In the last few months, the persecution and partial eradication of ancient Christian communities in the Middle East has been debated by both MPs and peers. As Mark Field MP stated during December’s Commons debate:
Let us be honest: if this were happening to almost any other religious group it would be something of a national scandal. That makes it all the more important to put the ongoing persecution of Christians in many parts of the world on the political map.
Significantly, it is not just Christians who have begun to speak out on this issue, but also Muslims with King Abdullah of Jordan having convening a conference on the issue last September, while in the UK both Sayeeda Warsi and Rehman Chisti, the MP for Gillingham, have similarly voiced concern. Baroness Warsi warned in both a Daily Telegraph article and a major speech in the USA that violence against Christians is putting the very survival of Christianity in the Middle East at risk.
However, the nettle that must be grasped if we are to see anything effective done in this respect is to recognise that the growing enforcement of sharia is the principal cause of persecution of Christian minorities in Islamic countries.
That is an exceedingly uncomfortable truth for many Muslims to accept, many of whom have a somewhat romanticised view of what sharia means in practice. However, it must be emphasised that the issue is emphatically not individuals choosing to live their lives in accordance with those aspects of sharia that relate solely to them as individuals, it is the enforcement of sharia on non Muslims and indeed on liberal Muslims and anyone else who does not freely choose it that is the problem.
By sharia we mean the traditional interpretations followed by the four Sunni schools of sharia: Hanafi (followed primarily in the Urdu-Persian speaking world, Iraq, Syria and Jordan), Maliki (North and West Africa), Hanbali (Saudi Arabia and Kuwait), and Shafi (the rest of the Middle East, East Africa and SE Asia) as well as by the Shi’a Ja’fari school. All of these stipulate the death penalty for any adult male Muslim embracing another faith, the death penalty for any perceived criticism of the prophet of Islam and life imprisonment for any other perceived criticism of Islam; while the legal testimony of women and non Muslims is treated as having only half the value of that of a Muslim man. This has led to enormous injustices in countries such as Pakistan both in relation to false accusations of blasphemy made against non Muslims and for female victims of rape, who may not only be denied justice, but even arrested for making ‘false accusations’ as they cannot provide sufficient witnesses.
This enforcement of traditional sharia also empowers violent jihadists to advocate even more extreme measures against non Muslims, as recent history in Northern Nigeria all too tragically illustrates. However, the atrocities committed by violent jihadists should not blind us to the fact that the enforcement of traditional sharia is in itself a major cause of injustice and persecution particularly of non Muslim minorities in many Islamic countries.
It is this enforcement of sharia that for the last thirty or so years has been spreading globally and as I have detailed earlier spread significantly in both 2011 and 2012. That trend of sharia enforcement spreading both geographically and in intensity leading to increased Christian persecution continued in 2013 and looks set to continue in 2014:
Syria: Christians are caught in the crossfire as on the one hand Russia and Iran vie with each other as to who will make the Assad regime a client state, the latter supported by Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah; while on the other hand the majority of the opposition groups are Islamist, with strict and sometimes extreme sharia being enforced in predominantly Christian areas they have seized. In September al-Qaeda linked Islamists who had seized the predominantly Christian area of Maaloua warned Christians to convert or be beheaded. At least fifteen Christians were killed. Meanwhile in Wadi al-Nasera (literally ‘Valley of the Christians’) where many had taken refuge, a further fifteen Christians were killed, while in the towns of Saddad and Haffar at least forty Christians were killed by Islamists. This trend looks set to continue in 2014.
Iraq: Ongoing attacks on Christians have resulted in an estimated 50% of the 350,000 Christians having left Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, In Doura in Baghdad once one of the largest Christian communities in Iraq has now been reduced from 30,000 to a mere 2,000 families. The Islamist advance in Syria is now exacerbating the situation as al-Qaeda in Iraq seek to create a cross border sharia zone, the Islamic state of Iraq and Levanat, even putting up road signs to this effect. There is now a real risk of almost the entire Christian population being forced to flee.
