Over the past month, a rash of anti-Christian violence from Nigeria to Pakistan to Syria has highlighted the vulnerable status of this religious group. The U.S. bishops have spoken out on behalf of the beleaguered Christians of Iraq and advocated for U.S. aid for Syrian refugees fleeing a civil war that has featured an increase in violence against a Christian community with ancient roots. Further, the Arab Spring uprisings, which toppled secular autocratic regimes that generally tolerated religious minorities, mark a new and unpredictable era for U.S. foreign policy.
Nina Shea is a longtime expert on international religious-freedom issues. She is the co-author, with Paul Marshall and Lela Gilbert, of a new book, Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians. Shea is also the director of the Center for Religious Freedom of the Hudson Institute in Washington. In March, the center created a new website that aggregates the top stories on religious persecution worldwide.
In the first part of her interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Shea addressed the most pressing issues facing Pope Francis. In this interview, she outlines the most urgent policy issues that need Washington’s attention.
How can Washington help secure the rights of religious minorities as secular autocracies are replaced with Islamic governments?
America is a generous donor to Egypt, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries, and this brings leverage. So far, the administration has not been willing to use this leverage to protect the only remaining church in Afghanistan, for example.
Its 99-year lease was canceled by a court under the Karzai government in 2010 — at the same time, over 100,000 troops were in the country protecting the Afghanistan government. The U.S. State Department knew about this and later reported on it but did not stop it.
Now Afghanistan joins Saudi Arabia as the only countries in the world without any churches. Our diplomats and contractors who wish to attend Christian worship services must now do so secretly, behind gated compounds.
In Egypt, where the Copts are an extremely vulnerable minority and the Muslim Brotherhood government has shown signs it will not protect them from extremist violence and threatens to deny them basic rights, the U.S. should make the protection of the Copts a red line in its billion-dollar aid program.
Don’t U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia ban any practice of the Christian faith?
Washington has been timid about raising the rights of Christians anywhere in the Islamic world, and especially in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia requires all its nationals to be Muslim. But it also is the residence of 1 or 2 million Christian foreign workers, who have few rights and no churches. Some of these Christians — Filipinos, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Indians — worship together secretly in private homes, and they are periodically hunted out by Saudi religious police and imprisoned. Several dozen Ethiopian Christians were imprisoned without due process and abused last year for nine months for holding private worship services. Over 50 more were reported arrested for proselytizing this year, and their fate is unknown.
Beheading can be the penalty for this. Last March, Abdulaziz ibn Abdullah Al al-Sheikh, the grand mufti of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, declared it is “necessary to destroy all the churches in the Arabian Peninsula.”
The State Department has identified Saudi Arabia as a “Country of Particular Concern,” one of the world’s worst religious persecutors under the International Religious Freedom Act, but does not demonstrate that religious freedom is a priority in its relations with Saudi Arabia or with any Muslim country.
Christians in Iran are also under threat, but what can we do when Washington has no diplomatic relations with Tehran?
Simply raising the names and cases of the imprisoned can help, even with a hostile government like Iran. In January, pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American citizen, was sentenced to eight years imprisonment in Tehran’s brutal Evin prison for his own conversion, as well as for his ministry with Iran’s burgeoning underground evangelical churches. Especially because he is an American citizen, the U.S. government should be elevating his case. The secular media has barely mentioned him.
Another Christian pastor, Yousef Nadarkhani, who was first jailed in 2009 and sentenced to death, was released from prison earlier this year following international pressure. Two Christian women in Iran, both converts, who were imprisoned and threatened with death for their beliefs, were released in 2009 after Voice of America and other groups brought international attention to their cases.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, most Americans assumed that religious freedom had been restored throughout the former Soviet bloc. But you report that Christians in these countries are under threat. What is going on, and are there any people like John Paul II fighting back?
Christian churches not of the favored Russian Orthodox tradition face burdensome registration requirements and other restrictions, official discrimination and surveillance and, sometimes, outright bans in Russia and some of the other more authoritarian states, like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, that have formed out of the old Soviet state. Persecution has not returned to the levels of the Soviet era, but in many of the 15 former-Soviet states religious freedom is denied.
The Catholic Church does not have a large presence in the most restrictive of these states, so there is no figure comparable to John Paul II fighting for religious freedom. There is, however, the nonprofit Forum 18, an incredibly valuable source of documentation on religious repression in that part of the world.
After the International Religious Freedom Act was signed into law in 1998, you report that the “United States became a world leader in the defense of religious freedom.” Now, you charge that our leaders have “abdicated that role.” Why?
The U.S. failed to ensure the defense of the Iraqi Christians from jihadi and Salafi attacks even though we had over 100,000 troops on the ground and supported the government financially and diplomatically. We did not act to ensure that the Iraqi government was protecting the smallest, defenseless minorities, like the Christians, Mandeans and Yizidis. These minorities were mostly driven out of Iraq in the most brutal ways on our watch.
Now the Christians of Egypt are facing the same types of threats — jihadi and Salafi violence, coupled with their own government’s indifference or worse.
Again, the U.S. seems unwilling to use its leverage to help them. In fact, we are giving 200 Abrams tanks to the Egyptian security forces, even though those forces ran over Christians with the treads of tanks in October 2011 (the photos on YouTube are horrific). At the time they were struck down, the victims were peacefully demonstrating against the failure of the police to protect their churches from attacks by Salafis.
What kind of signal does it send for us to donate to Egyptian security more tanks? It says: We don’t care what happens to the Coptic Christians.
During the 1980s, Church-based groups spoke out against human-rights violations by Latin-American “military dictatorships of that era. You suggest that similar groups should be documenting abuses in Middle Eastern, Asian and African countries. Are there effective groups working on these issues?
There are a number of good sources on religious persecution around the world, which I’ve recently begun to feature on our new aggregation website. This site aims to provide the top stories of religious persecution, not only for Christians. But there is a need for better human-rights reporting in the states with high levels of religious persecution, and this is an undertaking that the Church has done well in other places, in other times.