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Heiner Bielefeldt {*}

Threatened, Harassed or Persecuted

Violations of the Religious Freedom of Christian Minorities


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 7/2012, P. 356-360
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In recent years, the concept of "persecution of Christians" has gained in political value, but it remains controversial. A nonreflective, isolating, eye-catching or even inflationary use of this term may even cause harm.


At least since New Year's Eve 2011, the religious freedom of Christian minorities has become a political issue. The terrorist attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria, by which 23 people were killed, has as it were bombed the issue into the public awareness. In terms of time this bloody act coincided with the beginning of the Arab rebellion, on which great hopes and also some fears were pinned. Commentators raised optimistic or worried questions on how the changes in the Arab world would affect the situation of Christians in the region.

Unforgettable are the pictures from Tahrir Square in Cairo, where demonstrating Muslims and Christians mutually ensured that they were not troubled during their prayers. In view of restorative tendencies and religio-political radicalization, the at that time burgeoning hopes that the democratic spring in Egypt and other Arab states would pave the way for a discrimination-free coexistence between people from different religions have now largely come to nothing. What remains is the public interest in a topic that had previously been discussed only in professional circles.


"Persecution of Christians" - an Appropriate Term?

Critical assessments and concerns lately condense in the concept of "persecution of Christians". In recent years its political value has increased; at the same time, however, it remains controversial. While some advocate that at last plain language is spoken and concrete solidarity with the hard-pressed Christian minority is shown, others warn against the danger that the concept of persecution of Christians could signal a turn for the religio-political clientelism, and at the same time a turning away from a universalist understanding of religious freedom.

The universality of human rights does by no means imply a tendency to abstraction - on the contrary. As in the context of combating racism it is a matter of course to address concrete manifestations, as e.g. the Roma hostility or anti-Semitism, it applies also to the area of religious freedom that it makes sense to identify the phenomena in concrete terms: for example the persecution of Bahá'i in Iran and of Ahmadis in Pakistan or state repression against the Falun Gong movement in China. The same applies to the dealing with Christian minorities. Particularly where systematic exclusion and violent attacks against Christians get a dangerous level for entire groups it is certainly appropriate to speak of persecution of Christians.



An example would be the situation of many Christians in Iraq: they serve as a projection screen of a widespread hatred of the West, and are the victim of death threats, kidnappings, torture and acts of terror. In the wake of the Iraq War hundreds of thousands of Christians found themselves forced to leave their homeland, which as is well known belongs to the early centers of Christianity.

Nevertheless, we plead here for caution in dealing with the concept of persecution of Christians. A nonreflective, isolating, eye-catching or even inflationary use of this term could cause damage. There are three reasons for this:

On the one hand, the focusing on the situation of Christian minorities should not obstruct the view of the fact that in most cases where Christians are harassed also members of other religions and worldviews are similarly affected. In Iraq, collective hatred erupts not only against Christians but also Yesides and Mandaeans. In Pakistan, not only Christians but also liberal Muslims and particularly members of the Ahmadiyya community are threatened by the draconian blasphemy laws.

It is often overlooked that not only Christians but also Muslims are affected by the Indian anti-conversion laws, which at the level of some federal states are to secure the primacy of Hinduism. And when in Turkey restrictive laws massively hinder the setup of a religious infrastructure, without which religious community life has no development opportunities, not only Christian minorities suffer from it, but also Alevis, Yesides and other groups. All these problematic cases should each be addressed in concrete terms - but not exclusively.

On the other hand, the concept of persecution of Christians is often too comprehensive for the precise description of concrete problems. If you look closer, you notice for example that in some Middle Eastern countries especially Protestant groups are affected by repressive measures. This is because they are, in contrast to the traditional indigenous Christian communities, regarded as exponents of "the West", which is often viewed with suspicion. Moreover, they are considered to be mission churches. They offer divine services in the general vernacular. This is unwanted in many places.

It fits into this picture that the Iranian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who in September 2011 was sentenced to death for apostasy from Islam, is a member of an evangelical congregation. Little attention is incidentally paid to the fact that Jehovah's Witnesses are among the most persecuted groups - to be precise, on the one hand because of their missionary activity, and on the other hand because of their refusal to perform military service. The Jehovah's Witnesses regard themselves as Christians, but they are generally not recognized as such by the Christian mainstream churches. Their fate is almost never discussed under the heading of "persecution of Christians".

