Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Christians in Islamic Lands (Part 2)

In a much-publicized incident in November 2007, Gillian Gibbons, a British teacher at Unity High School in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, was arrested and jailed for the crime of insulting religion. Her offense? She allowed her students to choose the name Mohammed for the class teddy bear.

When parents of the students (many of whom are named Mohammed) learned of the event, they complained to school authorities, and soon local Muslim leaders called successfully for the teacher’s arrest for “blasphemy to the Prophet.” Gibbons was sentenced to 15 days in jail. She was placed under protection when angry mobs gathered across Khartoum to demand far more severe punishments, including flogging and beheading. With the assistance of British diplomats, Gibbons was allowed to leave Sudan and return to Britain after only a few days.

That a school teacher should be arrested, jailed, and in danger of death because of a teddy bear struck many as laughable. But while the arrest in Sudan and the excessive response by Muslim crowds in Khartoum were reported with some humor across the world, far less attention has been paid to the darker, more violent, and disturbing conditions faced every day by Christians in many Islamic countries.

“Christians in Islamic Lands: Part One” (This Rock, April 2008) looked at the historical conditions endured by Christians under Muslim governments. In Part Two we’ll explore the situation Christians living under Islamic regimes face today and whether there is room for future optimism.

The Roots of Modern Islam

Under pressure from the Western powers such as England, France, and Austria, the dhimma (that is the legal status of social, religious, and political disability imposed on Christians and non-Muslims) in Islamic lands was seemingly brought to an end in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Western colonial influences also encouraged much of the Arab world to embrace ideas of European liberalism, and there began the Nahda (or al-Nahda) movement—the “Reawakening” in literature, language, politics, and culture that was seen as the Arab equivalent to the European Enlightenment. For the first time in centuries, Christian populations under the protection of colonial governments in the Middle East enjoyed wide political and social freedoms. At the same time, Arab nationalism started in the early 20th century and became a means of ending Western colonial domination. Various secular parties were established that sought Arab national interests even as they represented European political ideas.

The persistently corrupt and autocratic tendencies of the subsequent secular Arab states—built as they were on Western political formulations and often tolerating rights for Christians and non-Muslims—sparked a reaction from more conservative Muslims who saw them as threats to pure Islam, purveyors of evil Western ideologies, and conduits of Christianization. Radical Muslim parties and movements consequently worked to undermine secular Arab states to replace them with Islamist governments.

The Rise of Islamism

Islamism (al-‘islamiyya) advances the notion that Islam should be all-encompassing in the state. Islamists see the West—the United States especially—as the greatest threat to Islam, along with Israel. They call for jihad against what they see as immoral secularism, materialism, pornography, permissive free speech, women’s rights, and religious pluralism. Over the last 30 years, various Islamist factions have succeeded not only in wielding influence (through, for example, the Wahhabi or radical Islam movement) but have actually seized power in several countries—Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan (under the Taliban who were deposed in 2001 after September 11).

Sadly, Islam today is confronted not only with the difficulty of creating stable, democratic governments, but also with the wider global crisis of modernity and the related continued growth of radical sects of which Osama bin Laden’s al-Qa’eda is only one of many.

How Islam deals with these great questions will have a direct impact on the long-term prospects of Catholic–Muslim dialogue, in particular the troubled issue of the status and treatment of non-Muslims. Radical Muslims openly call not only for a pan-Islamic embrace of shari’a (all-embracing Islamic law) but a return to the dhimma and the jizya (tax for non-Muslims). The late Ayatollah Khomeini demanded their restoration as key components of his program for Iran, described in his book On Islamic Government.

He was not alone in this view. In a 2006 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Hassam El-Masalmeh, leader of the Hamas contingent on the municipal council of Bethlehem, openly declared that Hamas intended to reinstitute the jizya at the first opportunity and to compel non-Muslims to live under the shari’a. In effect, Hamas intends to impose upon Palestinian territories a return to the dhimma.

Christians as Modern Dhimmis

The plans of Hamas remain as yet unfulfilled, but Christians around the globe find themselves living in modified conditions of dhimmitude that differ by region and the specifics of the social and religious discrimination. As a result, Christian populations in Muslim lands are shrinking rapidly as Christians flee to the safety of the West.

