Religious Freedom Day 2019: Stories of Persecution and Tolerance

Added about 5 years ago by Marcus K. Paul

GUEST BLOG: On Religious Freedom Day, Marcus K. Paul, author of The Evil That Men Do: Faith, Injustice and the Church, explores the issue of Christian persecution abroad.

Image: The death of Thomas Cranmer at the stake, burned for heresy in 1556. Woodcut. Wellcome Collection (Public Domain Mark). 

Asia Bibi

Imagine this if you will: you live in an Asian country and are quite a young woman, an attractive wife, and mother of four children. You are outside in the fields doing your low paid job, harvesting fruit in the heat of the day with other female workers. All of a sudden a row breaks out about a bucket of water. What is going on? Is there not enough to drink? No, there’s plenty, but the cup you have drunk from has been put back in the water, so according to the other women the whole bucket has become defiled – so now they cannot drink from it. How can that be? Do you have an infectious disease? No, you have a faith – but a faith that is different from your fellow workers’ beliefs. For your name is Asia Bibi, you are a Christian and your fellow workers are Muslim and the country is Pakistan. The women say you should convert to Islam and be like them and then claim that in response you insulted the Prophet Mohammed.

After she got home Asia was beaten up and then arrested by the police. She then spent eight years on death row – awaiting execution, mostly in solitary confinement – in prison because of what happened afterwards about the bucket. But Asia would not renounce her faith: she remained a Christian. It was only in 2018 that her case was heard by the Supreme Court in Pakistan. The court ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove its case so she could be released. The judges quoted the Koran and the sayings of Mohammed which called for non-Muslims to be treated kindly. They said her supposed “confession” of blasphemy was exacted from a crowd who were threatening to kill her. After her acquittal Asia had to be protected and hidden away; there were angry riots, clashes with police, for not handing her over to the mob to be killed. One political leader said the three judges deserve to be killed for their judgement. Against that, Prime Minister Khan said the government was being blackmailed by violent protest. Other nations condemned what was going on, so an international incident, along with the ruination of a life and whole family, arose from the incident of a cup being ‘defiled’ because of what a person believed. Today, she is still in hiding and many countries, including the United Kingdom, have not offered her asylum.

It’s unimaginable here, isn’t it?

Religious Freedom Day

It seems impossible, and yet it has happened times without number in recent years. That is why there is Religious Freedom Day on 16 January every year. Because religion was the backdrop to everybody’s lives in previous eras, religious excuses were often made for wars that were actually about territory or economics or state power and control. The Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition were good examples of that. My book The Evil That Men Do considers these and the narrative of religious freedom in history in some detail. It’s an amazing story to tell – and very different from the repressive intolerant one our current media would have us believe.

Persecution of Christians

Today, the religion by far the most persecuted across the globe is Christianity. That might surprise people because successive governments have done little to draw attention to it – because they know most of their voters don’t care too much about the persecution of religious minorities in distant countries. But here are the facts – and you should check them if you have any doubt. In recent years, every month, across the globe, about 300 Christians have been killed as a direct consequence of their faith. About 200 churches are attacked in a similar period. There are about 50 countries where to be a Christian exposes you to a high level of persecution and physical danger. In the Middle East a century ago, 14 per cent of all people were Christian; today it is less than 4 per cent, as Christians have been  driven out of their homes. Terrorists from the so-called Islamic State group uprooted hundreds of thousands of Christians in Syria and Iraq. Before ISIS conquered Mosul in Iraq, 35,000 Christians lived there. After they had taken it, there were 24 left. No one much bothers in the West. As the Archbishop of Baghdad said, even before the current deterioration: “We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West? Would they do something then?”

The wider geography of persecution gets even less coverage. Sub-Saharan Africa is the hub of some of the worst: more Christians have been killed in Nigeria and Sudan than other countries, but Kenya, Egypt, India, Iran, Pakistan, have all seen ethnic cleansing, burning of churches and the torturing of Christians, simply because they are Christians. North Korea is the most repressive of regimes against the Christian faith but China represses the largest numbers. Afghanistan and Somalia are two of the most dangerous places to be a Christian. And not all violent persecution is so distant. On 26 July 2016, Father Jacques Hamel, an 85-year-old French Catholic priest, had his throat cut by two Islamic State terrorists just across the water in Normandy while he celebrated mass in his own church.

Islamic Tolerance and Love

Now here is the reality, and the choice: in the very same month that Father Jacques was murdered, poor Muslim farmers in a village near Gojra, in the Punjabi region of Pakistan, were, with their own hands and out of their own savings, rebuilding a church for the Christians. Their vision is that such tolerance and love should spread throughout the country. They deserve our total support and admiration. They loved their neighbours; they honoured God; they were fulfilling the teaching that Jesus made central to his ministry by word and deed. An example to us all.

Marcus K. Paul has degrees in English and history, and has enjoyed a life-long career working with students and sixth-formers in universities and schools in three continents. He now spends his time writing and speaking about the Gospel and the Church, as well as painting and reading.

His book The Evil That Men Do: Faith, Injustice and the Church is a refreshingly frank treatment of the Church’s past failings, filling a gap in our understanding of what it is to be Christian in the twenty-first century. Get your copy of this 5-star-rated book today for just £12.99.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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