A tragic Easter evening at a crowded park in Lahore, Pakistan, is the latest reminder that outside of the Western world, Christianity is increasingly a targeted minority.
The Taliban faction, Jamaat-ur-Ahrar, claimed responsibility for the suicide attack that killed more than 70 and wounded hundreds, mostly children. More than 5,000 militants were rounded up in Pakistan and all but approximately 200 were released during the government’s investigation.
Attacks against Christians are a pattern in Pakistan in recent years. In March of 2015, for example, 14 people were killed and more than 70 injured after suicide bombers targeted two churches in Lahore, and at least 80 were killed in a church bomb attack in 2013 in the city of Peshawar.
Human-rights organizations have an uphill battle when it comes to raising Western awareness of incidents like these. David Curry, CEO of Open Doors U.S.A., part of an international organization that tracks and brings awareness of Christian persecution, sees the Western focus on persecution in America and Europe as part of the problem.
“I don't believe most Americans have an accurate understanding of the real state of Christian persecution around the world,” says Curry. News coverage is selected according to consumer demand, he adds. “But for news consumers to clamor for such coverage, they need to be aware of the extent of the problem.”
Open Doors reports a significant increase in attacks against Christians during 2014-2015. Last year, more than 7,000 Christians were killed for their faith, which they note is “almost 3,000 more than the previous year.” The largest areas of growing Christian persecution occur in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia. Those numbers are expected to scale upward.
The Center for Inquiry (CFI), an organization whose Campaign for Free Expression promotes the rights of religious and nonreligious individuals globally, has seen the same patterns. “We were the sole secular humanist organization to press the State Department to label ISIS’s crimes against Muslims and Christians as genocide,” says Paul Fidalgo, the communications director for CFI.
Open Doors agrees with the genocide assessment, noting that persecution in the Middle East and Africa, “increasingly takes the form of ethnic cleansing.”
In March, pressures from human-rights organizations finally succeeded in getting the U.S. State Department to apply this genocidal label to the Islamic State. Secretary of State John Kerry provided a laundry list of war crimes by IS that helped to secure that official condemnation, including the horrific beheading of 49 Egyptian and Ethiopian Coptic Christians in 2015.
The difficulty in addressing these human-rights violations is significantly stronger, however, when it comes to recognized states. In many countries, suppression of minority religious groups is codified in legal systems in the form of blasphemy laws. These laws serve as a means to justify and prosecute religious and nonreligious minorities. (The United States still has a few unenforceable blasphemy laws left on the books.)
A 2012 report from Pew Research shows that 22 percent of “the world’s countries and territories” have blasphemy laws, and 11 percent penalize apostasy. In many locations, punishments can result in fines, but in others, blasphemy is on par with treason and can result in death.
The safety of individuals in countries with blasphemy laws is difficult to secure by foreign advocates. Frequently, governments, like Saudi Arabia, whose human-rights record is repeatedly questioned by advocacy groups, see international pressure to improve human rights as a guise for challenging their sovereignty. (Saudi Arabia has a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council.)
State responses like these belie the significant individual human cost they dismiss. In a few individual cases, the end result is freedom. In Sudan, a 27-year-old Christian woman, Meriam Ibrahim, was sentenced to death for apostasy after converting and was turned in to the authorities by her brother. Groups like Open Doors and Center for Inquiry both called for her release, and she was eventually allowed to receive asylum in the United States.
Other individuals, like Pakistani Asia Bibi, a Christian accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, are still uncertain what the future holds. She’s been on death row since 2010. Her strongest advocate, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, was assassinated for his support in 2011. She is the subject of protests and threats while her case is appealed.
Even in countries that boast a form of official secularity and religious freedom—such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Bangladesh—the state unofficial intolerance religious groups, or failure to address social intolerance, only increases the suppression of religious groups. “Bangladesh is perhaps the clearest example,” notes Fidalgo, “where you have secular activists and Christians being murdered, more or less with impunity.”
For those who are aware of this global situation, calls for change are growing. Through official statements and social media, many Muslims have expressed their support and solidarity with those who are persecuted. For example, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the exiled world head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community—a group also persecuted in Pakistan for their belief in a prophet after Muhammad and which is constitutionally unrecognized by the state as Muslim—released a statement expressing his sympathies and condolences, condemning the Lahore attack. “Never can such attacks be justified in any shape or form,” he says, “and so all forms of terrorism and extremism must be condemned in the strongest possible terms.”
Effective international solutions, however, are still a long way away and those engaged in human rights want to see actions with teeth. “Right now few leaders are offering more than condolences after major attacks on Christians,” says Curry, “They need to go to the countries, meet with its leaders and people to find bipartisan ways to protect Christians and promote religious freedom to all.”
We have to “look beyond our borders,” adds Fidalgo. We need to recognize that “people truly are suffering in unthinkable ways—being beaten by mobs, imprisoned, executed, flogged—for holding certain beliefs or questioning the majority.”
“And then we need to start bringing to bear our diplomatic and economic influence and making serious efforts to make change. Sometimes we are doing that, but not nearly often enough, nor forcefully enough.”
Brandon G. Withrow teaches religious studies at the University of Findlay, is the author of nine books, his most-recent (co-authored with Menachem Wecker) is Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education.