When Sectarian Violence Is Genocide

September 2011

Ever wonder why you don’t hear much about Christian persecution around the world these days — at least not from the mega-media outlets? We’ve previously addressed the sad fact that the persecution of Christian minorities in Muslim lands goes underreported (New Oxford Notes “The Silent Spectre of Religious Cleansing,” Apr. 2010; and “Exodus & Bloodbath: Christians in the Middle East,” Dec. 2010). More alarming perhaps is that when Western media outlets do report on such events they rarely acknowledge the fact that Muslims are aggressively persecuting Christians — torching their churches, burning down their shops and houses, and torturing, intimidating, and threatening them. In fact, if you search the news archives on the BBC website using the search term “Christian persecution” you get the following result: “Sorry, there are no results for your search.”

Instead of addressing Christian persecution, sanitized news articles report the unrest to be a kind of sectarian or ethnic violence, as if the two groups — Muslims and minority Christians — were on relatively equal footing, both acting as recidivist aggressors. That might be an honest way to characterize the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland over the past forty years between the Republicans (Catholics) and Loyalists (Protestants). You could even make the case that it’s an accurate characterization of the 1992 Rwandan massacres between the Hutus and the Tutsis. But it is far from a legitimate characterization of the reality of Christian minorities in many places throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East today.

Christians living in predominantly Muslim countries are at grave risk of nothing less than extermination — either by being driven out of their houses and off their land or simply being killed when that seems more convenient. Many minority Christians are living day to day, month to month, in morbid fear not only for their own lives but for the very continued existence of their people. Sounds like genocide, doesn’t it? Or at least “ethnic cleansing,” if there be an honest application of the euphemism. There’s been much legal debate in recent decades over what exactly constitutes “genocide,” but generally speaking it’s understood as the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group. What’s happening around the world today would seem to qualify: There’s no getting around the fact that in parts of Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and even Egypt, Christians have been and continue to be the victims of deliberate and systematic destruction.

In no place is this destruction more obvious than in Somalia. In early July, Vatican Radio reported on the situation of beleaguered Catholics living in this predominantly Muslim country. According to the report, over the past twenty-one years all church buildings have been destroyed. Only about a hundred Somali Catholics remain in the country, and they’re dispersed across thousands of miles and prohibited from gathering together. The last bishop of Somalia was murdered in his cathedral in Mogadishu in 1989.

The situation is similar in predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria, where Christians continue almost on a daily basis to be threatened, attacked, forced to flee their homes, or killed. Take, for example, this typical incident as documented by Compass Direct, a news agency that specifically covers the news from the “frontlines of persecution”: In March, Christian peasant farmers of Mdandi village were busy harvesting crops and preparing for a new farming season when scores of armed, “hard-line Islamists” — avoiding the surrounding Muslim villages — descended on Mdandi, destroyed the Christians’ homes, and drove them out of town.

One couldn’t be faulted for reasonably believing that such an attack qualifies as Christian persecution, “ethnic cleansing,” and even genocide. But here’s the rub: If Christians try to defend themselves, to fight back in order to protect their own, the attack gets reported as “sectarian violence” in places like the BBC, CNN, or The New York Times. Here’s an account from the local Christian pastor who makes it clear this was no sectarian skirmish:
“On [the Muslims’] first attack, we fought back, defending ourselves and our families,” said Luka Zafi, pastor of the Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN) congregation in the village. “And not being able to force us out, they retreated. We had thought that we would not be attacked again. But you see, they left and returned the second time with more of them, and all armed with guns. We could not fight back since we do not have arms to fight them. We ran out of the village, and they destroyed our two church buildings and our houses.” (Compass Direct, June 14)
A few weeks later, armed with machetes and guns, a thousand Islamic militants attacked Bar Arewa, another village in northern Nigeria. “Almost every home in the village was destroyed, and some elderly people were reported to have been burnt to death in their homes,” reports Christian Solidarity Worldwide (Mar. 4). The same incidents occur with regularity, month after month.

Until recently, Egypt was relatively safe for most Christians. With the ongoing struggle for political power in the nation, that’s changing. An intolerant element of Islam has been holding sway in many areas, affecting the treatment of minority Christians, who are primarily Coptic-rite Catholics. Muslim agitators in Egypt seem to have adopted a strategy used commonly in Malaysia and Pakistan: Invent some reason or dig deep for some bogus excuse to get enraged with local Christians and then react to the perceived offense and call it “retaliation,” which will then merit the designation of “sectarian violence.” It’s like the bully on the school playground falsely accusing some weaker kid of insulting his mother so he can use it as a reason to haul off and throttle him.

In Pakistan and Malaysia it’s usually some perceived insult to Allah or Mohammed — printing Allah’s name or walking by a mosque at the wrong hour. This summer in Egypt, Muslims looted and torched Christian homes and businesses in the village of western Kolosna using this same formula. It seems a thousand Muslims were really looking hard to find a reason to attack Christians. The violence broke out when a Coptic couple was returning to Kolosna by bus and the wife was “severely sexually harassed by Muslims at the bus terminal.” When the Christian husband attempted to defend his wife, he was severely beaten by a gang. Shortly after the assault, according to the Assyrian International News Agency (July 1), “Thousands of Muslims from the predominantly Muslim east side of Kolosna roamed the western side of Kolosna, which is about 75% Coptic, and started looting and torching Christian property.” Christians hid in their homes as Muslims armed with swords, batons and guns surrounded them, chanting Allahu Akbar and shooting into the air. According to one witness, “They were cursing the cross and taunting us that we will stay inside and never be allowed in the streets again.”

No, this is not sectarian violence. In the U.S. we’d classify this as a hate crime on a grand scale. It’s purposeful intimidation, abuse, hatred — and possibly the beginning stages of “ethnic cleansing” and genocide. Why do secular news outlets refuse to acknowledge this? Perhaps they fell victim to a kind of intimidation themselves. There’s an unwritten rule in many European news rooms that frowns upon identifying any perpetrator of any crime as a Muslim. Once done, it always causes problems. There’s sure to be repercussions, they think, as in the case of the Muslim cartoon affair in Denmark a few years ago. But really, what harm could come to BBC News or CNN or The New York Times for addressing the fact that Muslims — of whatever stripe they happen to be — are routinely persecuting Christians in an effort to permanently drive them from their midst?

New Oxford Notes: September 2011

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