And what it means for Islamist governments.
On October 31, Al-Qaeda attacked a church in Baghdad, killing at least 58 people. Since then, two more attacks have been carried out on Christians in Iraq’s capital city. The increased persecution of Christians in the Islamic world is partly motivated by fear: Christianity is making major inroads among Muslims who have become disillusioned with their faith.
The Islamic State of Iraq, a front for Al-Qaeda, declared responsibility for the church massacre. “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for the mujahideen wherever they can reach them,” the terrorist group declared. Eyewitnesses say that the gunmen said, “We are here to avenge the burning of the Qurans and the jailing of Muslim women in Egypt!” However, one hostage said another gunman stated, “We will go to paradise if we kill you and you will go to hell.” Make no mistake about it: The gunmen attacked because they have been indoctrinated into believing it is Allah’s command to do so.
The recent attacks are just the latest episode in the sad persecution of the Iraqi Christian community. In 2003, there were an estimated 800,000. At least half of the Christian population has since fled the country, and Iraq is not an isolated story. In another recent story, a Christian mother named Asia Bibi in Pakistan was given a death sentence for blasphemy. The police claimed she committed the transgression of calling the Quran “fake” and making negative remarks about Mohammed. The Voice of the Martyrs reports that she had a religious debate with Muslim women that ended when she was physically attacked after she proclaimed Jesus Christ to be “the true prophet of God.” A cleric then reported her to the authorities.
In the Palestinian territories, the story is not much different. Bethlehem is now almost entirely Muslim as Christians have departed their historical city. When I visited the West Bank, a church told me of how a close relative had been brutally murdered for preaching Christianity. His church is frequently threatened and attacked and he said the Palestinian Authority police was uninterested in protecting them. In the Gaza Strip, where there are 3,500 Christians, some have been forced to help Hamas. After the terrorist group took over, Christian graves were dug up so the bodies could be burned so the Islamic land would be pure.
Christians in Iran are facing persecution as well. At least 85 were arrested last year and the pace increased this year. In February, a church pastor was arrested in Kermanshah. In September, an evangelical preacher was arrested for voicing disagreement over forced Islamic education. Around the same time, nine Christians were arrested for proselytizing their faith and were called “Christian Zionists.” Those who have held Bible studies in their homes for Muslim converts have also faced arrest in Tabriz, Karaj, Rasht, and East Azerbaijan Province. A member of the Central Council of Iranian Churches claims that about one Christian is arrested per week on average now.
The motivation for this increased persecution is a desire to stop the conversion of Muslims. It is estimated that before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the number of Christians in Iran numbered in the low hundreds. This month, Ayatollah Khamenei publicly called the “network of house churches” a threat to Islam. Todd Nettleton, the Director of Media Development for Voice of the Martyrs, told FrontPage that the church in Iran is “growing at an absolutely phenomenal rate.”
“The thing to realize about Iran is that the ‘man on the street’ equates the government with Islam. It is the mullahs, after all, that are in charge of the country,” Nettleton said. He continued:
So failure, injustice and corruption in the government are seen as failure, injustice and corruption in Islam itself, which is creating a populace that is very open to other ideas, including the gospel message of Jesus Christ.
The boasts of Christian organizations are substantiated by the concerns expressed by Islamic authorities. One influential scholar in Libya says that 16,000 Muslims around the world convert every day. A top mufi in Malaysia said that 250,000 Muslims in his country have filed with the government to declare themselves to no longer be Muslim, and this number includes 100,000 who switched to become Christians.
In addition, the radical Islamic authorities trying to stop the spread of Christianity are dealing with the growth of atheism, agnosticism and the overall increase in non-practicing Muslims. Many do not go to mosque at all or only go on Fridays and holidays and do not live as devout Muslims the rest of the time. This phenomenon is particularly strong in Iran. Planet-Iran.com reported in September that Mohammad-Ali Ramin, the Deputy Minister of Islamic Guidance and Culture for Media Relations, declared:
We call upon all clergy to abandon civic and politics issues, partisan matters, NGO’s and western-style organizations and return to the mosques where they can benefit from greater social clout, that will ultimately elevate societal and Islamic interests. We need to be able to put our clergy to proper use, as mosque attendance has thinned out.
The increased oppression of Christians in the Islamic world is an ironic sign of success. If they weren’t effective, such measures would not be necessary. The political shifts, like those related to terrorism and democracy, are making the headlines, but a potentially decisive religious shift is also underway and the world could look very different in the coming decades because of it.