Religious Freedom Experts Account Christian Fears, Faith in Middle East

Every decade of history has been repeating itself in Pakistan as far as religious freedom is concerned, according to a leading activist for human rights and religious freedom in Pakistan.

"Every government that has failed ... have taken the course to Islam," said Group Captain Cecil Chaudhry during a briefing Thursday hosted by the Congressional Working Group on Religious Freedom and Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom.

In what Chaudhry calls a "religious apartheid" in Pakistan, the Christian population continues to "suffer in silence" at the backdrop of violent protests over caricatures of Muhammad.

"Fires are still burning," said the retired group captain. With practically no religious freedom, Christians have been the constant victims of "grossly misused" blasphemy law charges and Hudud laws that especially discriminate against women.

While hundreds of legal mosques are built, Christians are not granted the legal permission to build a church.

"So where's the religious freedom?" asked Chaudhry.

The same question is being addressed for the dwindling population of Christians in Palestine.

Palestinian Christians, for the most part, have declined to report the ongoing religious freedom abuses that have caused thousands to emigrate. Justus Reid Weiner, author of Human Rights of Christian in Palestinian Society, called it "justified fear" for the intimidation that has Christians keeping silent for the protection of their congregants, families, and their own lives.

In Weiner's recent study, he noted Christian leaders such as Bishara Awad, president of Bethlehem Bible College, denying the dangerous circumstances in which they live. Awad claimed that "Christians living under PA (Palestinian Authority) rule enjoy greater freedom due to PA protection of, and assistance to, the church leaders."

Numerous accounts, however, have revealed arrests, beatings, torture, arson and rape against Christians.

In 2001, some Muslim men from a nearby refugee camp attempted to rape a Christian girl. A group of Christian men was able to save the girl but were arrested when one of the Muslim perpetrators was injured in the process. The sexual predators, were not even criminally charged, noted Weiner.

The growing strength of Islamic fundamentalism in the Palestinian Authority is the main cause of "acute social unease" among the Christian population, Weiner wrote. And the electoral victory of the radical Islamic group Hamas last month has many Christians fearing the future.

"The Christians in Bethlehem are left defenseless at the mercy of their oppressors," said Weiner on Thursday. "The abuses that I described should not only be a Christian issue, they should be a human rights issue of the first order. They pose to challenge any government that cares about human rights."

The Christian population has drastically reduced in the Middle East, from 26.4 percent in 1914 to 9.2 percent today in the whole of the Near East, reported Weiner.

Although Hamas' leaders have assured there being no reason for Christians to be fearful, many remain unconvinced and are leaving the country.

At the same time, more Christians are beginning to testify the difficult situations they face, "now feeling that it's now or never," said Weiner.

With more attention being brought on the religious persecution in the Middle East, Chaudhry said people need to do more than prayer alone and action alone. Instead, a lot of prayer and a lot of action must be done, including interfaith dialogue.

"We pray a lot and the more we are persecuted, the stronger we go in our faith – that's the history of Christianity."