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Middle East PDF Print E-mail

Nina Shea
Freedom House

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

I want to talk today about one of the most pressing human rights problems in the world: religious persecution. I have managed to get some press attention by stating that this has been the worst century in history for anti-Christian persecution. Today, I want to venture to say that in sheer absolute numbers, this century has been one of the bloodiest, if not the bloodiest, century for Jews, Buddhists, and the Baha’i faith as well.

When I talk about persecution, I am talking about the very worst atrocities of man by man; that is, killing, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, and so on. In my talk about the Middle East, I am going to leave aside discrimination and harassment. Those are, unfortunately, found in all societies, including our own. What I am focusing on are the very worst human rights abominations.

The Middle East is one of the fiercest opponents of religious minorities; the other, of course, being the remaining communist states in Asia.

Muslim societies are not uniformly hostile to religious minorities. Jordan, for example, accommodates its religious minorities and even tolerates Christian religious education in its public schools for Christians. The Ottoman Empire is another example, in the past, of a Muslim society that accommodated Christians, Jews, and other minorities.

However, we have seen, during the 1990s, a worsening trend in many countries in the Middle East, to the point where massacre and mayhem occur on a grand scale. The other component of this problem is the shocking indifference and blindness of the policy elite in the United States and the West in general to this persecution.

Perhaps no place is as bad as Sudan. There, what the government calls a jihad, a holy war, is going on against its non-Muslim population based in the south. The New York Times recently reported the near-genocidal proportions of persecution of Christians and non-Muslims in the Nuba Mountain areas. Recently, the Times said the government has cut off relief flights to places that are undergoing mass starvation in the south. Just a few years ago a quarter of a million people in the non-Muslim part of Sudan died of starvation in a similar situation.

This spring there have been bombings of hospitals in the Christian part of Sudan. Fifteen people were killed and 48 wounded on March 5 in one of these bombing raids. Three weeks before that, six other people were killed. There is also slavery. There has been some coverage of this on TV. Two reporters from the Baltimore Sun actually went over and purchased three Christian slaves. Christian Solidarity International is a group that specializes in buying back slaves. They have bought back thousands of slaves. These are Christians and animists, non-Muslims who were sold in open-air slave markets, some for as little as the price of a chicken. All of this is done in an attempt to forcibly convert or eliminate religious minorities.

Speaking about the indifference of our leadership, President Clinton was just in Africa. I was dismayed that when he apologized, as he should, for slavery in the United States 200 years ago, he failed to mention that slavery is an ongoing practice right now in Sudan.

Saudi Arabia is another country that is utterly intolerant of religious minorities. Non-Muslim worship is banned; it is illegal and punishable by death. There are no churches, no Bibles, no Catholic priests, no Christian artifacts, no Jewish worship, no non-Muslim worship of any kind. Almost one-fourth of the population of Saudi Arabia is farm workers. Many of these people, who come from Korea, the Philippines, and Egypt, are not Muslims. Some are Christians, some may be from the Unification Church. These people are punished very severely if they are caught praying, even in their own homes.

The motawa, or secret police, go from home to home trying to ferret out unauthorized worship. One man, Danato Lama, was caught about a year ago. A Catholic from the Philippines, he was given 70 lashes and spent over a year in prison for worshiping as a Christian. He claims that two of his cellmates who were also Philippine Catholics were beheaded last May for worshiping as Christians.

The United States not only has not condemned this persecution but has capitulated to Saudi demands and stopped Christian worship services for U.S. employees on U.S. Embassy grounds.

In the Washington, D.C., area, the government of Loudon County, Virginia, permits an Islamic school funded by the government of Saudi Arabia. I think that is appropriate. We are a nation of religious freedom. We should allow the Saudis to fund schools on religion for Muslims, but we should also challenge them to allow churches and the right to worship for non-Muslim minorities in Saudi Arabia.

The largest religious minority in Iran is the 300,000-strong Baha’i community. The Baha’is have been delegitimized by the Islamic fundamentalist government of Iran since 1979. The government considers them unprotected infidels. They have no legal rights whatsoever. More than 200 have been executed or murdered solely on the basis of their religion. Four are under a death sentence right now, two of these for apostasies and two others for teaching the Baha’i religion to their children.

