Anti-Christian Violence in Muslim World
BU prof: recent spate spotlights longtime problem
“Non-Muslim communities have become endangered species throughout much of the Islamic world,” Christian human rights advocate John Eibner wrote in the Boston Globe last month. From mobs torching churches in Cairo to massacres of Christians in Iraq and Egypt to last winter’s assassination of a Christian Pakistani cabinet minister and the beheading of a Tunisian Catholic priest, jihadists are committing violence in a “toxic culture of extremist Muslim supremacy,” Eibner wrote.
BU Today asked Elizabeth Prodromou, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of international relations, what’s behind the uptick in anti-Christian violence taking place amid the uprisings against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, known as the “Arab Spring”?
Prodromou is a vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a watchdog panel appointed by the president and Congress to monitor religious repression globally. The commission recommends “countries of particular concern” for religious intolerance to the State Department for possible sanctions, although only one country, Eritrea, has been sanctioned in the commission’s 13-year existence. It also keeps a watch list of countries that are tipping toward oppression.
Prodromou specializes in the study of southeastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean region. She recently visited several Islamic countries, including Morocco, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, on commission business. This interview reflects her personal views, not necessarily those of the commission.
BU Today: Is the Globe columnist’s statement about “endangered species” accurate?
Prodromou (left): I think that’s a brilliant way to capture a very concerning situation. Traveling in the region in the fall and spring, it was interesting to hear two religious leaders use that very term. One of them said, “You have this legislation in America, and it protects endangered animals. That’s how we feel as a Christian community here” in Turkey.
So what’s behind the upsurge in anti-Christian violence?
What we’re seeing is the ratcheting upward of a trend line that has been continuing for a long time. The Arab Spring is an expression of widespread discontent with authoritarian regimes; that has highlighted the lack of political and civil liberties in the region. That condition has been more acute for non-Muslim minorities and for minorities within Muslim communities. I’m talking about, for example, Alawites in Turkey, although the flip side is you have an Alawite minority government in Syria that oppresses the Sunni majority. Ahmadiyyas are everywhere, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, and Ismailis in Pakistan—these are minority Muslim communities in Muslim societies that have also been oppressed.
I think we wouldn’t have noticed it as much without the Arab Spring. It’s not because it wasn’t there. I think that we weren’t looking. Who’s suddenly discovering this? The media in the United States and Europe, but also policy makers. The people who should have been looking weren’t looking as carefully as they should have been.
The communities most at risk are those that are numerically smallest, and that happens to be Christian communities. The Copts in Egypt are an example. They’re approximately 10 percent of the population, and they have been systematically politically disenfranchised. Their physical security has been a long-standing problem. It’s a phenomenon already experienced by Jews in the Middle East.
That’s ironic because in the Middle Ages Muslim regimes tended to be more tolerant than European Christian leaders.
Absolutely. A good example is the Jewish community in Turkey, which didn’t arrive until the 15th century because they were being expelled from Europe and the Inquisition in Spain. Under the Ottoman Empire, religious minority communities—Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Jews—operated with a degree of autonomy.
Who is committing the violence, religious fanatics or governments?
Both. Governments—and illustrative cases would be Egypt, Iraq, Turkey—have systematically over the 20th century oppressed their Christian minorities, to the point that in Turkey they’re almost erased, and in Iraq have declined precipitously.
What are your commission and the State Department doing about the problem?
We have designated Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran as countries of particular concern. And Egypt, for the first time. Turkey is a watch-list country. The United States neither can nor should tell these countries what to do. But we provide enormous amounts of foreign assistance. We provide over $1 billion a year to the Egyptians, the second largest recipient after Israel. We provide a lot of financial assistance to Turkey, Saudi Arabia.
We can more carefully target our assistance. We can move away from military assistance to economic development and assistance that helps to build a civil society, where people learn to respect the rule of law. We can provide assistance that helps to professionalize police training, so that policing occurs with respect for human rights. The commission has proposed training for members of judiciaries, whether in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, so that members understand international human rights standards.
As a Christian, if you had to live in a Muslim country, which one would you choose?
Indonesia has a relatively more tolerant approach. And Jordan and Morocco. That’s not to say there aren’t problems. The Moroccan government summarily deported over 100 Christians in 2010, for reasons difficult to ascertain. No country or system can claim absolute perfection.
Rich Barlow can be reached at email@example.com Comments