Translating Words, Interpreting Events

The Tip of the Iceberg of Christian Persecution

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Published in Investigative Project on Terrorism

Two Christians living in the Islamic world under arrest and awaiting execution—the one charged with apostasy, the other with blasphemy—were just released.

free speech for christiansAccording to a September 8 report on CNN, “A Christian pastor sentenced to death in Iran for apostasy was reunited with his family Saturday after a trial court acquitted him… Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, born to Muslim parents and a convert to Christianity by age 19, was released after being held in prison for almost three years under a death sentence…. Setting aside the death sentence, a trial court convicted Nadarkhani of a lesser charge—evangelizing Muslims—and declared that his prison sentence had already been served… His case drew international attention after his October 2009 arrest, and the 34-year-old pastor refused to recant his Christian beliefs.”

In a separate story published the same day, “Pakistani authorities on Saturday released a teenage Christian girl detained over accusations of blasphemy,” for allegedly burning pages of a Koran. Up till then, local Muslims were calling for the death of the 14-year-old Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, warning that, if released, they would “take the law into their own hands.”

Why were these two Christians released—when both apostasy and blasphemy are great crimes in Islam, punishable by death? Is this a sign that Iran and Pakistan are reforming, becoming more “moderate”? One U.S. paper, for example, optimistically offers the following title, “Rescue of Christian Girl may be Turning Point in Abuse of Blasphemy Law.”

Nadarkhani and Masih were certainly not released because their governments are acting according to universal standards of justice or reason. If so, they would not have been arrested in the first place. Nor do these releases suggest that Iran or Pakistan are rethinking their Islamic apostasy and blasphemy laws.

The fact is, there are many more Christians imprisoned in both countries for apostasy and blasphemy. Unlike Nadarkhani and Masih, however, the Western mainstream has never heard of these unfortunate Christians.

And that’s the whole difference.

In Iran, where at least as early as 1990 a convert to Christianity, Pastor Hossein Soodmand, was executed by the state, apostates from Islam are under siege. A few examples from the last few months include:

  • A six-year prison sentence for Pastor Farshid Fathi Malayeriwhose crime was to convert to and preach Christianity —was upheld last July following an unsuccessful appeal hearing.
  • Another prominent house church pastor, Benham Irani, remains behind bars even as his family expresses concerns that he may die from continued abuse and beatings, leading to internal bleeding and other ailments. The verdict against him contains text that describes the pastor as an apostate who “can be killed.” According to one activist, “His ‘crimes’ were being a pastor and possessing Christian materials.” He is being beat in jail and getting sick, to the point that his hair has “turned fully gray.”
  • A woman, Leila Mohammadi, who had earlier converted to Christianity was arrested when security agents raided her house. Imprisoned for five months in Iran’s notorious Evin prison without any word on her fate, she was later sentenced to two years in prison.
  • June 17 report indicated that, five months after five Christian converts were arrested, their condition and fate had remained unknown. They were accused of “attending house church services, promoting Christianity, propagating against the regime and disturbing national security.” Being imprisoned for 130 days without word “is an obvious example of physical and mental abuse of the detainees…. one of the prison guards openly told one of these Christian detainees that all these pressures and uncertainties are intended to make them flee the country after they are released.”
  • A young woman, who had recently converted to Christianity and was an outspoken activist against the Islamic regime, was found dead, slumped over her car’s steering wheel, with a single gunshot wound to her head.

Then there are Iran’s many other faces of Christian persecution, including the shutting down of churches,regular crackdowns on house-church gatheringsdetaining and abusing Christiansbanning church services in Farsi, and confiscating Bibles and other Christian literature.

As for Pakistan’s blasphemy law—which calls for the death penalty—here are a few stories from the last few months:

  • A Muslim mob doused a man with gasoline and literally burned him alive for “blaspheming” the Koran (graphic picture here).
  • A 26-year-old Christian woman was arrested after neighbors accused her of “uttering remarks against Muhammad.” A few days prior, some of her relatives who converted to Islam had pressured her to do likewise: “She refused, telling them that she was satisfied with Christianity and did not want to convert.” She was arrested of blasphemy soon thereafter.
  • A female Christian teacher was targeted by Muslims due to allegations that she burned a Koran. A mob stormed her school in an attempt to abduct her, but police took her into custody.
  • A Christian man was arrested and charged with “blasphemy” for rescuing his 8-year-old nephew from a beating at the hands of Muslim boys who sought to force the boy to convert to Islam. Later, “a Muslim mob of about 55 led by the village prayer leader besieged the Christian’s house,” and insisted that “the blasphemer” be turned over to them.
  • A banned Islamic group attempted to burn down a Christian village after accusing a 25-year-oldmentally retarded Christian man of “blasphemy.”
  • A 20-year-old Christian man was arrested and charged with “blasphemy” after Muslims accused him of burning a Koran soon after a billiard game. The Muslims kept taunting and threatening him, to which the Christian “dared them to do whatever they wanted and walked away.” Days later came the accusation and arrest, which caused Muslim riots, creating “panic among Christians” who “left their houses anticipating violence.”

In the last two decades, over 50 people have been murdered in Pakistan for blasphemy. Even the recentassassination of the nation’s only cabinet-level Christian, Shahbaz Bhatti, was in retaliation for his being an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s “blasphemy” laws.

In light of all the above, why were Pastor Nadarkhani and Masih, the Christian girl—whose fates were sealed—released? Because unlike the many nameless and faceless Christians persecuted for blasphemy and apostasy in Pakistan and Iran, not to mention the rest of the Islamic world, the mainstream media actually reported the stories of these two in the West, prompting much public outrage, international condemnations, and the threat of diplomatic actions and/or sanctions.

For example, Canada just cut relations with Iran, citing, among other reasons the fact that Iran is “one of the world’s worst violators of human rights.” It was the very next day that Pastor Nadarkhani was “coincidentally” released, even as the Iranian regime, playing the victim, accused Canada of being “racist.”

These two particular Christians were simply too much of a liability to punish as Sharia law demands—the same Sharia, incidentally, that teaches Muslims to be lax and tolerant when in their interest. While it is good that Western outrage and condemnation was fundamentally responsible for the release of Nadarkhani and Masih, the West must learn that these two Christians merely represent the tip of the iceberg of Christian persecution in Muslim countries.