[Originally published under the headline "Death as Punishment 'for Disbelief': Extremist Persecution of Christians, February 2018"]
The jihadi assault on, and massacre of, Christians continued unabated throughout the Muslim world. According to one report titled, "Armed gangs WIPE OUT 15 villages in mass Christian slaughter in Nigeria," several Islamic terrorists "stormed through 15 villages to massacre Christians and destroy their churches in a violent crackdown against the religion.... Dozens of people have been killed after the gangs ransacked towns and villages to clear them of all aspects of the Christian faith. Houses belonging to believers have also been razed with authorities doing little to help..." According to a human rights activist:
An open letter to Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari lamented that since he came to power, the plight of Christians has gone from bad to worse: 16,000 Christians have been killed—many in the name of jihad—since June 2015, when Buhari became president. The letter states:
"One attack took place in broad daylight, as people were about to go to church. The assailants chased and killed the villagers and burned down nine churches and many more houses."
"... the estimated 30 million Christians in Northern Nigeria who form the largest minority in a predominantly Muslim environment, have for decades, suffered marginalization and discrimination as well as targeted violence, especially in the hands of organized mob violence and violent groups such as Boko Haram and Fulani Herdsmen.
A Christian woman, Rebecca Bitrus, shared her experiences as a former captive of the jihadi group Boko Haram. After she and her two young children were abducted during a raid on a Christian village, they were taken to a forest where the terrorists attempted to force her to convert to Islam, but she refused. She said:
"Hundreds of churches in Northern Nigeria particularly Northeast and North-central Nigeria as well as Southern part of Kaduna State which is predominant Christian population have also been burnt or destroyed with estimated 16,000 defenseless citizens composed of mostly Christian population killed across the country since June 2015 when Mr. President became Nigeria's sixth civilian President. The estimated 16, 000 defenseless civilian deaths outside the law include 5,800 mostly Christians killed by terror Fulani Herdsmen and Boko Haram since June 2015."
"One of the Boko Haram said, 'You're not ready to convert to Islam, so I'm going to teach you a lesson,'"
The fighter then snatched her three-year-old son and casually tossed him into a nearby river, where she was forced to watch him drown. After that experience, undoubtedly fearing for her older son, Bitrus said she went through the motions of Islamic devotion, but inwardly she clung to her Christian faith, saying:
She eventually gave birth to a boy, whom she named Christopher. After two years of captivity she managed to escape when Nigerian troops engaged Boko Haram radicals in a battle.
"They would come on us with their guns and force us to pray. Each time I bent down to pray, I was reciting the 'Hail Mary' and the 'Our Father.'"
Similarly, on February 16 in Kenya, militants from the Islamic terror group Al Shabaab raided the sleeping quarters of a school and shot and killed three Christians, two male teachers and the wife of one of them. Another teacher who managed to escape heard one of the terrorists say, "These infidels should be wiped out". "We are very concerned about this selective kind of attack on non-locals who are also Christians in this region," a local Christian pastor said. "Our other church members are not safe. Many of the church members, including teachers, have started fleeing the area to their home villages, and some did not attend the church for the Sunday service." Although Al Shabaab is based in neighboring Somalia, area Christians, including the pastor, believe that local Muslims are aiding and providing them with information.
While this carnage was taking place, a Rasmussen report from February found that in the U.S., "Democrats are more likely to think Muslims are mistreated in America than to think Christians are persecuted in the Islamic world," and "Women are more likely than men to think most American Muslims are mistreated here but less likely to believe Christians are mistreated in the Islamic world. Nearly as many voters under 40 think most Muslims are mistreated in America (51%) as think most Christians are mistreated in the Muslim world (57%)."
