The Human Face of Religious Persecution

So far, Robert Hussein has lost his wife, children and fortune and, right now, his only safe home is on the Internet.

The trouble began when he lost his Muslim faith and announced his conversion to Christianity. The prominent businessman -- he was worth $4 million before the controversy -- has lived in hiding since a religious court's May 29 ruling that he is an apostate.

Kuwait allows churches for foreigners and Arab Christians. However, Hussein is the region's first known Muslim to openly convert. His case is especially symbolic since Western leaders said one goal of the Persian Gulf War was to reinforce Kuwait's status as a relatively progressive Islamic regime. Still, tensions remain between civil and religious laws.

"They have taken everything that I have," said Hussein, in an interview posted at a World Wide Web site backing his cause. "Christians in the Middle East have been suffering. ... Enough is enough. In Algeria they have been killed. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia they have been beheaded ... and nobody is talking about them."

The Web site ( is sponsored by a British religious coalition and contains government documents and media reports, as well as links allowing readers to fax Kuwaiti officials or to contact Hussein's protectors. The Islamic Court of Appeals will review his case on Sept. 15.

The May verdict noted that Kuwait's constitution guarantees religious freedom, but this "does not mean a Muslim should be allowed to convert from his religion to another." It also said an apostate "who is born of two Muslim parents ... must be killed. The Iman should kill him without a chance to repent."

Judge Jaafar al-Mazidi told Reuters that some might interpret the ruling as permission to kill the convert. This would, however, be considered murder under Kuwaiti civil law.

But to say Hussein will be protected by civil law ignores the pivotal question: Should those who commit crimes against Islamic orthodoxy be tried in civil or religious courts? Or, as Hussein asked a judge: "Your honor, how can a Sunni Muslim sue a Protestant Christian before a Shiite court?" The answer will affect moderate Muslims as well as members of other faiths.

"Obviously, it's hard to say where religion ends and civil authority begins in Kuwait," said Jeff Taylor, of the Compass Direct religion news agency.

Meanwhile, both the White House and Bob Dole campaign officials have rejected calls to address religious persecution issues. Why? "Oil is important and everybody knows it," said Taylor. "That can make it hard to focus on other issues -- such as religious freedom."

A U.S. State Department paper responding to the May verdict echoed Kuwait's view that its constitution protects religious freedom and that Hussein is in no danger. The statement also noted that, as an apostate, Hussein "loses his custody rights to his children and inheritance rights to his father's estate. ... These are the only ramifications of the court's decision."

This statement infuriated human rights activists because it seemed to assume such measures were fair punishment for the mere act of converting to another faith, said Nina Shea, director of Freedom House's work on religious freedom. Also, U.S. officials have downplayed calls -- by clerics and some in Kuwait's parliament -- for Hussein's death. Many in the Islamic world continue to believe that apostasy is a crime worthy of the death penalty.

"We simply don't know how much danger Hussein is in, right now. But he's keeping on the move and trying to keep his actions unpredictable," said Shea.

Meanwhile, reports continue about China's crackdown on house churches, ongoing persecution in North Korea, the demolition of evangelical churches in Cuba and Christians sold into slavery in Sudan. In Kuwait, many Christian converts live double lives -- waiting to see what happens next.

"What the Robert Hussein case does is put a face on an otherwise abstract problem," said Shea. "It's so easy for people to hear all of the terrible statistics from around the world and then slip in compassion fatigue. Sometimes, it's easier for people to identify with a single human face."