December 23rd, 2010
02:10 PM ET
By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
A pastor sits on death row in Iran. His crime? Renouncing Islam for Christianity.
A Christian mother of two faces execution in Pakistan - and a preacher has put a price on her head in case the president pardons her. Her crime? Insulting the Prophet Mohammed.
In Iraq, dozens of Christians lie in fresh graves. Their fatal mistake? Going to church.
And these are not simply isolated incidents, but part of a broader pattern, experts say.
"There does appear to be an upsurge in violence directed against Christians," said Leonard Leo, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
He says part of the problem is that "governments are not cracking down on sectarian violence the way they should."
"We've got to have governments taking ownership of these problems and enforcing the laws that exist," he said. Whether it's "Christians in Iraq or Afghanistan, or Copts in Egypt, the government has to prosecute (people) and put them in jail for killing people on account of their religion."
The problems are worst in the countries with the greatest amount of division, he said. Anti-blasphemy and apostasy laws also are problems in some countries, he said.
The commission is particularly worried about Egypt, where plans to build a church near Cairo sparked riots in November. A Christian was killed in clashes with police.
That violence came on the heels of attacks on the homes and businesses of Coptic Christians, Egypt's local Christian community, the commission said. The burning and looting in Qena province, in southern Egypt, was sparked by rumors of romantic relationship between a Christian man and a Muslim woman, a commission statement said.
Bad as that violence was, "the worst place of all undoubtedly is Iraq, where there was a recent church bombing," said Nina Shea, who also sits on the religious freedom commission.
At least 70 people died in the attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad on October 31. Fifty-three of them were Christians.
Iraq's al Qaeda affiliate, "the Islamic State of Iraq, vowed to kill Christians wherever they find them," Shea said.
"As the (overall) violence has decreased in Iraq, it has gone up against the Christians," she said.
Six weeks after the church attack, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees said it was tracking a "slow but steady exodus" of Christians from Baghdad and Mosul, two of Iraq's major cities.
Even relatively moderate Morocco has taken action against Christians this year, Shea says.
"Morocco expelled foreign Christians who had long been in Morocco - the head of the George Washington School in Casablanca, the director of an orphanage, educators - about 100 people," she said.
"That followed a petition by Muslim leaders to stop the Christian influence in Morocco," she said. "There may be some pressure from more conservative Muslims."
"I would not say that Christians are the only target," she added. "We are seeing it against other groups as well, Shias and Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan, and Baha'is in Iran."
But, she said, "this has been a very bad year for Christians worldwide."
Christians are one the largest religious minorities in the broader Middle East, she said, and they are a target "because they are there."
"Many of them want to stay. They have been in this region for two millennia. They are indigenous. This religion started there," she said.
And they have a unique culture, she said.
The Chaldean Christians of Iraq still speak Aramaic, for example.
"If the Chaldeans are scattered to the four corners of the globe, the language of Jesus will not be preserved," Shea warned. "It will die out."
CNN's Joe Sterling contributed to this report.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.