The terms of dhimmitude in Muslim countries are the chief historical reason why the once-majority Christian populations in North Africa, Anatolia (Turkey), and Palestine are so small today. Through persecution, legal handicaps, social and economic pressure, Christians abandoned the faith, watched their parents convert to avoid execution or to put food on the table, or stood by helplessly as Muslim rulers claimed orphaned Christian relatives and raised them in Islam.

Currently, some 40 million Christians reside under Islamic governments, and many face legal disabilities, social and economic discrimination, and even the chronic threat of violence and martyrdom. They belong to the wider body of 200 million Christians in more than 60 countries—such as China, Bhutan, and Cuba—who risk brutal retribution because of their faith. Christians in Islamic lands, however, are a special case, for they were once the majority population, and the Christian cities of Alexandria, Antioch, and especially Constantinople were the cradles of Eastern Christianity and the home of many of the Church Fathers.

Islamic states such as Algeria, Nigeria, and Pakistan have imposed severe restrictions on Christians. In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the most restrictive Islamic country, all non-Muslim religions are officially banned. Any public symbol or act relating to another faith can result in arrest and severe punishments. The Christian population in Saudi Arabia is composed entirely of one million foreign workers, but even they must practice their religion in private and exclusively on foreign-owned property. At the same time, the kingdom spends literally billions of dollars every year to promote the tenets of Wahhabism worldwide, to build madrasas (Islamic schools promoting Wahhabism) and mosques throughout the West, including the Monte Antenne mosque in Rome, the largest in Europe—constructed on land donated by the Italian government.

Nowhere to Go for Justice

In Pakistan, the nearly four million Christians (barely 4 percent of the total population) are subject to arrest for any perceived violation of the “blasphemy law,” against “defiling” the name of the Prophet Mohammed “by speaking words, or by actions and through allusions, directly or indirectly.” The law permits a Christian to be arrested merely for affirming that Christ is the Son of God—as this would contradict and “offend” Mohammed, who claimed otherwise in the Qur’an. As they have few political rights and little voice in the electoral system, Christians have nowhere to go for justice save to courts that are uniformly stacked against them.

Across Africa, conditions continue to deteriorate for Christians. In Egypt, Christians are forbidden to build any new churches without permission from the president himself, a legal process that can take years and that can fail at any stage. Obtaining permission to repair existing churches can be virtually impossible, even when repairs are needed after attacks by mobs of angry Muslims. In Nigeria, 13 states have declared they will now be governed by shari’a, and in Algeria, the last 15 years have witnessed the martyrdoms of Trappist monks, White Fathers (Catholic missionaries), religious women, and even the bishop of Oran, murdered in 1996 by Islamic extremists.

The most severe situation is found in Sudan, a country plagued by civil war and religious strife between the Muslim north and Christian south. The civil wars that shattered Sudan from 1955 to 1972 and again from 1983 to 2005 were largely fought over the north’s determined efforts to impose shari’a upon the entire country. Supported by its oil exports, the north has conducted genocidal campaigns against Christian villages and raids to acquire southern Sudanese Christian women and girls for the lucrative slave trade. Estimates place the death toll in the struggle at over two million, with nearly five million forced to flee their homes and live as refugees.

Some Freedom—and Threats to It

To be fair, in many countries today, Christians exist with various freedoms and do not face persecution or severe legal and social disabilities—although bans on proselytizing and conversions and restrictions on building places of worship persist. Several countries—such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Malaysia—have large non-Muslim populations which include Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists. They are generally allowed to practice their faith, to build places of worship, and even to enjoy some rights of establishing their own missionary centers. In Syria—where there are some 2 million Christians (over 400,000 are Catholics), members of over a dozen other sects or religions, and several thousand Jews—freedom of religion is observed by state law and also by historical tradition. There are many churches and some 15 synagogues.

