Pakistan

Hellish flashbacks on the Christian persecution front

Churches were burning in Pakistan, while African Christians died and radical forms of Islam threatened monasteries, sanctuaries and villages in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. That was 1997. Human-rights scholar Paul Marshall kept hearing one question over and over when he addressed this rising tide of persecution: Why didn't more American Christians protest as their sisters and brothers in the faith were jailed, raped, tortured and killed?

Some Christians, he said, were distracted by apocalyptic talk in which persecution was a good thing, a sign that the end of the world was near. Others weren't that interested in violence on the other side of the world that threatened believers in ancient churches that looked nothing like their own suburban megachurches.

"The result is a stunning passivity that calmly accepts such suffering," said Marshall, in an interview for an earlier column for the Scripps Howard News Service. "Perhaps this ... could be justified if we were dealing with our own suffering. But to do this with the suffering of another amounts to theological sadism."

That was 1997. Marshall had just co-written the groundbreaking book "Their Blood Cries Out," with journalist Lela Gilbert. Since then, I have worked with both of these writers in global projects about religion-news coverage.

Now it's 2013 and the news about the persecution of Christians has only gotten worse. Marshall, Gilbert and Catholic lawyer Nina Shea recently completed a new volume entitled "Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians."

The bottom line: This topic is more relevant than ever.

A year ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, "Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world." While some mocked her words, a Pew Research Center study in 2011 found that Christians were harassed, to one degree of violence or another, in 130 countries -- more than any other world religion. British historian Tom Holland told a recent London gathering that the world is witnessing the "effective extinction of Christianity from its birthplace" in the Middle East.

Recent losses endured in Egypt have been staggering, with more than 100 Christian sites attacked by well-organized mobs in mid-August, including the destruction of 42 churches -- the worst assault on the Coptic Orthodox Church in 700 years. In Syria, rebels linked to al-Qaeda overran Maaloula -- famous for being one of three remaining villages in which locals speak ancient Aramaic, the language of Jesus -- damaging the priceless St. Thekla monastery and trashing two churches.

Then the headlines got worse, with Islamist gunmen killing 67 or more people in the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya. While Muslims were freed, hostages who would not recite the Shahada -- an Islamic confession of faith -- were tortured and killed, before their bodies were mutilated. Days later, the Taliban claimed credit for an attack by two suicide bombers on the historic All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, in which at least 85 worshipers died.

Pope Francis addressed these issues during remarks on Sept. 25, noted John L. Allen, Jr., of the National Catholic Reporter, when reached by email. He is the author of a new book entitled "The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution."

In Allen's translation of the event, the pope asked the crowd: "When I think or hear it said that many Christians are persecuted and give their lives for their faith, does this touch my heart or does it not reach me? Am I open to that brother or that sister in my family who's giving his or her life for Jesus Christ? ... How many of you pray for Christians who are persecuted? How many? ...

"It's important to look beyond one's own fence, to feel oneself part of the Church, of one family of God!"

While the truth is painful, said Marshall, it's important to asking questions about all those silent believers and their silent churches. If anything, it appears that many American Christians are even less interested in global persecution trends than they were in the past, while their churches are even more independent and focused on a therapeutic, individualistic approach to faith.

"It's like all of these horrible events are just blips on the screen. They are there, then they are gone and forgotten," said Marshall. "Sometimes, it's easy to think that Christians in America don't even know what is happening to their brothers and sisters around the world."

Shahbaz Bhatti, modern martyr

In the early days of Christianity, martyrs often gave their final testimonies of faith to Roman leaders before they were crucified, burned or fed to lions. Times being what they are, Shahbaz Bhatti turned to Al Jazeera and YouTube. The only Christian in Pakistan's cabinet knew it was only a matter of time before his work as minister for minority affairs got him killed. Threats by the Taliban and al-Qaeda kept increasing.

"I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of the cross and I follow him on the cross," said Bhatti, in a startlingly calm video recorded several weeks before his assassination on March 2.

"When I'm leading this campaign against the Sharia laws for the abolishment of blasphemy law, and speaking for the oppressed and marginalized persecuted Christian and other minorities, these Taliban threaten me. ... I'm living for my community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights. So these threats and these warnings cannot change my opinion and principles."

The last straw was almost certainly the Catholic statesman's defense of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was sentenced to death last November for the crime of blasphemy after she publicly defended her faith in a village argument. The verdict -- which must be upheld by a higher court -- further polarized a tense nation and sparked a global firestorm.

Then again, in 2009 Bhatti received the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's first medallion for the promotion of religious freedom. A year later he met with Pope Benedict XVI to discuss interfaith work and religious liberty in Pakistan. Bhatti was not hiding his convictions.

The blasphemy laws in question went into effect in 1986, during the dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. They ban, among other actions, the use of "derogatory remarks, etc; in respect of the Holy Prophet. Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine."

These blasphemy laws have been used against hundreds of Muslim dissenters and Ahmadi sect members, whose approach to Islam is specifically attacked in the laws. In practice, conversion from Islam to another faith is considered blasphemy, as are attempts to advocate or defend minority faiths, such as Christianity or Hinduism.

Vigilantes often kill those formerly or informally accused of blasphemy -- making trials irrelevant.

This was the case with Bhatti's death in a wave of machine-gun fire into his unarmored car. Pakistani officials had denied his request for an armored car, despite the constant threat of drive-by shootings.

Formalities were also irrelevant on Jan. 4, when Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan's Punjab Province, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. This outspoken Muslim also defended Bibi and called for reform in the use of blasphemy laws.

Adoring crowds showered Taseer's assassin with rose petals and garlands as he arrived to face a magistrate, while moderate Muslim leaders remained silent. Pakistan's legislators observed a moment of silence for Bhatti, since it probably would have been fatal for anyone to offer a prayer in his honor.

After all, pamphlets left by those who killed Bhatti warned that they would keep fighting "all the world's infidels, crusaders, Jews and their operatives within the Muslim brotherhood. ... This is the fate of that cursed man. And now, with the grace of Allah, the warriors of Islam will pick you out one by one and send you to hell, God willing."

Apparently, many radicals in Pakistan have concluded -- a perfect Catch-22 -- that it is blasphemy to oppose the blasphemy laws.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani conference of Catholic bishops is preparing to render a judgment of its own. Later this month the bishops will review a proposal to ask the Vatican to designate Bhatti as a martyr.

"Bhatti is a man who gave his life for his crystalline faith in Jesus Christ," Bishop Andrew Francis of Multan told a Vatican news agency. "It is up to us, the bishops, to tell his story and experience to the church in Rome, to call for official recognition of his martyrdom."