The rest of February's roundup of Muslim persecution of Christians around the world includes, but is not limited to, the following:
Jihadi Murder and Mayhem in Christian Churches
Russia: On Sunday, February 18, a Muslim militant stormed an Orthodox church in the North Caucasus region of Dagestan and opened fire on the congregation. Five women in attendance were killed. Police came, and during the exchange of fire killed the assailant; two police officers were also injured. It was later revealed that the attacker, a man in his early 20s, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. According to the officiating priest, "We had finished the mass and were beginning to leave the church. A bearded man ran towards the church shouting 'Allahu Akbar' ('God is greatest')... He was carrying a rifle and a knife." The Islamic State not only claimed the attack a few days later but encouraged its followers to launch more such attacks on Russians. In a letter entitled, "Strike Their Necks and Strike Each One of Their Sons," the Islamic terror group cited the fatal church attack as an example of what its followers should strive to achieve. After describing the slain murderer as an "extraordinary mujahid" (jihadi), it said:
Indonesia: A 22-year-old man armed with a sword attacked members of St. Lidwina Church during Sunday service, on February 11. At least three churchgoers were injured, as well as the officiating priest, an 81-year-old Dutchman, who was struck in the back of the head. The Muslim attacker entered the church during mass, as the congregation was singing a hymn led by Fr. Karl-Edmund Prier. According to a police spokesman, "The first victim was a church official who was hacked on his back," with the sword. The assailant then moved to the altar where "He hacked at the head and back of the priest." Afterwards the Muslim man started hacking at statues of Jesus and Virgin Mary. The attack only ended when a policeman came to the church's aid—only to see the man charging at him with sword waving in the air: he shot and incapacitated him. "From several radical groups we were monitoring, it was found that they (radicals) were broadcasting calls to mujahidins [jihadis] to use knives to carry out attacks just a week ago," a counter-terrorism official later said, adding: "In the past few months, there has been several incidents of persecution and rejection of church activities by the Islamic Jihad Front..."
"Allah permitting, this will be the spark for more bloody attacks that will destroy a larger number of the Christian combatants in all the Russian-occupied Muslim areas... Many of them will be killed as a punishment for their disbelief in Allah the Great, and it will plant fear and horror inside the hearts of hundreds of thousands of their brothers and make them flee with fear.... Let every Muslim know that the blood of those combatant Christians and their money is permissible and that taking any of them as hostages for ransom or to swap with a Muslim prisoner is also permissible. So let the good deed be for everybody."
Turkey: "On Sunday 4 February ... a homemade pipe bomb was placed in the garden of Santa Maria Catholic Church in Trabzon," according to a report.
This is only the latest in a string of troubling incidents directed at Christians:
"The alarm was raised and the object was found partially burned, having failed to explode. Christians and officials in Trabzon note that this incident coincided with the anniversary of the murder of Fr. Andrea Santoro, in Santa Maria Church, on 5 February 2006."
Tanzania: On the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar, which is demographically "almost entirely Muslim," local authorities demolished another church. The unexpected event occurred after Sunday church worship. According to the pastor of the former Zanzibar Pentecostal Church of Jesus:
"In recent months, a number of negative reports about churches and individual Christians have appeared in the press in an attempt to incite unrest and opposition. On 7 December 2017 death threats were made against the pastor and a church worker in Balikesir Protestant Church. Police continue to try to identify those responsible."
The decision was taken after a neighboring university that was built after the church asked the government for more land. The now homeless congregation originally had about 100 members, not including children. "We lack money to appeal our case in court. But we know that church cases in Zanzibar have been thrown out, and we are very sure that even if we go to court, it will be dragged for many years, and in the end we might not get justice," said the pastor.
"It came to us as a big surprise when the bulldozer pulled down the church building without prior notice, and we lost everything. This is a calculated move here in Zanzibar of total disregard and disrespect to Christianity. It has been extremely difficult for us as a church to assemble for worship."
Sudan: On Sunday, February 11, "the government ordered the forcible demolition and takeover of our church, despite a pending court case where we are contending against attempted re-possession of the church compound to a private Muslim developer," said the pastor of the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Churches in North Khartoum. "The bulldozers and a contingent of police officers stormed our church immediately after our morning service and started taking furniture, chairs, and Bibles outside and then broke down the church building." Rev. Kuwa Shamal, the head of outreach for the Sudanese Church of Christ, said:
Azerbaijan: Police raided a Pentecostal church during Sunday service. Although officials said the Christian worshippers "didn't do anything wrong... they simply had no registration," police treated them like criminals, including filming everyone present and taking down all their personal information. Heavy fines were expected. "If we meet again for worship, we'll get double the fine," the pastor said that officials had further warned him.