Central African Republic (CAR): Islamists seized control of the CAR in March and enforced sharia, there are reports over Christmas of Christians being targeted and killed. This is the first time sharia has been enforced in a country where Muslims are in a minority (14% Muslim,76% Christian).Western governments need to take this very seriously indeed in 2014…
Sub Saharan Africa. The CAR situation is in fact only part of a much wider coordinated Islamist campaign in sub Saharan Africa. In 2012 al-Shabab in East Africa linked up with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in North Africa and Boko Haram in Nigeria. One result of this was the Islamist take over of Mali, which French troops took the lead in successfully pushing back in 2013. However, this al-Qaeda linked alliance continued to expand its terrorist activities, all of which aim at the violent imposition of sharia. These included the first suicide bombings in Niger, increasing attacks in Kenya including on Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Centre which killed 62 and continuing violence in Nigeria which has now spread from the north where sharia is enforced to the states of the Middle belt with an estimated 1,000 people killed last year. The multiple attacks on churches are clearly designed to drive the Christian population out of these states.
There is a very real risk that, with the honourable exception of France which now has troops in both Mali and the CAR, the West is in danger of taking its eye off the ball as far as the spread of radical Islamism in Africa is concerned. Given that al-Shabab has recently made specific threats against individual British Muslims who courageously spoke out against the beheading of Lee Rigby, this is an extraordinarily dangerous situation.
Libya: However, it is not simply by means of violence that sharia is increasingly being enforced. In Libya, which the UK played a role in liberating from the Qadaffi regime, the General National Congress voted a few weeks ago to make sharia the source of all Libyan legislation. The vote came in part as a response to accusations made by the militant group Ansar al-Sharia (literally ‘soldiers of sharia’) suspected of killing the US ambassador in 2012, who claimed some lawmakers were being ‘unislamic’.
Brunei: Here Christians are the largest of the non Muslim groups that together make up 35 per cent of the population. The government has announced that in April 2014 it will replace part of its British inherited penal code with hudud laws based on sharia enforcement, including amputation of limbs for theft, stoning for adultery and the death penalty for apostasy which it claims will ‘only be applicable to Muslims’, that may provide little comfort for liberal Muslims or Christians who have converted from a Muslim background.
There are certain key themes that can be identified as to how sharia enforcement has spread in 2013 and why it is so closely linked to persecution and depopulation of Christian and other minorities:
Sharia clauses in national constitutions: We saw above how Libya introduced this in December. Such sharia clauses, which occur in the constitutions of many Islamic countries, mean that both constitutional law and any international human rights agreements signed by the government are in effect trumped by sharia.
Blasphemy law: Blasphemy against Muhammad normally carries a mandatory death sentence where sharia is enforced. There is no equality before the law in sharia, with a Muslim man’s testimony given the same weight as that of two non Muslim men. This has led to false blasphemy accusations in Pakistan being used as a means of settling feuds with around half of the cases being registered against Christians and Hindus who make up 5% of the population. The blasphemy law also inspires radicals to make vigilante attacks on Christians as was seen in Lahore last March when hundreds of Christians were left homeless when a 3,000 strong mob torched their homes after mosque loudspeakers called on people to ‘kill the blasphemers’ following an accusation of blasphemy made by a Muslim against a local Christian. Unfortunately such violence looks set to continue in 2014…
Apostasy law: traditional sharia stipulates the death penalty for any Muslim man who changes his faith, and in 2013 at least one Saudi national had to flee to Europe to escape this penalty. Although in traditional sharia, the sentence must be passed by a court, the existence of this penalty for ‘apostasy’ empowers violent Islamists to carry out vigilante assassinations of Christians from a Muslim background. In the past year al-Shabab has been particularly active in this respect, not just in Somalia, but also in Kenya and Tanzania including beheading one Christian minister. This looks set to continue in 2014 with Christians in the island of Zanzibar and Northern Kenya being particularly at risk.
The apostasy law known as takfir is also used by Islamists to declare Muslims who criticise them as ‘non Muslims’ – and therefore liable to be executed. This appears to be the case with the video al-Shabab recently released in which a militant with a British accent made specific threats against the lives of British Muslims who had courageously spoken out against the beheading of Lee Rigby. This is probably the most serious development for some time as far as the UK itself is concerned.
Dhimmi (second class) status of Christians: In traditional sharia Christians and Jews are granted dhimmi status, effectively protected from attack as second class citizens, but who must pay a special tax (Jizya) and banned from holding political or judicial office. They are allowed to worship within their own churches, but not to build new churches. The practical outworking of the restrictions on churches can frequently be seen in countries such as Indonesia where church buildings have been closed by the government and permission for new buildings has been withheld and violations harshly treated. For example, in January last year when Islamist militants took over a church at Mekargalih in West Java, the authorities responded to by jailing the church minister for 3 months for allegedly operating without a permit, despite the church repeatedly having tried to obtain one for the previous ten years.