In addition, it is useful to cultivate a nuanced language in the description of human rights issues. Not every form of discrimination or harassment should be immediately labelled as persecution. This is not the place to propose a precise definition of the term 'persecution'. But even according to every-day usage it is clear that the term 'persecution' should be reserved to indicate particularly severe and systematically planned repressions. It should not be used in an inflationary way but with caution. Restraint is also advisable with regard to the perception of the frequently circulating numbers about the persecution of Christians. The origin of the repeatedly mentioned number of 100 million persecuted Christians worldwide is methodologically not clearly identified, and this number is obviously based on a very broad interpretation of persecution.


Very Different Groups of People are Affected

Violations of religious freedom occur in different forms and degrees of intensity. These include: bureaucratic harassment, years of delay of planning applications for houses of worship or cemeteries; indoctrination of school children, demonization in the media, removal of custody of children from their parents, prohibition of importation, possession and distribution of religious literature, discrimination in the awarding of professional positions; discrimination in the education system or even exclusion from higher education, refusal of legal personality for religious communities; intimidation by blasphemy legislation, vandalism and desecration of cemeteries, imprisonment, torture and capital punishment for deviant religious or ideological positions, sometimes even mass murder and terror - as recently again in Nigeria.

Quite different groups of people can be affected by such violations of their religious freedom: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Bahá'i or atheists, because freedom of religion includes ideological freedom as one of the human rights: also atheists can appeal to it.

The measures against Christians have usually no specific features - perhaps with one exception: the prohibitions of "proselytism" existing in many countries of the world, which is often reinforced by prosecution, address in fact in particular Christian communities, although they typically are formulated as abstract regulations. The term of proselytism is usually not precisely defined, but refers to a somehow "aggressive" missionary activity, which is de facto ascribed above all to Protestant groups.



The first verdict of the European Court of Human Rights has nearly twenty years ago been obtained incidentally by a Jehovah's Witness. He had been punished in Greece because of proselytism.

Violations of religious freedom can come from the state or emerge more or less spontaneously from the heart of society; state and societal players often also co-operate disastrously. The reasons for state repressions can be religious or ideological claims to truth - think only of Iran, Saudi Arabia or North Korea. Far more often, however, it is about the maintenance or strengthening of a national identity. At the same time, the political players expect from it wide popular support - a calculation that is often enough successful.

Mobilization strategies regarding identity policy make gladly use of religious traditions. The list of examples is long and includes Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Greece, Ukraine, Russia and many other states. No religion is a priori immune against it to be used in this sense as regards identity policy. This applies not only to Islam or other monotheistic revealed religions, which in this regard especially come to mind, but also for example to Buddhism: in Vietnam, Laos or Myanmar it is promoted by the state, in order to enhance the national profile of the country. Mobilizations of identity policy often go hand in hand with the exclusion of such groups that do not fit into the desired image.


A Paradoxical Combination of Contempt and Fear

An important cause of violations of religious freedom is also the interest in surveillance policy. Above all authoritarian systems - Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Eritrea, Cuba, Belarus and many others - often react downright hysterically to uncontrolled religious or other gatherings, because they fear that out of them, so to speak, metastases emerge, which could eventually change into a rebellion. As regards the legitimacy of its one-party rule, even the People's Republic of China is only a giant with feet of clay: It systematically refuses the "Reality Check" of free and fair elections. In China religious activities are now admittedly possible to a great extent - but only under the condition that they remain subject to government control.



Protestant or Catholic congregations that refuse to cooperate with the government - the so-called "house churches" or "underground churches" - live therefore under conditions of permanent threat. The same applies to Muslim or Buddhist religious communities if they elude the grip of Chinese authorities.

Bullying, exclusion and acts of violence coming from the center of society are not less widespread than state repression: mobbing at school and at work, hate speeches on the Internet, cemetery desecration or collective acts of violence. Such aggression reveal time and again an intensity of hatred that is shocking. The here gaping abysses elude any explanatory access. Often, it seems, the hatred comes from a paradoxical combination of contempt and fear. This connection is therefore paradoxical because contempt implies feelings of superiority, whereas in the fear, which can escalate up to collective paranoia, one's own vulnerability and menace, i.e. a specific inferiority, are imagined.

