Global Independent Analytics
Alessandra Benignetti
Alessandra Benignetti

Location: Italy

Specialization: Foreign politics, Immigration, Human rights.

2015: the worst year in modern history for persecuted Christians

In nearly all of these countries, Islamist extremism represents the main threat to the Christian community.

Even though the mainstream media does not often talk about it, in the last year Christians emerged as the most persecuted religious group in the world, with almost 80% of all acts of religious persecution directed against people who profess the Christian faith. Furthermore, recent reports by associations and NGO’s show how violence and bias against Christians are consistently growing. For example, the report produced recently by the Pontifical Foundation Aid for the Church in Need examines the period 2013-2015, and shows how persecution against Christians has worsened in 17 of 22 countries covered in the report. In 2015, countries that report a level of persecution classified as “extreme” grew from 6 to 10.

The worsening of this situation is mainly driven by the rise of Islamic extremism and Daesh’s presence in several countries like Syria, Iraq, and Nigeria. Even though Islamic extremism is one of the gravest threats to the freedom and security of Christians, especially in the Middle East, there are other factors that contribute to the threat towards Christian community’s existence all over the world, including other kinds of religious extremism found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism, and the existence of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. First place in the rank of countries where persecution against Christians has reached its highest level belongs to North Korea - something highlighted in a report drafted by Open Doors International for the year 2016. North Korea has occupied first position in the rank for the 14th consecutive year. Iraq, Eritrea, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Iran, and Libya all appeared on the list for the first time – follow in the ranking of the “top 50 most-dangerous places in the world to be a Christian”.

In almost all of these countries, Islamist extremism represents the main threat for the Christian community. Christians are in fact the favorite targets for Daesh and other jihadist groups. In different areas of Iraq and Syria, almost the entire Christian community fled after Daesh sentenced them to death and withdrew the option of paying the Jizya tax in the territories occupied by jihadists. In the Middle East, persecution against Christians is rising day by day, to ethnic cleansing proportions. Daesh is attempting to eliminate the presence of Christianity in the lands occupied by the Caliphate, and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their countries after Daesh seized some of the most important cities in Iraq and Syria. In the summer of 2014, for example, after Daesh captured Mosul and Nineveh plains, there was a mass exodus of people, with 120,000 Christians and Yazidis forced to leave their villages in the night between the 6th and the 7th of August, and took nothing with them but their clothes. Others, in cities like al Quraitain in Syria, are currently forced to live as dhimmis, or second-class non-Muslim citizens, in the Islamic State. They have no rights, and their lives are regulated by an agreement of 12 points issued by the Caliph al Baghdadi himself. This is the reason why many of them chose to leave the territories controlled by the Caliphate. These can be considered the main reasons why now the Iraqi Christian historical presence fell to a figure as low as 275,000 people. It is estimated that, according to the Aid to the Church in Need’s report, if the exodus will continue at this pace, the Christian presence in Iraq will vanish within five years.

The same situation is visible in Syria, where terrorists also target Christians. They are kidnapped for ransom, raped, and young Christians are murdered. These were everyday occurrences in the last five years of the war in Syria, where thanks to the Assad government, ethnic and religious pluralism was strongly guaranteed. Now, after the civil conflict and the military advance of Daesh, the situation in the country has radically changed. In Aleppo, the “Christian capital” of Syria, the Christian community was estimated to be of around 300,000 people. Now there are a few hundred Christians in this town, which has been destroyed by years of clashes between the Syrian army and the terrorist factions. Almost 700,000 Christians, according to the more optimistic reports, have left the country, and today in Aleppo every public demonstration of faith that is considered normal under the government of Bashar al Assad, is strictly forbidden.

With a countless number of claims, the Patriarchs of the Eastern Church are trying to contain the exodus of the Christian communities from the Middle East. The religious authorities of the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches have often warned the West on the consequences of this unprecedented exodus and on the eventual loss of Christian presence in the Middle East. As Ignatius Aphrem II, the Siro-Orthodox Patriarch of Antiochia claimed, it would mean letting this geopolitical area fall under the government of fundamental Islamic states and in a state of never ending the inter-religious conflict. The Pathriarchs of the Eastern Church has also often blamed Europe and the West for being too inactive and silent and for “having forgotten” the persecution against the Christian community in the Middle East.

