Note to missionary critics. The persecution of Christians in Mauritania is a human rights issue.
Mauritania is a land of striking beauty. With sand dunes lined against the sky, Bedouins riding camels in the countryside, and flying beetles that look like they come straight from the abyss of the Apocalypse; Mauritania is a land of extremes - extreme beauty, extreme hospitality, and lately, extreme religion. As the world mourned the death of Michael Jackson, another man went not so quietly into the night, though largely unnoticed by mainstream media.
On Tuesday, June 23, 2009, an American Christian worker named Chris Leggett was gunned down by Al Qaeda for the alleged "crime" of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. To give you an idea of what kind of man Chris Leggett was, the 39-year old native of Cleveland, Tennessee, not only taught computer science in a low-class neighborhood in the capital city of Nouakchott, he also, according to the Cleveland Daily Banner, worked with the prison systems to train and equip women and young boys to re-enter society, directed a training center providing training in computer skills, sewing, and literacy, and oversaw a micro-loan program which fostered the growth of hundreds of small businesses.
Although the minuscule media coverage has been fairly straightforward, I was saddened to see some of the nasty comments on the Huffington Post when Ahmed Mohamed posted the Associated Press story on the site. Although a few of the comments unequivocally condemned Leggett's murder for what it is, a cowardly act of violence motivated by extremists, far too many seemed to think that Leggett was somehow "asking for it" because of the nature of his work in a Muslim land, as if Chris Leggett somehow deserved to die because of his passion for sharing his faith.
One commenter wrote, "Well, you know, it is their country. You go walking around with arrogant disregard of their laws, you better be prepared to pay the consequences. Non-story." Another commenter cut from the same cloth replied, "I agree. It doesn't take much intelligence for non-military Americans to keep out of these countries. You not only go there at your own risk - you ask for it."
My beef isn't so much with the Huffington Post (who likely has little control over what people comment on the site), but to the people who made those nasty comments (there were some that were far worse), I would like to say to them: Feel free to criticize Christian missionaries working in Muslims lands, but I hope you realize that you're criticizing from a position of privilege. Many of you live in countries that allow you to choose your religious beliefs without fear of torture, imprisonment, or death. Hundreds of millions of Muslims live in countries that deny them that right. How do you know that out of the world's roughly 1.2 billion Muslims, that some of them don't want to hear another perspective?
Chris Leggett most likely wasn't banging the Bible over anyone's head, but I wouldn't be surprised if a few curious Muslims quietly asked him about his religious beliefs. After all, most Muslims I know - unlike most Westerners I know - like to discuss religion in every day conversation and enjoy hearing other people's perspectives. If a few of these same Muslims through peaceful dialogue came to the conclusion that Chris's beliefs were correct, where's the crime in that? If Chris Leggett did break Mauritanian law, then it was an unjust law that he broke. Last time I checked, breaking unjust laws is called civil disobedience. Acts of civil disobedience have been crucial to every major advance in human rights.
As a matter of fact, there are hundreds of secret believers in Mauritania right now. Many of them have been abducted, tortured in horrific ways, and forced to name their fellow believers - while the Mauritanian government looks the other way. According to many persecution watchdogs, the persecution of Christians in Mauritania is particularly ferocious, but the same story can be found in countless other countries like Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, and Pakistan. It's time that the decent people of the world wake up to the fact that roughly a billion people live under governments that don't allow them the freedom to obey their conscience in choosing their religious beliefs. The right to choose one's religion is the most basic of human rights. After all, why should human rights apply to everyone except for Muslims?