This past weekend, Christians around the world commemorated the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is interesting to ponder how Easter was celebrated in the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity and the region in which these very events unfolded. There is one factor, however, that may have made the liturgical festivities less expansive and well-attended than one might imagine: the minimal number of Christians in the region. In the Middle East, the number of Christians has dwindled to less than 10 percent of the region’s population. This diminishing number is not, however, simply a result of natural immigration patterns or conversions to other faiths; it also reflects the determination of intolerant and extremist governments and associated groups to drive them out.
In a Wall Street Journal article titled, “The Middle East War on Christians,” Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, explains that in Iraq alone over the past 10 years, “nearly two-thirds of Iraq’s 1.5 million Christians have been driven from their homes.” Prosor then adds:
In the rubble of Syrian cities like Aleppo and Damascus, Christians who refused to convert to Islam have been kidnapped, shot and beheaded by Islamist opposition fighters. In Egypt, mobs of Muslim Brotherhood members burn Coptic Christian churches in the same way they once obliterated Jewish synagogues. And in Iraq, terrorists deliberately target Christian worshippers. This past Christmas, 26 people were killed when a bomb ripped through a crowd of worshipers leaving a church in Baghdad’s southern Dora neighborhood.
Upholding the right to religious freedom not only better recognizes human dignity and enables the exercise of other liberties; in many cases, it also helps to create a more stable national environment. Jordan comes perhaps the closest to being an example of such a country. The situation for Christians in Jordan is not perfect but it is light-years ahead of Iran, a country in which the government severely restricts Christians’ ability to worship and live within its borders. In a recent American Spectator article titled, “Ready to Join the International Community?” Doug Bandow details the persecution faced by religious minorities in the country and argues that a halt to religious repression could earn the country, among other things, increased acceptance in the international community.
Iran is composed of an overwhelming Shia Muslim majority (approximately 90 percent). Although this is the case, the Iranian government has expressed fear in allowing those of other faiths to worship and live freely. Under Iran’s constitution, “Christians nominally are free to worship. But that right is highly constrained, as Iran has emerged as one of the globe’s worst prosecutors,” states Bandow.
Consider for example the recent case of Saeed Abedini, an American citizen born in Iran and sentenced to eight years in prison last year by the Iranian government for “undermining national security.” The act that landed him a place in prison: aiding house churches. Abedini traveled to Iran in 2012 to set up an orphanage with the government’s approval, and has since been held at the notorious Evin prison, and then transferred to the perhaps even more dangerous Rajai Shahr prison.
This is not an isolated case. Abedini is the symbol of broader religious repression. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has routinely labeled Iran as a country of particular concern, and in its 2013 annual report concluded: “The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.”
One reason which fuels this persecution is Tehran’s perception of religious faith as a political threat. Bandow cites Kiri Kankhwende of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, who believes the regime sees non-Muslim beliefs “as a challenge to the very state itself.” The number of converts to Christianity in Iran has been on the rise, followed by a consequent rise in government-led initiatives aimed at limiting conversions to Christianity, such as preventing Christian churches from worshipping in Farsi (most Iranians do not understand the minority languages).
Other religious groups experience similar or even greater suffering than the Christians of Iran. Bandow maintains that the government’s treatment of groups, such as Baha’is and other Muslims, including Sufis, Sunnis, and non-conformist Shia is far worse. (Also see “A Prisoner of Tehran Looks Forward,” an interview with Iranian human rights activist Marina Nemat in the Spring 2013 issue of Acton’s Religion & Liberty.)
While minority religious populations continue to decrease in the Middle East, some believe that Israel presents a more positive example. It has always allowed Christian minorities broad religious liberty rights. Indeed, it is the only country in the Middle East with a growing Christian population. According to Prosor, “its Christian community has increased from 34,000 in 1948 to 140,000 today, in large measure because of the freedoms Christians are afforded.” In recent years, Israel has also experienced progress in the fields of economic growth and business freedom, according to the Heritage Foundation’s 2014 Index of Economic Freedom.
These and other contrasting examples might encourage us to pose further questions about how increased religious freedom might positively impact other areas of social and economic life. Through its upcoming Religious and Economic Freedom Conference Series, the Acton Institute will explore this important and complicated topic, with particular attention to economic liberty.
The first conference of the series, titled, “Faith, State, and the Economy: Perspectives From East and West,” will take place on April 29 in Rome and is free and open to the public.