"Church work in Khartoum is facing a serious setback because the Islamic government doesn't want us to preach the Gospel and worship freely.... There are many cases in court and many Christians in jail because of the struggle for freedom of worship and rightful ownership of church land."
Bangladesh: On February 8, around 4 a.m., unknown persons raided and ransacked a Catholic church. According to the priest of Canterbury St. Augustine Catholic Church, he said he had been asleep, but then, when he heard noises and went to the door, the invaders pointed a gun at him and "said they would kill me if I did not open the door. I was forced to let them in." Once inside they beat and threatened him with death. "To save my life I had to give them money, about 35,000 takas (US$ 420), my mobile phone, and laptop computer." The thieves then went through and ransacked the church, desecrating "the vestments, liturgical books, and the altar. They broke three offering boxes and took the money." According to the report, in the Muslim majority nation, "every year churches and nun-run institutes are the victims of break-ins and robberies". Even so, "It's been five days, and the police have not arrested anyone," complained one church leader. "I think they are neglecting to catch the thieves."
Nigeria: An 85-year-old Muslim cleric was tried for his pivotal role in the destruction of the Jesus Revival Prayer Ministry Church. Speaking to the court, the prosecutor said:
The Islamic cleric pleaded innocence, was granted bail, and the case was adjourned.
"The accused damaged the church by destroying the whole building from the roof to the foundation. The complainant was called by residents of the area that the accused came with five men to demolish his church. He rushed to the scene and saw that it was true and he reported to the police and the accused was arrested."
Egypt: A court sentenced 19 Muslim defendants to a one-year suspended sentence for earlier attacking an unregistered church near Giza. At the time, dozens of Muslim rioters had gathered outside the building and eventually stormed it. They "destroyed the church's contents and assaulted Christians inside before security forces arrived and dispersed them," according to the report. Based on this sentencing, the defendants are not required to serve prison time unless they get into trouble again. On the other hand, a Christian man was fined 360,000 Egyptian pounds (about $20,383) for setting up the unlicensed church. The court's logic is that by using an unregistered building as a church, this entire incident is the Christian's fault—for having aggrieved local Muslims. Critics, however, state that getting a church permit in Egypt is as difficult as getting a mosque permit is easy: ten mosques are opened every week. If the government did not make it so difficult for Copts to congregate and worship, they argue, they would not need to resort to using private homes and unregistered buildings.
In a separate incident, local authorities issued orders to demolish a memorialerected near the spot where 28 Christians were slaughtered by Islamic radicals -- including for refusing to convert to Islam -- as the Copts were traveling to the St. Samuel the Confessor monastery in May 2017. The memorial, established by friends of St Samuel's, consists of a plate engraved with the names of the martyrs, centered in a formation of white bricks, with a cross at the center. After citing that al-Edwa city council had already removed another memorial set up for the martyrs weeks earlier, a monk from the area said, "Today [February 12], they attempted to remove this one too. But Governor Bedeiwi intervened and ordered a temporary halt to the demolition until he discusses the matter with the town council." Critics say this event, like others, demonstrates that while President Sisi often makes public overtures to Egypt's Christians, the thousands of local authorities working under him are committed to making life difficult for Christians.
Discussing the discrimination Egypt's with which Christians live, Fadi, a Coptic lawyer based in Cairo, said:
"The Egyptian Constitution states: 'Citizens are equal before the law and are equal in public rights and duties, without distinction as to race, origin, language, religion or creed,' [But] the law is diminishing. The equality that is named as a law in the Constitution of Egypt disappears before Article 2 of the Constitution, which stipulates that Islamic law is the main source of legislation...
The Jihad on Christian Freedom
"Coptic Christians do not share in equality of citizenship in Egypt. As a matter of law, Copts remain less than full citizens in the realm of church construction, religious discrimination, and religious conversion. Whether Copts could ever share in equality of citizenship in a legal and constitutional system in which the principles of Islamic Sharia serve as the main source of legislation is questionable at best, but as applied by Egypt's current legal system the answer is unequivocally no."