If on the one hand the Middle East is a place where a major number of Christians are forced to leave their homes due to an extreme level of persecution against them, on the other hand, Africa is the place where they are killed the most. In 2015, a total of 7,100 Christians were killed due to their faith, with 4,028 of them killed in Nigeria. Here, the fundamentalist sect of Boko Haram is responsible for thousands of killings among the Christians, especially in the north-east of the country. Only in the Maiduguri diocese were 350 churches destroyed and 100,000 people forced to leave their houses. In these areas, the persecution of Christians is described by the local Catholic bishops as “systematic”. Fundamental rights, like free access to portable water, are completely denied to these people.

Also worthy of attention is Pakistan, where many Christians are victims of the law on blasphemy. From 1986, someone who is merely suspected of offending the Qura’n or the name of the Prophet Mohammed is punished with a life sentence or with death. Christians in Pakistan represent 2% of the population and belong to the poorer social classes. Muslims often set fire to Christian houses or churches in Pakistani cities like Gojra, Shantinagar, Lahore, Johnabad, and Mardan. Many Christian women and girls are often kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam. Often the charge of blasphemy justifies every sort of unacceptable violence.

Among the well-known episodes is the case of Asia Bibi, a woman sentenced to death after a dispute with Muslim women on access to portable water. One of the most brutal cases related to the effects of the law on blasphemy is also the story of a young Christian couple, Shahzad and Shama, 24 and 26 year old, who were charged with the accusation of having burnt pages of the Quran, and were subsequently buried alive in the furnace where they used to work by their Muslim colleagues on the 4th of November, 2014. Unfortunately, those who try to oppose this absurd legislation have paid for it with his lives for the consequences: that is the case of the Punjab’s governor Salman Taseer, who was killed by one of his Muslim bodyguards after he declared himself to be against the law on blasphemy. Shahbaz Bhatti, minister of the Minorities of Pakistan, was killed in Islamabad for the same reason.

As was mentioned previously, Christians are also suffering under dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. In North Korea, where Christians are seen as political competitors by the regime, 33 Christians were sentenced to death with the charge of spying, and it is estimated that almost 500,000 Christians are currently detained in working camps in the country. A low level of religious freedom is also observed regarding the Christian community in China, where arrests of Christian leaders are frequent.

According to the Open Door Association, 2015 was the “worst year in modern history for Christian persecution”.

But, unfortunately, those affected by the advance of Daesh, or by the presence of fundamentalist or authoritarian regimes, are not the only countries of concern for the persecution of Christians. Paradoxically, in the last few years, Christians have also persecuted where they represent the majority of society. In this regard, Pope Benedict XIV’s words were prophetic when he said that fundamentalism and relativism would become the main risks for the future of our societies. The “religion of laicism” that has been embraced by many European countries has translated itself into a loss of identity that has also led to a growing number of instances of discrimination and bias against Christians, which are now frequent also across the European continent. A recent publication on the Hate Crimes in Europe, edited by the OSCE/ODHIR, shows for example that, in the past few years, violence and bias against Christians have increased in many countries in Europe. Episodes of desecration of cemeteries and places of worship, but also episodes of aggression directed against people in reason of their Christian faith are growing in percentage. As the Secretary for the Holy See’s Relations with States, archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, stressed intervening at the 22nd OSCE Ministerial Council in Belgrade, in fact, “regarding intolerance and discrimination, one of the lessons learned in recent years is that it has become out-dated to talk about minority and majority communities, since the victims may belong to either”. “In particular, in the case of Christians, it is recognized that they suffer persecution in many countries, but even in countries where they are the majority they may also be subject to certain curtailments of their rights in subtle ways. Therefore, all forms of religious intolerance and discrimination should be carefully identified and equally addressed,” stated archbishop Gallagher in his intervention.

So today, remaining committed to freedom of religion and belief does not appear superfluous or unneeded even in western societies. In order to defend peaceful religious coexistence and to prevent conflicts, the West has to recover its respect for its own values and traditions, recognizing and protecting its own culture, which includes the protection of the rights of freedom of religion that is fully inserted into civil liberties and in fundamental human rights.

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