Persecution not limited to Christians, Shea says

WASHINGTON (BP)--Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom, has tracked the persecution of Christians in such nations as Cuba, North Korea, India, China and Vietnam.

But repression of religious freedom also affects Muslims worldwide. Many face persecution and death for dissenting from government edicts or advocating more moderate forms of Islam, said Shea, who also serves as vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"The trend [toward] ideological repression has been coming from Islamic extremism and fundamentalism," Shea said. "There should be a better analysis and reporting of religious freedom issues in Islamic states.

"Without religious freedom in Islamic states, Muslims are [frequently] charged with blasphemy and apostasy when they dissent from the state. In some cases they've been put to death, as in the Sudan or Iraq."

Such harsh government regulation is emerging in Afghanistan, where the nation's new constitution does not guarantee religious freedom, Shea said.

She sees a lack of appreciation among U.S. government officials for Muslims' religious freedom rights. This means both the right to worship communally and freedom of belief, Shea said.

"It's important for our democracy, for religious freedom and for our own security," she said. "Muslims in the Islamic world [need to] be given the political space to evolve a more tolerant, pluralistic, pro-American interpretation of Islam."

Without the guarantee of religious freedom, a number of abuses have occurred against people in Muslim-dominated nations, Shea said, outlining these cases:

-- Two Afghan journalists were charged with blasphemy after they questioned the compatibility of Islam and democracy last June. The writers had to go into hiding for fear of their lives, and their newspaper was shut down.

-- Muslims (including clerics) in Iran who have disagreed with government policies have been charged with blasphemy. Some have been put to death by the government, which also has closed dozens of journals.

-- More than a decade ago, a leading reformer in the Sudan was tried, convicted and executed for blasphemy after he proposed a more moderate interpretation of Islam.

More recently in Sudan, a moderate Muslim group known as the Nubas were declared apostates for refusing to join a government-led jihad against Christians in the south. Shea said the Nuba people have been targets of genocide, including slave raids, bombing campaigns and forced starvation.

-- Even though Pakistan is not officially an Islamic state, it has adopted blasphemy laws. In addition to a Christian principal now on trial for allegedly blaspheming Muhammad, such laws have been used against moderate Muslims who don't adhere to reigning Sunni orthodoxy.

"We have this in Nigeria, too, which adopted Islamic law in the north," Shea said. "A deputy governor charged a journalist in southern Nigeria, where Islamic law supposedly didn't apply, with blasphemy. She had written something about Muhammad approving of the Miss World contest when it was held there.

"She was charged with blasphemy and ordered killed. She had to flee for her life, and as a result, 200 mostly Christian people were then killed in riots that ensued when they heard that Muslims should rise up and kill her. So it's very dangerous to have these laws on the books."

Such statutes give officials authority to take action against people who disagree with them, Shea said. They also insure that people who commit murder won't be prosecuted if their victims had been charged with blasphemy, she said.

Besides the relationship between Islamic law and religious freedom, another major issue is the role the United States should play in advancing religious freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq as it helps rebuild those nations, She said.

"The big issue [in 2004] is the new paradigm the U.S. is creating in Iraq. Will it include religious freedom? Whatever we do there, whatever we leave, is going to affect the entire Islamic world," Shea said. "It's certainly not going to be a Jeffersonian democracy, we know that. But at a minimum, will there be religious freedom? Will there be individual rights for Muslims and non-Muslims alike?"

Shea believes the issue of religious freedom should be a leading concern for Christians worldwide. Without such freedom, she said there will be massive government persecution. For example, she cited Sudan, where Islamic law was forcibly imposed and 2 million people died in a religious war.

"That's why the stakes are so high, that religious freedom be established in Iraq," Shea said. "It could be a positive model or a negative model. If no religious freedom is guaranteed, there's going to be a lot of persecution as a consequence of that."

However, the center's director recommends that Christians also continue to pray for various groups in the Middle East and other Muslim-dominated lands.

She listed the Copts in Egypt, the Assyrians and Chaldeans in Iraq and the those in southern Sudan.

"They should pray for the Christians of southern Sudan, who may see a peace treaty," Shea said. "[Sudanese Christians] want to make sure that it allows them to live without fear of persecution and slave raids, like they've been [subjected to] for the last 20 years."


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