In the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, Christians are given legal recognition, and the Indonesian constitution guarantees freedom to the six officially recognized religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. However, a number of provinces have recently endorsed forms of Islamist rule. The province of Aceh, for example, in 2003 declared shari’a to be its legal system, and attacks on Christians have increased in number and severity. Christians in the Indonesian areas of South Moluccas and Sulawesi are under constant assault by Islamist groups who burn villages and force the survivors to flee or convert under pain of death. Half a million Christians have become refugees.

The Christian Exodus

The phenomenon of Christians being forced to abandon their homes, cities, and even countries is a growing concern across the globe. It has assumed crisis proportions in the Middle East where, in the last decade, more than three million Christians have left the Holy Land to settle in Europe, the United States, and Canada. They represent a quarter to a third of all Christians living in the Middle East. It is the largest exodus of Christians since the 12th and 13th centuries and the fall of the Latin Crusader States.

At the start of the Iraq War in 2003, nearly 1.5 million Chaldeans, Syro-Catholics, Syro-Orthodox, Assyrians from the East, Catholic and Orthodox Armenians, and Greek-Melkites lived in Iraq. In the wake of Saddam Hussein’s removal, Christians have been targeted for bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings. Emblematic of the situation were the 2007 murders of 31-year-old Osama Marzouq and his sister, 41-year-old Maison, in the southern city of Basra. The Marzouqs were victims of vigilantes killing Christian women for not wearing traditional dress and head scarves. The result of the chaos is that today, there are estimated to be only 500,000 Christians left in Iraq. Most have fled to Syria and Jordan, while others have chosen to settle in Egypt and Lebanon.

A boost to Iraqi Christian morale came in November 2007, when the Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad, Emmanuel III Delly, was made a cardinal by Pope Benedict, an event celebrated by both Christian and Muslim leaders in the country. The last six months in Iraq also witnessed a decline in the number of attacks and bombings, and the good relations between the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Iraqi government gave hope for preventing even more crimes. But the gains were severely offset in late January by attacks on two churches, a convent, and an orphanage in Mosul, and three churches and a convent in Baghdad. Then, on February 29, 2008, gunmen kidnapped Chaldean Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul and murdered three of his companions. The abduction ended tragically with the archbishop’s death. Pope Benedict XVI called the loss “an act of inhuman violence that offends the dignity of the human being and seriously harms the . . . coexistence among the beloved Iraqi people.”

Cause for Optimism?

The current conditions faced by Christians around the globe suggest few positive prospects. Still, Catholic leaders are aware of the crisis, and the last years have seen Catholic–Muslim relations move to the forefront of the Church’s concerns in the new millennium. If there is one reason for guarded optimism, it is in the dialogue with Islam under Pope Benedict XVI.

Much was made of the so-called Regensburg controversy, when the Holy Father’s speech on faith and reason sparked protests, riots, and violence by Muslims because he quoted a disparaging remark about Mohammed from a 14th-century Byzantine emperor. However, in the months that followed, Pope Benedict won over many of his critics through his trip to Turkey and his appeals for authentic dialogue with Islam. That dialogue includes the principle of reciprocity (that Christians in Muslim countries should enjoy the same rights as those given Muslims in Western nations) and the promotion of human dignity, peace, and religious tolerance.

Significantly, in November 2007, the pontiff welcomed King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to the Vatican, marking the first time that a Saudi king had officially spoken with the pope. On the agenda were religious freedom, inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue, and the need to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Pope Benedict used the occasion to discuss the situation of Christian workers who live in Saudi Arabia, noting to the Saudis “the positive and industrious presence of Christians” in the kingdom.

A Landmark Letter

The royal visit was only one of several surprises in late 2007. On October 11, one year after the release of an open letter to the pope from 38 prominent Muslim clerics from around the world accepting his “apology” over the Regensburg remarks, an even more impressive group of 138 Muslim scholars, clerics, and intellectuals sent another open letter, titled A Common Word Between Us and You, to Pope Benedict and other Christian leaders.

The letter was unprecedented in several respects. First, it was signed by prominent Muslim leaders, politicians, and academics, from the leading branches of Islam and the schools of Islamic jurisprudence such as the Sunni, Shiite, Salafi, and the Sufi. The signers represented more than 40 countries, including Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, and Pakistan. The letter thus represented a key consensus opinion of Islamic theologians.

