December 23rd, 2010
02:10 PM ET

Christians face rising persecution, experts say

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.

Asia Bibi, a Christian, is facing a death sentence for blasphemy in Pakistan.

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.

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: Christianity • Coptic • Egypt • Iran • Iraq • Middle East • Persecution • Religious violence • Violence

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