Unification News for December 1996


Endangered Minority: Christians

by Ronald J. Pappalardo-Cary, NC

Last month's selection of Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta as recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize has had the hoped- for effect of calling the world's attention to the suffering of the people of East Timor at the hands of the Indonesian government.

The award has highlighted the plight of a small minority of less than a million devoutly religious people who have suffered invasion, suppression and discrimination at the hands of a nation of 190 million.

It is surprising to most Westerners to learn that the most populous Muslim nation in the world is not Iran or Saudi Arabia, but the Southeast Asian island nation of Indonesia.

It is perhaps even more surprising to learn that the religious minority being persecuted by the Indonesian government is not black, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, animist or any of the new religious movements. No, in this case the ones who are having their minority human rights violated are Christians.

It's not easy for those of us who live in the Bible Belt to conceive of Christians as a persecuted minority, but the facts are startling.

First of all, it's worth noting that out of a world population of about 5.5 billion, Christians comprise only about 1.7 billion, less than one third.

Surprisingly, in nation after nation, Christians today are suffering systematic discrimination, imprisonment, torture and even execution because of their religious faith.

This state of affairs is the subject of a recently-released report entitled "In the Lion's Den" conducted by the Puebla Program on Religious Freedom at Freedom House. The program's director, Nina Shea, said that "One of the biggest untold stories of our time is that more Christians have died in this century simply because they are Christians than in the first 19 centuries after the birth of Christ."

Until recently, the existence of militantly atheistic regimes such as those in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe provided the greatest threat to the freedom of Christians. The collapse of communism has greatly increased religious liberty in those areas, but communism still reigns in China, Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea, among others.

The Chinese government places strict controls on religion, and this year has stepped up its campaign against Christian "house churches." Dozens of Christians have been arrested, detained and fined for belonging to these independent churches, which refuse to register with the communist authorities.

In Vietnam, authorities suppress Christians out of fear of a repeat of the role Christianity played in the overthrow of communism in places like East Germany, where the Lutheran church provided a rallying point for anti-government activists.

Many human rights workers believe that the greatest threat to Christians today comes not from the remnants of communism, but from an increasingly intolerant and militant version of Islamic fundamentalism.

The suffering of Christians at the hands of Islamic radicals made international headlines on May 22 with the news that seven Trappist monks in Algeria were taken hostage and executed by having their throats slit.

Less well known is the predicament of Christians in other Muslim countries. In Sudan, for example, the Islamic government is at war with its Christians. The Puebla report says that Christians are forcibly being converted to Islam, and that as many as 25,000 of them have been sold into slavery.

In most Muslim countries it is illegal for Christians to proselytize. In several countries-Pakistan, for example-Christians have been executed for blaspheming Islam. In others, those who convert to Christianity from Islam are executed for apostasy.

Westerners sometimes forget that Christianity was first of all a Middle Eastern religion. Significant Christian communities are still to be found in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt. Christians in these and other countries are in a precarious situation. The shifting winds of political change could threaten their existence at any moment.

While it is of course essential that Americans continue the tradition of protecting the rights of our own religious minorities, we must not forget to look out for the rights of Christians who themselves occupy a minority position in many countries.

Christians in the United States need to take a leading role in increasing awareness of and making efforts to stop the persecution of Christians. Churches need to set aside denominational differences and work together for all Christians.

From the foreign policy perspective, the United States should not grant foreign aid to nations which persecute Christians. The State Department and members of Congress should take a more active role in reporting on the problem and speaking out against individuals or groups who persecute Christians. Immigration laws should be changed to include protection for Christians who are persecuted and then request "religious asylum."

Finally, the press needs to do a better job of reporting on the plight of Christians in other countries. For example, while Pope John Paul II is covered for his views on abortion, he is seldom covered as a spokesman for persecuted Christians.

It is inexcusable that the persecution of Christians is allowed to continue in the 1990s, when the rights of almost every other group are being championed. With the help of the churches, the government and the press, we can put an end to this tragedy, "one of the biggest untold stories of our time."

Ronald J. Pappalardo is executive director of the American Freedom Coalition of North Carolina.


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