In creating such feelings of superiority, also the religious communities and their theologies sometimes play a fatal role. Freedom of religion does admittedly not demand from them to abandon any truth claims. But religious communities - their members and their leadership - bear the responsibility for ensuring that this does not lead to the demonization of "infidels", people of other religions, converts and internal dissidents - as it often happens, e.g. in circles of political Islamism.

In addition to it, fears of the 'other' are often based on not reappraised historical traumatizations. These can be revitalized and exploited also politically. In Middle Eastern countries or elsewhere, Christian minorities experience again and again that they are excluded - as alleged descendants of "crusaders" or European colonial masters. There is also the fact that fears are fueled of a supposedly sinister power of missionaries. These fears are often projected on to small religious groups. But such paranoid attributions to proselytizing Christian "sects" are also found elsewhere, as e.g. in the political environment of the Russian Orthodoxy.

Commitment to religious freedom of persecuted minorities must simultaneously be focused on many levels: States and civil society organizations as well as religious communities have to make their own, special contribution. Much also depends on education and the media.

The establishment of an effective human rights infrastructure in the respective countries belongs to the most important long-term investments. This includes a functioning jurisdiction, as well as a critical civil society and much more. It is clear that a change in the field of human rights can only succeed if it is supported by many local actors. It must primarily come from within. In recent years, the UN High Commission for Human Rights does therefore increasingly focus on the development of national human rights institutions, which now exist in many countries of the world.


Solidarity for Persecuted Christians in the Commitment to Universal Freedom of Religion

Dialogue and exchange programs, including projects of inter-religious communication, are of central importance in the long-term improvement of human rights, including freedom of religion. They are sometimes wrongly ridiculed. Anyone who once witnessed the encounter between religious leaders who have no culture of conversation and were even unable to look into each others' eyes immediately understands how important regular interreligious and intercultural communication is for a prosperous coexistence. This may include a wide range of topics, as e.g. also the situation of religious minorities in various countries. By including journalists, such programs can also serve to qualify the media coverage, which in turn plays a crucial role in overcoming stereotypes.

Unfortunately, the limits of effective human rights work are time and again painfully experienceable especially in crisis situations where this work is especially important. Everybody keeps in mind the current drama in Syria. However, this must not be a reason for inaction. A few years ago, the EU Member States have agreed on using systematically their embassies and consulates, especially in difficult human rights situations. They want to play an active role, and e.g. to send observers in court hearings, to receive critical journalists, and to support the human rights defenders' cause on the spot. You can not expect wonder from it, but such activities can nevertheless be effective, especially if they are well coordinated EU-wide.

Religious communities and secular NGOs should not only cooperate more intensively with each other if the rights of Christian and other religious minorities are at stake. Unfortunately, here many fears of contact exist, and recently they have rather increased. But what is needed are broad networks of people who stand up for threatened, harassed and persecuted fellow beings, inform themselves about the fate of individuals, start letter-writing campaigns, and even in the long term do not give up to inquire time and again. This "classic" human rights work, as unspectacular as it usually is done, remains the backbone of the international human rights movement.



The specific issue of religious freedom for Christians can be treated best on the basis of universal human rights norms. It includes undoubtedly freedom of religion, which in 1948 has been proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in 1966 enshrined in international law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Only the recourse to universal human rights makes broad coalitions possible. Moreover, it should be more difficult for the addressed governments to denounce the human rights work as "interference", if it refers to standards that are recognized as binding by the world community. In this respect, also the solidarity for persecuted Christians may be effective, as part of a commitment to the universal realization of freedom of religion and belief. It must always be specific, but should also be related to the universal human rights.

The credibility of human rights commitment is reflected not least in the willingness for political self-criticism. Compared to many regions of the world, in Germany and Europe it looks on the whole relatively good in the matter of religious freedom. One can be glad about it, but this should be no reason for complacency. A blot on European policy is still the pettiness in dealing with refugees. But in recent times there have been repeatedly cases where both members of the Bahá'i and Christian converts have been deported from European countries into Iran. The fact remains: The fight against human rights abuses is directed at many addresses.


    {*} Since August 2010 Heiner Bielefeldt (born in 1958) is professor of human rights and human rights policy at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, and in a honorary capacity UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. From 2003 to 2009 the at the University of Bremen habilitated philosopher and Catholic theologian was director of the German Institute of Human Rights in Berlin. Bielefeldt is since 1999 Member of the German Commission Justitia et Pax and there responsible for human rights.


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