77 Gregor von Fürstenberg - New Martyrs (Lobbying for Persecuted Christians)

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Gregor von Fürstenberg {*}

New Martyrs

Lobbying for Persecuted Christians


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 6/2011, P. 281-285
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In view of the situation in India, Iraq or Pakistan the topic persecution of Christians came back in the politics of the day. Here one has to distinguish between persecution and discrimination of Christians. Churches and church NGOs can in many ways assume their responsibility for persecuted Christians.


On 24 March 1980 Oscar Arnulfo Romero was as Archbishop of San Salvador murdered by death squads during a mass. More than 30 years later, on 31 October 2010, 52 people were victims of a terrorist attack in the Church "Mother of the Redeemer" in Baghdad. The believers were members of the Syrian Catholic Church. The persecution of many Latin American Christians was due to their social and political commitment, which was rooted in faith. In the new millennium, there are new martyrs who are persecuted or discriminated because of their faith. These martyrs live predominantly in the Islamic world and in parts of Asia.

For years, the topic of persecution of Christians was not an issue of daily politics. Meanwhile, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy warns of a religious "cleansing" of the Middle East and calls the victims "martyrs" (in correct laicistic terms: "martyrs of freedom of conscience"). Volker Kauder, Chairman of the CDU faction, complained in an interview (Der Spiegel, 3/2011): "But I'm sorry to say that Christians are the religious group that is currently the most threatened and persecuted."


What does Persecution of Christians Mean?

The article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the UN states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;



this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." With it, both the positive freedom of religion is defined, by which each person has the freedom to profess a religion and to practice this religion, and the negative religious freedom - i.e. every person has the right to leave voluntarily a particular religious community, and must not be forced to reveal one's personal religious beliefs.

In order to do justice to the facts and to avoid an unnecessary verbal armament, a differentiation between "persecution of Christians" and "discrimination against Christians" is necessary: As persecution of Christians is defined a systematic, societal and / or state discrimination and existential threat against Christians because of their faith. Furthermore, it is necessary that the term persecution of Christians is also accurately located geographically. When in August 2008 in the Kandhamal district in the Indian state of Orissa 50.000 Christians became victims of persecution because they were Christians, this is a persecution of Christians in Kandhamal district and does not necessarily concern all the 30 / 40 million Christians living in India.

There must be no misunderstanding: each individual victim of persecution is deplorable. Precisely in order to do justice to the victims, it is necessary to accurately describe the situation and not to generalize for the sake of sensationalism. What matters is each individual case, because behind bare figures the fates of individual people are hidden, who lost their family members and friends or their jobs, and can no longer attend school.

Below those situations of persecution that threaten the existence, there are very different scenarios, which makes it difficult for Christians to live their faith. Cardinal Zubeir Wako, archbishop of Khartoum (Sudan) has repeatedly pointed to the difficult situation of Christians in southern Sudan. Their position is extremely difficult due to the many years of civil war. But Cardinal Wako has always described the situation as "harassment" (threats, harassment, bullying) and expressly opposed the term persecution.

In the case of discrimination it is necessary to distinguish between individual and collective religious freedom. Individual religious freedom means the right of the individual to practise freely his faith and worldview, without being discriminated for this reason. This individual freedom of religion is limited in many Islamic countries where it is not possible to convert from Islam to another religion. Discrimination against people because of their being Christians may even involve persecution.

The collective religious freedom is the right of a group of individuals to express and to live freely their faith or their religious beliefs as a group without being discriminated for this reason. The collective freedom of religion is e.g. restricted in Turkey, where Christians do not have the right to establish their own churches, and the state prohibits the training of pastors or religious teachers and Christian religious instruction. About 100.000 Christians in Turkey are currently affected by persistent discrimination. This is contrary to Article 24 of the Turkish Constitution according to which in Turkey freedom of religion is in force. In his speech before the Turkish Parliament in October 2010, President Christian Wulff therefore called upon the Turkish state to improve the rights of the Christians in the country and to make it possible for them freely to practise their religion. "Christianity belongs without a doubt to Turkey," Wulff said in his speech (see HK, December 2010, 621 ff)

Shahbaz Bhatti was minister of minority affairs of Pakistan's government until he was murdered on the street in Islamabad on 2 March this year. He was regarded as someone who, even despite several death threats which he received every day, would not allow to be intimidated. The Minister had argued for the reform of the controversial blasphemy laws. The National Assembly has, also on his advice, formed at last a sub-committee to review the blasphemy laws. Now the minister was gunned down by ten bullets.


Each Country and each Situation must be Examined Individually

Especially the relief organizations are time and again asked, "How many Christians are persecuted or oppressed around the world?" The figures which currently circulate are often incorrect. When organizations, primarily from evangelical churches, say that worldwide about 100 million Christians in more than 50 countries are persecuted, the numbers of Christians in countries such as India and Egypt are simply added, even though the persecutions are limited to "only" individual regions.

Both the attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria in the New Year's Eve and the clashes between Christians and Muslims of 8 / 9 March 2011 in Egypt cannot be explained by one cause.