Baha’is are not allowed to elect leaders, organize schools, or conduct other religious activities. They have no clergy. A ban on the organization’s structure threatens the survival of the community. All Baha’i cemeteries, holy places, and community properties were seized soon after the 1979 revolution. Many have been destroyed. None have been returned. Many individual properties have been confiscated. Baha’is are denied jobs and pensions. Ten thousand have been dismissed from university posts and government positions. Baha’i students are barred from the universities. Their marriages and divorces are not recognized and the right to inherit is denied. In other words, Baha’is in Iran have absolutely no rights. If someone were to murder a Baha’i, that person could not even be accused of murder or tried because Baha’is have no right to life.

Christian minorities in Iran have also been targeted. In 1994, the Islamic militant president of Iran said that no religions other than Islam are valid and that Iran should adopt the model of jihad. In the next two weeks four top leaders of Christian churches were murdered. A stream of Christian refugees from Iran fled to Turkey hoping to get political asylum in the United States. I am sorry to say that here again, the United States has utterly failed in its obligations to extend asylum to these people. Not one has been given asylum through the ordinary due process of asylum procedure.

Some exceptions have occurred in which the United States has granted political asylum to Christians fleeing Iran for religious reasons, but they have all been through the intervention of members of Congress or government leaders in Washington, not through the ordinary procedures of immigration.

I would also like to mention Egypt. Egypt is somewhat different from the other countries I mentioned. The government isn’t as directly involved in the worst instances of persecution, but it is a significant country for two reasons. First, it is the home of the largest Christian minority in the Middle East, Coptic Christians, estimated to number about 10-12 million in Egypt. Also, it is the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. Dozens of Coptic Christians have been killed in Egypt in the last couple of years.

There were two massacres in 1997. In one, terrorists burst into a Coptic Orthodox Church while a youth meeting was convening and opened fire, mowing down the cream of the Coptic youth, their future leadership. The other incident also involved a massacre targeting Coptic Orthodox Christians. In other instances, dozens of Christians have been killed in recent years. Terrorists exact a poll tax from Christians. If they refuse to pay, they are executed. The government is partly at fault because it has not given adequate protection, nor has it prosecuted the murderers. Although it is not directly involved, the government helps to create an atmosphere of tension allowing situations to fan the fuels of this hatred. Christians are the number one civilian target for terrorists in Egypt. Because Egyptian ID cards are marked by religion, citizens who present an ID for any purpose—school, jobs, and so forth—are immediately identified and may be subjected to severe discrimination.

Egypt also has laws that require the government’s permission before any church can be repaired, restored, or built. This permission has been slow in coming. In fact, many churches are in acute disrepair. In some cases, a church went ahead without permission and fixed the washroom facilities. In reprisal the police and troops bulldozed the entire church. Earlier this year President Mubarak amended these laws. It had been hoped that instead of the law being amended, it would be repealed. The new decree gave authority to local governors. This unfortunately will put the local governments in the direct line of the terrorists, and Christians will probably not have any more success in getting permission to rebuild or repair than they had in the past.

I am also very concerned about hate speech and the level of animosity directed against Christians in the government-controlled media. This is occurring in an atmosphere in which Christians are being targeted and killed. I think it is totally inappropriate. Even the Washington Post ran an article last year entitled “Copts: Egypt’s Endangered Christians,” noting that thousands of Egypt’s Christians have fled the country or been pressured to convert to Islam.

The Jewish population of Egypt has experienced similar harassment. Fewer than a hundred Jews are left in Egypt. Recently, our ambassador, who is Jewish, was characterized in a very hostile fashion in the Egyptian press.

There are many other countries I could discuss, but I am running out of time. My co-panelist, Mark Sigmon, will touch upon some of the other countries in North Africa where religious persecution is a problem. At Freedom House, which is an activist human rights group where I direct the Center for Religious Freedom, we are going to be watching very closely the situation in Lebanon, Israel, and Turkey. These are countries where the situation regarding religious minorities is developing very quickly for the worse.

The United States used to have a human rights policy. Human rights used to be one of the four pillars of our foreign policy. That has changed, and I don’t think it is being taken into the equation at all, particularly religious freedom. Human rights has often been described in American foreign policy as the island off the mainland of foreign policy. I look at religious freedom as the drowning man in the life raft off the island, off the mainland.

We have a double hurdle in trying to get White House attention and State Department attention to this very serious problem. There is legislation making its way through Congress this spring: the Specter bill in the house, the Nickles bill in the Senate. I think you will hear more about this legislation later on in this conference. This is an extremely important move to get that drowning man on to the main shore.