominantly Hindu India and in mostly Orthodox regions formerly under the control of the Soviet Union. In North Korea, which remains atop the World Watch List, the cultish secular dictatorship run by Kim Jong-Il persecutes, imprisons and executes Christians whenever and wherever it finds them.
Another 100 percent Muslim country, Somalia, where the Parliament unanimously instituted Islamic law last year, moved up one spot to No. 4 on the list. Most Christians have fled the lawless country, which has become a staging area for piracy and Islamic violence.
Most Christians, given a choice, would prefer to stay and help build their countries. They only leave when they see no other options for themselves and their families. Large numbers of Christians in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East have emigrated. Over the last two decades, Iraq has lost two-thirds of its Christian presence, especially since 2003. The loss of the leavening influence of Christians in these regions provides more space for extremists to operate—threatening the security not just of Christians but of the entire world.
We can see a strong connection between violence directed at Christians in the Muslim world and terrorist acts in the West. We need to respond to both. As George Weigel says, religious liberty "is not a private matter, nor is contending for religious freedom a kind of optional humanitarianism."
It is a matter that concerns all of us—or should.
Dr. Carl Moeller is president and CEO of Open Doors USA (www.OpenDoorsUSA.org), the American arm of Open Doors International, a worldwide ministry which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians since 1955.