According to recent findings, the attack on the church could be traced back to instructions of the former interior minister, who wanted probably to blame the Islamists for it. The March disputes resulted from a quarrel between a Christian and a Muslim family. The same applies to the violent weekend in May in Cairo with at least twelve dead and nearly 200 injured. In a politically unstable situation, extremist Salafist again and again instigate attacks on the Christians. It seems that the government now increasingly responds to the international appeals for the protection of Christians in Egypt. Is it about persecution in the cases mentioned above? At most, some hundred Christians were directly affected (see also "The context of the brutal attack on a Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria on January 1, 2011", in: Heft 41 Menschenrechtsstudien, Missio Aachen [ed.]). How many Egyptian Christians are really persecuted?

With approximately 80 million inhabitants and 4.5 to 8 percent of the population, 6.4 million Christians are maximally living here (see HK, May 2011, 242 ff.). It would be incorrect to speak of six million persecuted Christians in Egypt. It would probably be more appropriate to speak of 6 million Christians in Egypt who are oppressed because of their faith. In order to be taken seriously, one must therefore consider individually each country and each situation, so that one is able to act adequately. This is precisely done in an exemplary manner by the "Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom" of the U.S. State Department.

In Saudi Arabia there is no church. Even diplomats are not allowed to celebrate a Christian church service. The key quote from the Koran about "freedom of religion" reads, "There is no compulsion in religion" (Surah 2: 256) and "For you is your religion, and for me is my religion" (109: 6). Based on this, the Central Council of Muslims in Germany has formulated in its Islamic Charter of 2002 (No. 11), "Therefore they accept as well everybody´s right to change his religion, to have another religion, or none at all."

This position of the Central Council of Muslims is to be welcomed but is not found in the shariah, on which the legal system is still based in many Islamic states. In Turkey the shariah was abolished in 1924, in Tunisia in 1959. It is still in force e.g. in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Gambia, Qatar, Kuwait, Nigeria (in some states), the Maldives, Mauritania, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, or Sudan (without Southern Sudan).

The shariah has no negative religious freedom for Muslims. Islamic law does admittedly forbid to convert Christians to Islam by compulsion, but on the other hand it does not give Muslims the freedom to choose for themselves a religion other than Islam. The Organization of the Islamic Conference, an association of currently 57 states, passed in 1990 the "Cairo Declaration" in response to the Declaration of Human Rights. This "Cairo Declaration" is in many points contradictory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of religion is not recognized as an inalienable right. It is to be hoped that, due to the current political upheavals in the Islamic world, the human rights and thus also freedom of religion become widely accepted.


In India Religious Discrimination can be Observed in Various Areas

According to a report of the Evangelical Fellowship of India there were in 2010 149 anti-Christian attacks. In the Indian media anti-Christian propaganda is increasingly spread. About 80 percent of Indians are Hindus. In terms of tolerance, Hinduism is usually described as an examplary religion. The Hindu tolerance for other religions is explained with the tolerance for the many varieties and traditions within Hinduism. In many Hindu temples that are consecrated to a deity, the images of other deities are also set up, altough less prominently. Freedom of religion is enshrined in Article 25 of India's Constitution. In several other articles of the Constitution it says that special protection is granted the religious minorities. However, this was always controversial.

The ideology of "Hindutva", which is advocated by Hindu-nationalist circles, seeks to organize the Indian nation according to the principles of Hinduism. The goal is to replace the Republic of India as a secular state by a state where Hinduism is state religion. In the time of the independence movement, the Hindutva movement was discredited by the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. In the past 20 years, however, this thinking experienced for a number of reasons a significant upswing. The representatives of the Hindutva ideology hold the opinion that people who were born in India should actually be Hindus. This has far-reaching consequences. Christians and Muslims are no longer regarded as Indian citizens, but as a foreign body in the Hindu community.

In India religious discrimination is found in different areas. The Anti-conversion Laws may serve as an example. They are in force in some Indian states (Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh) and make the change from one religion to another very difficult (see HK, November 2008, 551 ff.).

In the case of Orissa, where 50,000 Christians were persecuted and had, for fear of life and limb, to flee from their villages in the woods, the state authorities in India became active only after the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was confronted with the outbreaks of violence by France's President Sarkozy during his visit.



Disseminating information is one possible means of exerting pressure in the "Global Village." In India, the concern about the country's image meanwhile resulted in sentencing one of the perpetrators to six years in prison.


What can be done by Church and NGOs?

While at the turn of the millennium more than a million Christians lived still in Iraq, today just about 200.000 Christians live there, representing 0.66 percent of the population. Many Christians do no longer stand the pressure and take refuge in the relatively peaceful north or abroad (see HK, May 2010, 258ff). Benedict XVI and European leaders expressed their horror after the attacks of October 2010. And yet little is done about it, even though the Iraqi Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. The attacks have the result that the Christians of different denominations despair at their country. In the time of Saddam Hussein, many Christians in Iraq were better off than today. Now a voting with one's feet takes place. Thus, the Christians as a smaller and smaller minority are exposed to the pressure of Islamic fundamentalists. This has consequences. Louis Sako, archbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Kirkuk in northern Iraq, where many Christians have fled, complained in October 2010 before the Human Rights Commission in the Italian Senate: there will soon - after 2000 years - no longer live Christians in Iraq if one does not radically counteract.

