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Iraq Christian Killings Put Spotlight On Religious Minorities In Muslim Countries

Iraqi Christians carry the coffins of those slain in the recent church attack during a funeral service at a church in Baghdad.
Two weeks ago, militants in Iraq laid siege to a church in Baghdad, in an attack that killed more than 50 Christians and prompted condemnation from around the world. That attack -- along with a spree of targeted killings of Christians in Baghdad this week -- also put a spotlight on the status of religious minorities throughout the broader Muslim world.

RFE/RL's news director, Jay Tolson, discussed the meaning and impact of these attacks with Paul Marshall and Michael Horowitz, both experts on religious freedom at the Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan policy-research organization dedicated to innovative research and analysis that promotes global security, prosperity, and freedom.

RFE/RL: Is it dangerous now, is it problematic at least, for Christians and non-Muslims to live in the part of the world that some people are now calling the "Muslim World?"

Paul Marshall: Yes Jay, it's increasingly dangerous. The attack on the Catholic Church in Baghdad, explicitly by Al-Qaeda, that's unusual. And Al-Qaeda has followed up on that with saying that because of events in Egypt, all Christians in the Middle East are now legitimate targets for attack. That sort of explicit terrorist threat is relatively new, but with the increasing power of more radical forms of Islam, the Christians in that area and even in North Africa but certainly in the Levant, also over into Iran, Christians are feeling more and more threatened. And in my contacts, my conversations with them, there is a level of tension, anxiety, and fear that you did not see 20 years ago, 30 years ago.

Michael Horowitz: I would say it's even more dangerous for the West if we continue to ignore it, if we allow it to happen, if we don't treat it as a priority. And I think even more interestingly, it is more dangerous for Islam if we, in the West, ignore it. When I first got involved in the whole issue of religious persecution and specifically Christian persecution some 10 years ago, people at the State Department ignored it -- they wouldn't want those people as neighbors. They called it "ethnic conflict," and I came to understand that the people with the highest stake in this battle, with the greatest interest in America and the West attacking that kind of radicalism, were Muslims. I would get calls in the middle of the night from leaders of Muslim countries saying: "You cannot be silent -- if you are silent, we have no hope." And they would then feed me information about what the radicals were doing, and sometimes would say: "I'll, of course, have to denounce you publicly, but you must keep it up because we're at stake, even more than the Christians are." And I'm troubled by the fact that this is not a priority concern for American and Western foreign policy.

RFE/RL: Could you just give us -- both of you -- some sense of the dimensions of the problem?

Marshall: Well, if you begin with Egypt, that's by far the largest sort of non-Muslim minority in the Arab world, you're dealing with 8-10 million Christians and a very old community -- one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. And there are increasing attacks on Christians. On January 6 this year, which is the Christmas Eve for Egyptian Christians, six worshippers were machine-gunned as they came out of church. At the moment there's been rumors flying around that women who want to convert to Islam are being kept prisoners in monasteries in Egypt. If you know anything about Egyptian monasteries, you know how ludicrous that claim is, but there's been demonstrations, mobs in the street calling for the death of the Coptic pope, the head of the Egyptian Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda, so tensions are extremely high there. And Copts look back again 40, 50 years ago and say things were much better there. So you're getting that happening in Egypt.

In Iraq, as we know, everybody in Iraq suffers, but the religious minorities, again they're 90 percent-plus Christian, but other groups, Yazidis, Mandaeans, these groups have borne a much greater brunt. They're not powerful. They don't have their militias, so in this case it's not a sort of sectarian fight. But they're weak; they can be picked on. And radicals including Al-Qaeda feel that they should have no place in Iraq, so that religious minorities, 4 to 5 percent of the population, are something like 30 to 40 percent of the refugees. So even with many terrible things happening in Iraq, the religious minorities are getting it more.

You mentioned Pakistan. Increasing violence against Christians -- two villages destroyed in the summer last year -- and then also Ahmadis, who are sort of an unusual Islamic group -- many Muslims don't regard them really as Muslim, which is fine by me -- but they're being attacked in Pakistan and in other places, and that's not fine by me, or I think by anybody else. In Iran, certainly since [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini came to power, but in recent years since [Iranian President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad was in power as president, the religious minorities, Christians, especially Baha'is -- all their leadership is now in prison in Iran -- Zoroastrians, all these groups are feeling increasingly marginalized, as do Lebanese Christians.

And then Palestinian Christians feel, of course, they, like all Palestinians, are caught in a conflict with Israel, which is a major problem for them. They have an additional worry with a group like Hamas, which is more Islamist rather than nationalist, and they're fearful about the sort of place they might have in a future Palestine if it's Islamist rather than Palestinian. So, a city like Bethlehem, which until a few decades ago was 80 percent Christian, it's now less than a third Christian; it's dropping. Jerusalem was a century ago maybe a quarter Christian, now it's about 2 percent. So, throughout most of the region, Christians are feeling threatened, and because to some degree they have been a window to the Western world, there's increasing emigration. And for those who are staying, increasing concern.

RFE/RL: Do you feel that, to some degree, the supposedly secular governments or relatively secular governments -- say that of Egypt, of [President Hosni] Mubarak, but other governments as well -- have to some degree become a little cynical in allowing the heat, the pressure to increase on minority, and particularly Christian communities in their countries, in some ways to steal some of the fire of the Islamists? I mean, the situation, it seems to me, is getting worse even in countries where Islamists are not in control.