The stress upon consensus becomes important in light of the letter’s contents. The Muslim leaders argue that the twin commands of love of God and love of neighbor provide common ground between the two religions. “Whilst Islam and Christianity are obviously different religions—and whilst there is no minimizing some of their formal differences—it is clear that the two greatest commandments are . . . a link between the Qur’an, the Torah, and the New Testament.” There is, consequently, no necessary antagonism between the two faiths. They go on to quote the Qur’an, writing, “As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them—so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes.”

Equally, the Muslim leaders maintain that the sheer numbers of Christians and Muslims make cooperation essential. “Christianity and Islam,” they argue, “are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history . . . The relationship between these two religious communities [is] the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world.”

Cardinal Angelo Scola, patriarch of Venice and a leader in Catholic-Muslim dialogue through his journal Oasis, noted the significance of the letter in an interview with the Italian media. “The document,” he observed, “in the perspective of that double love, of God and one’s neighbor, underscores a vein of the Muslim tradition which has been partially placed in the shade due to the growth of fundamentalism.” The cardinal noted as well that the text affirms that man has “mind or the intelligence, which is made for comprehending the truth; the will which is made for freedom of choice; and sentiment which is made for loving the good and the beautiful” (Il Foglio, October 18, 2007). But the letter also condemns terrorists, declaring “to those who nevertheless relish conflict and destruction for their own sake or reckon that ultimately they stand to gain through them, we say . . . to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony.”

Can Dialogue Effect Change?

The Vatican’s response was delivered initially in late November 2007 by Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone. The reply expressed the pope’s gratitude “for the positive spirit which inspired the text and for the call for a common commitment to promoting peace in the world.” It then invited a representative group of the signatories to gather at the Vatican.

The diplomatic reply was not surprising. What was highly unusual, however, was the speed with which plans have advanced. While circumspect in his optimism and realistic in his awareness of the difficulties that attend progress in dialogue, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the top Vatican official in charge of relations with Islam, met with Muslim representatives in early March to lay the groundwork for the meeting, expected to take place November 4-6, 2008.

Only time will tell what lasting progress can be made, but the change in atmosphere from the post-Regensburg violence and hostility points to Pope Benedict’s success in sparking a global conversation that has been engaged within Islam as well. Such debates and dynamic self-examination within Islamic circles could be a key start to effecting genuine change in Islam, achieving the slow marginalization of radicals and Islamists, and giving voice at long last to moderate Muslims who have been fearful of speaking out. Such a change in the culture of the Islamic world might bring with it prospects for peace on a global level, as well as hopes for a better and more secure life for the average non-Muslim. The prospects in the short term seem limited, but Pope Benedict stressed the benefits of dialogue when he declared in November 2007,

Dialogue, respect for the convictions of others, and collaboration in the service of peace are the surest means of securing social concord. These are among the noblest goals which can bring together men and women of good will, and, in a particular way, all those who worship the one God who is the Creator and beneficent Lord of the whole human family. (Address to the Ambassador of Indonesia to the Holy See)


In His Own Words: The Holy Father and Islam

A robust democratic society depends on its ability to uphold and protect religious freedom—a basic right inherent in the very dignity of the human person. It is therefore essential to safeguard citizens who belong to religious minorities from acts of violence . . . Such protection not only accords with human dignity but also contributes to the common good. Christians and Muslims both worship the One God, the Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. It is this belief that moves us to unite minds and hearts as we work tirelessly for peace, justice, and a better future for mankind.
—Pope Benedict XVI, June 1, 2007, to the Pakistan Ambassador

I would like to tell you of my pleasure at noting that relations between Christians and Muslims take place on the whole in an atmosphere of mutual understanding. Therefore, to prevent seeing the development of some form of intolerance and to avoid all violence, it is right to encourage a sincere dialogue based on an ever truer reciprocal knowledge, especially through respectful human relations, through an agreement on the values of life and through mutual cooperation in all that furthers the common good. Such a dialogue also requires that competent people be trained to help spread knowledge and understanding of the religious values that we share and to respect loyally the differences.
—Pope Benedict XVI, September 20, 2007, to the Bishops of Benin

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!