Freedom of religion is endangered today in different regions of the world. The recognition of the right to religious freedom, as it was defined in Article 18 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, remains an open request to many representatives of Islam and the countries that still declare themselves against the respect of universal human rights. The topic of human rights and specifically the issue of religious freedom becomes increasingly the focus of attention. This is also owed to the work of the so-called non-governmental organizations.

For Christians the mission comes from the Gospel. The realization of the right to freedom of religion is the central condition for the public preaching of the Gospel. In order to implement the right to freedom of religion, it is necessary to appeal to the states both to legally secure the right of individual religious practice and to establish legal certainty for the religious communities as a whole by legislative initiatives. With it the universal solidarity of Christians worldwide is felt by those Christians who follow Jesus Christ despite all opposition.

What are the options? There are many initiatives in the area of the church as a strong player in civil society. For example, lobbying: experts, as e.g. Missio's human rights commissioner Otmar Oehring, advise politicians of every hue on violations of the right to religious freedom around the globe. Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat state and one of the heads of the Hindu nationalists, was once again the focus of international attention when in 2010 a group of parliamentarians travelled to Gujarat and Orissa India. Since his complicity in the violence committed against Muslims in 2002, he is no longer allowed to enter many Western countries and the USA. His conduct is thus ostracized, like that of the defendants by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Still clearly less than 5 percent of professional lobbyists are active in the area of human rights. In addition to the traditional project work, one can achieve quite a lot when one uses the political structures as a lever to change the living conditions of people.

What matters here is the knowledge of the specific contexts in the countries concerned: knowledge of the interests of the partner, detailed knowledge of specific human rights violations (legally actionable facts), permanently maintained contacts, credibility and trust, and the integration of cooperation partners. It is possible to prepare statements of elected officials by traveling with journalists and politicians, background conversations, documentation of human rights violations, as in the human rights studies of the German Commission for Justice and Peace.

Public relations are also important. "In China there is still no freedom of religion," said Cardinal Joseph Zen on the occasion of the Nobel awards ceremony of 2010. In the case of a topical event, journalists want to get quickly the knowledgeable people on their mobile phone, in order to make known them as experts by a "juicy citation." Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong is such a appreciated interlocutor. He sees himself as the voice of the underground church in China.

Propagation of the gospel also helps time and again to remind of the freedom of the children of God, without whom the faith is not possible. Example of this is the initiative of the German Bishops Conference "Solidarity with the persecuted and oppressed Christians in our time" at the 2nd Christmas Day - the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Every year, the initiative represents a new country in the center of attention. The attention of the parishes is thus focussed on a special place where believers are persecuted and oppressed. Last in 2010 the difficult situation of Christians in India was made the topic - in intercessions and prayer.



As a result of its pharmaceutical campaign, in 2010 the Internationales Missionswerk "Missio" delivered 33.946 signatures to the Association of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies (VFA). The signatories advocate that HIV-infected children receive better medical care. Why should not such a campaign also be started for Christians in trouble? Apart from working with experts, the work "on the spot" became increasingly important, in order to win the "hearts and minds" of people. In a globalized world where the interest in smooth operations is great, the "public awareness" can be used as lever - e.g. by notes of protest with many signatures to the embassy of the country concerned.

An electronic list of signatures for the rights of Christians in Iraq - via "Face Book" and "Like it" button - will probably be the future. While one in former times used the classic signature lists for the release of Chinese dissidents, today they are increasingly replaced by the Internet. Via Internet, networkings are now quickly possible, created by television, the Internet platform "Youtube" and social networks such as Facebook, so that the "power of the Many" is felt. Just the political upheavals in the Maghreb countries reveal how effective this can be today. The aim of the work of NGOs is to create this public sphere. In the "Global Village", the spotlights are directed at the dark spots. And so nobody is able to hide from the world.

In the coalition agreement of 2009 the German foreign policy commits itself to protect persecuted religious minorities, including Christians: "The Federal Government will likewise continuously work for religious freedom worldwide, and here pay particular attention to the situation of Christian minorities." In politics, the issue of persecution of Christians is meanwhile taken more seriously. Most recently, the German parliament has dealt with the topic of "freedom of religion and belief" in December 2010. This has an impact. Many countries with limited rights to exercise a freely chosen religion have now to grant greater freedom of belief and religion - due to the growing public pressure. Freedom of religion is a primary and inalienable human right. The commitment to persecuted Christians will then be very credible if we stand up for the rights of believers, independently of their faith, and never for the religious freedom of Christians alone.


    {*} Gregor Freiherr von Fürstenberg (born in 1965) is a theologian, business economist and graduate sociologist. Since 2004 he is Vice President of Internationales Katholisches Missionswerk "Missio". He is a member of the Central Committee of German Catholics.


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