The issue here is the same as we saw in Libya, the mistaken belief that appeasing violent Islamists by enforcing sharia will actually prevent violence. However, as we have seen in the past year in both Egypt and Nigeria violent Islamists have repeatedly sought to burn down churches, which they then claim cannot, according to sharia, be rebuilt. Denying Christians places of worship thereby becomes a way of seeking to ‘sanitise’ an area of its non Muslim population. This policy has not simply been pursued by violent jihadists such as Boko Haram in Nigeria. Last year it was also pursued by the government of Sudan, where in April the minister for religious affairs announced that no new licences for churches would be issued, while at the same time the government has been demolishing numerous existing ones, including seven in the Khartoum area alone last January for alleged ‘paperwork irregularities’. This move is in effect a means of seeking to ‘persuade’ the non Muslim population to leave the country. However, with civil war erupting in South Sudan, it is far from obvious where Christians in Sudan will be able to flee to in 2014…
It is this tenet of traditional sharia, that Christians are at best to be tolerated on sufferance with restricted rights as second class (dhimmi) citizens, that empowers violent jihadists to go one stage further. In Egypt’s Asssuit and Minya provinces militants have threatened Christians with death if they refused to pay jizya, the tax on non Muslims, to them. Those refusing to pay face being attacked, having their families beaten up or kidnapped and at least two Egyptian Christians have been shot dead for refusing to pay jizya in recent months.
The Islamists also use violent attacks on churches and Christians with the aim of creating a 100% ‘pure’ Islamic state by forcing Christians and other non Muslim minorities to leave. Last September’s attack on All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan which killed more than 100 illustrates this clearly. The attack, the first on a specifically Pakistani congregation appears to represent a new and more deadly level of Islamist violence faces Pakistani Christians in 2014. The Pakistani Taliban group who carried out the suicide bombing justified the attack on Pakistani Christians stating:
They (i.e. Pakistani Christians) are the enemies of Islam, therefore we target them. We will continue our attacks on non-Muslims on Pakistani land.
Significantly, the attack came just after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, announced plans to negotiate with the Taliban, a connection that Mr Sharif implicitly acknowledged in his comments afterwards. Similarly, in Nigeria the enforcement of sharia in northern states far from halting the violence, simply appears to have emboldened Boko Haram to spread their campaign of terrorism and violent intimidation. In the past year over a thousand have been killed including more than seventy in Plateau State in central Nigeria where thousands of Christians were driven from their homes.
Creation of sharia enclaves within a country: This past year has yet again destroyed the theory that appeasing Islamists by enforcing sharia in Muslim majority areas prevents violence. In 2012 the Philippines government reached an agreement with Islamists to create a semi autonomous region governed by sharia in part of Mindanao. However, Islamists now appear to be intent on eradicating non Muslims from the area. In June 2013 the residents of four Christian villages were forced to flee when they were targeted by 300 militants armed with mortars. This was followed in September by an Islamist attack on Zamboanga, a Christian majority city in Mindanao, forcing thousands to flee the city. This pattern bears marked similarities to the way that the current crisis in Nigeria started, with the enforcement of sharia in the Muslim majority northern states, which has now resulted in Boko Haram spreading their jihadist attempt to enforce sharia to central Nigeria with repeated attacks on churches and Christians.
The parliamentary debates held in October and November showed very clearly both the extent of persecution and the resulting depopulation of the ancient Christian communities in the Middle East. The principal impetus driving this persecution has been the enforcement of sharia which for a number of years now has been both geographically spreading and intensifying. Whilst the type of sharia that violent jihadists are seeking to enforce, such as the invitation to convert to Islam or be killed is extreme, this should not blind us to the fact the enforcement of traditional sharia, including the death penalty for Christians from a Muslim background, is both a primary cause of Christian persecution and empowers violent jihadists to seek to enforce even more extreme forms. Unless this nettle is firmly grasped it is likely that the persecution and at least partial eradication of the Christian populations numbering millions of people in the Middle East and other part of the Islamic world will continue. It is in the interests both of our security and of humanitarian concern for the wider world that countering the global spread of sharia enforcement becomes a major aim of British foreign policy.