Malaysia: On February 27, the Muslim-majority nation's highest court ruled that Muslims cannot convert to other faiths without first getting consent from a Sharia court, which critics say is next to impossible. According to the report:
Pakistan: After a 17-year-old Christian lost his phone, an unknown person found it and used it to post on Facebook images deemed disrespectful to the prophet Muhammad. The teen and his cousin, 24, who was also implicated, were subsequently threatened with death, arrested, and tortured by police; one of the young men nearly died. On hearing of the offending images, a Muslim mob numbering more than 3,000 came into the Christian village and called for beheading the offenders. Once the mob began to gather together gasoline to burn down the Christian village, thousands fled. According to another report, "members of the Muslim group began beating the two Christian men before the police, spitting at them, punching and kicking the two young men till police decided to intervene before the men passed out." Once at the police station, the cousins' real punishment began: police sadistically tortured and degraded the two Christians—including by trying to force them to perform oral sex and sodomizeone another. Preferring death to dishonor, the accused's cousin jumped out of a fourth story window and almost died from his injuries. From his hospital bed he wrote on social media:
"The ruling, read out amid a heavy police presence outside the courthouse in Kuching, Sarawak state, was made after four Muslims in that state appealed to the civil court to nullify their status as Muslims as they had embraced Christianity. The four — one born a Muslim and three earlier converts to Islam — wanted the court to order the government to release them from Islam and change their status to Christian on their identity cards. Under Malaysian law, 'Islam' is printed below the picture of the holder on the identity card... This is to aid the enforcement of Sharia, which is only applicable to Muslims.... As things stand under Malaysian law, the four [although Christian at heart] can be prosecuted by Islamic authorities for any breaches of Islamic codes of conduct.... Apostasy cases in Malaysia had always remained in a gray area until the current decision."
In a separate incident, on February 23, after mosque prayers, Muslims falsely accused six Christians of committing blasphemy: "Fayaz Masih, Riaz Masih, Imtiaz Masih, Sarfraz Masih, Saqib Masih and Mrs. Riaz were accused of insulting a 'Na'at,' a form of Islamic poetry praising the Prophet Muhammad." Once again, angry Muslims seeking retribution congregated around Christian homes as many Christians fled. But according to a local human rights activist acquainted with the case:
"They called me to check my mobile. I was beaten and taken to a bathroom. I asked what was my mistake, and they replied that I was his cousin. I was asked to damn myself by calling myself laanti (the damned). They forced me to call my cousin the same name. Later they asked me to pull his pants down and sodomize him. I refused. Seeing their growing anger, I noticed an open window and decided to jump out of it. They found nothing [incriminating] on my mobile."
The six Christians were charged; if found guilty they face up to 10 years in prison.
"It was actually an issue over kite flying which was purposely turned into a religious dispute. Earlier, Christian and Muslim children got into a fight over catching a kite in the street which later involved the elders of the two communities. To teach the Christians a lesson, the Muslims of the area damaged Bible verses which were painted on the outside wall of the Khushkhabri Church. Muslims wanted to paint a name of an Islamic political party over the verses, but the Christians reacted to it and the issue turned into a religious dispute."
Cameroon: In a February 13 report, a Muslim who converted to Christianity nearly two decades ago wrote that his entire Muslim family, upon learning of his apostasy, "threatened to kill me, and had God not protected me, they would have succeeded." The man, known only as Abdul, continued: "When all their spells and curses with the help of the local medicine man failed, they tried to kill me themselves." Since then, the persecution has not lessened. According to another report:
"... his Muslim family has been trying to get him killed, with even his own wife going before local leaders asking that he be beheaded for his faith... His family members have tried to poison his food on a number of occasions, and continue to this day trying to get him to convert back to Islam. His wife, who wasn't named, has also left him, and 'often slanders him' before the couple's seven children."
About this Series
While not all, or even most, Muslims are involved, persecution of Christians by Muslim extremists is growing. The report posits that such Muslim persecution is not random but rather systematic, and takes place irrespective of language, ethnicity, or location.
Raymond Ibrahim, author of the new book, Sword and Scimitar, Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West, is the Judith Friedman Rosen Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.