Marshall: This is the case especially in Egypt. The major opposition to the government is the Muslim Brotherhood -- it's claiming to represent true Islam -- so Mubarak and his successor want to shore up the Islamic credentials, they want to look very Islamic. And this means that, while I don't think the Egyptian government wants to talk at Christians, it's not going to go out of its way to defend them. And with these attacks on Christians, even the [U.S.] State Department has referred to a climate of impunity in Egypt with attacks on Copts. What had happened, the security forces either stand aside, or intervene late, but people are generally not punished for this, so the attacks continue. So the Christians provide a handy scapegoat, even for secular governments, as a sort of counterweight to the Islamists.

Horowitz: Of course Paul's right, that Christians are the canaries in the coal mine; the victims whose victimization cows everybody else. As a Jew, I understand that Christians are playing in the Middle East the kind of role that Jews played over much of the history of Europe. And yet I think that the picture is not quite as bleak, or at least maybe more spotty, than Paul has suggested by only giving the example of Egypt.

Pakistan is a country with which I am somewhat familiar. The bravest man I know is a man named Shahbaz Bhatti, who founded the All Pakistan Minority Alliance, [and has] probably had more fatwas against him as one of the leading lay Christians in Pakistan than Imelda Marcos had shoes. But he has since been elected to the Pakistani parliament and is now minister of minority affairs. He has met with the pope, he's met with -- the Italian foreign minister is coming to Islamabad to praise his work -- and he, in a remarkable way, got the four principal imams of Pakistan and other leaders of the madrasahs of that country, to issue a condemnation of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Islamist extremism, and he is continuing to do that work. Part of the problem is that the West, the State Department, doesn't recognize the importance of that. For the media it's like a "man bites dog" story and therefore, not really credible.

But the fact of the matter is that in countries like Pakistan there is the beginning, even within the clerisy, of a reaction against that extremism, and I'll give you one reason why. In Pakistan and in lots of other countries, not only are these radicals killing Christians, they're killing lots of Muslims as well. And, so I think the situation is not quite as bleak. And I think with more aggressive commitment to religious freedom, a clearer attack on the murderers and the extremists from the West, more support for people who stand against the extremists, I think there is a voice of Islam that can take on these radicals. This is a battle for the soul of Islam that's going on, and while the bad guys have the lead, there are signs that they don't have a clear field, and we can help change that playing field.

RFE/RL: I agree with you Mike that it's not all bleak. But there are, I think, certain assumptions that are afoot throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and one of them is this assumption of "the Muslim world." First of all, it makes it sound like there it's a unitary Muslim world that leaves no room for whoever doesn't fit the correct definition of Muslim. And second of all, it is being called "the Muslim world," no longer, for example, "the Arab world," which would allow for a number of possibilities of Arabs, including Jewish Arabs, including Christian Arabs. So, just in sort of laying the groundwork, have people in the West -- Americans, non-Muslims, and others -- accepted too readily this naming of a region as "the Muslim world" or "the predominantly Muslim world," is this something that we should question?

Marshall: Thanks Jay. Yes, it is. And I've been concerned about this when the U.S. has appointed a special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The United States has more Muslims living in the United States than one third of the Organization of the Islamic Conference does. We have Muslims too, so our concern about this categorization of the "Muslim world" -- in Muslim-majority countries there are about 200 million non-Muslims living -- and if we conceptualize this as the "Muslim world," then politically they can become invisible.

So I would much rather refer to particular types of countries. We should refer to Egypt; we should refer to Iran. And we're certainly aware that these are Muslim-majority countries, but in the same ways we don't refer to the "Buddhist world" when we're talking about somewhere like Taiwan, Cambodia, or Burma. We should be very careful about referring to the "Muslim world." Even the term "Arab world" has its problems; there are Kurds living there, there are other ethnic and language minorities living there, there are Berbers as well. So sometimes we use these terms as shorthand, but conceptually, I think we should always stop ourselves and realize that this is a very plural, a very diverse region, just like the rest of the world.

Horowitz: If I can interject there, Jay, not only should we not be silent about that characterization, we should challenge it with all we have. Because the takeaway message when we speak of the "Muslim world" is a unitary world controlled by the Islamists and the radicals. And Paul's point and my point is that we surrender Muslims to the reign of terrorists. Now, I'm not talking about, and Paul's not talking about what is, too sadly, American foreign policy, which is to appease the terrorists. I'm talking about challenging them, and doing so with the understanding that within the "Muslim world" there are silent voices that lack support. [Voices] that are prepared, under the right circumstances, to take on the terrorists in this, as I've said, battle for the soul of Islam.

Marshall: For many Muslims, being Muslim is not necessarily the first part of their political identity. For most Kurds -- most Kurds are Muslim -- but being Kurdish can be more important to them. For Egyptians, being Egyptian can be important to them, so by continually referring to the "Muslim world," or "Muslim countries," we're reinforcing the political identity of "Muslim." And that's an identity. which I would say, most Muslims in the world don't share. They would think of themselves as Indonesian, or Iranian, or Iraqi, or Turkish. So, we need to be aware of that too.