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Attacking Christians, by the book

The reasons for Islamic violence against “infidels” are often found in the Quran

Mourners carry the casket of Pastor William Siraj, who was killed in the attack, after his funeral service at the All-Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Jan. 31. Associated Press/Photo by Muhammad Sajjad

Attacking Christians, by the book
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Christians face new threats in Muslim-majority countries. In late January, several gunmen in Peshawar, Pakistan, attacked three Christians from the Protestant Church of Pakistan. The attackers followed the Christians after a church meeting. They murdered a priest and injured another Christian, while a third person escaped unharmed.

Attacking Christians in Pakistan, and especially in Peshawar, is not new. In 2013, the city was the scene of a massacre of more than 81 Christians in a suicide attack, undertaken by members of a Pakistani branch of the radical Islamist Taliban. Reuters declared it “one of the deadliest attacks on Pakistan’s Christian minority.” More than 96 percent of the people in Pakistan claim to follow Sunni Islam.

We should condemn the targeting and killing of people because of their religion—no matter what that religion is. But, for many, there remains a puzzling question: What drives some Muslims to attack Christians, in particular? We all know that many Muslims are peaceful people who would never attack anyone. What makes killing Christians appealing to some?

The answer lies in the stated religious commands in Islam’s scripture. The Quran openly calls Muslims to fight and attack non-Muslim infidels and polytheists. It instructs Muhammad, “O Prophet! Exhort the believers to fight,” as Muslims “shall overcome a thousand of those who disbelieve.” The Quran commands Muslims to “kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush.”

These are only two of many verses conveying the same message. Still, what do these verses have to do with Christians? The Quran identifies Christians as infidels and polytheists because Christians do not accept Muhammad’s message and they believe in the Trinity, one God in three persons. But Muslims misinterpret the Trinity as three gods.

Relying on specific verses in the Quran, Muslims may label a Christian kafir (an infidel) and mushrik (a polytheist). The labels are exclusively Islamic and create a negative stigma against Christians. The stigma and the danger to Christians are particularly severe in countries where Islam is the majority religion. Thus, some Muslims sincerely believe they are adhering to Allah’s commands when they attack “infidels.”

Many, especially in the West, seem more concerned with shielding Islam against any association with attacks executed by self-identified Muslims than admitting the horrific nature of the attackers’ anti-Christian religious texts.

The attackers of the priest in Peshawar may have believed they were doing a favor to their religion by eliminating Christians. After all, the Quran affirms that all those who do not believe in Muhammad and Allah are not only “infidels,” but are also destined to a blazing fire. In fact, the Quran warns Muslims against befriending those from the Christian and Jewish communities.

While modernist and progressive Muslims may dilute these anti-Christian passages by contextualizing them and claiming they only fit seventh-century Arabia, many religious enthusiasts are clearly captivated by the literal words from the Quran and other Islamic texts.

The result is hostility against Christians. Even in the West today, some Muslim clerics still identify Christians as infidels who should be fought. These clerics rely on unquestionable Muslim sources. By now, it is all too clear that some of their listeners are hearing a message of violence against Christians.

The case is much worse in other parts of the world. No matter how often Christians repeatedly declare they worship one—and only one—God, some Muslims are unable to view them differently.

For years, Pakistan has been among the top 10 countries where it is the most dangerous to be a Christian. The list of these countries highlights a major problem, and they include the Muslim-majority countries of Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, and Iran, among others. This should alarm us all.

A U.S. State Department report from 2020 offers specifics about the persecution of Christians in many of these Muslim-majority countries. The persecutors are from militant Muslim groups: Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia, the Houthis in Yemen, ISIS-Khorasan in Pakistan, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Surely, everyone can easily identify the common factor, but we have a problem in getting the world to be honest. Many, especially in the West, seem more concerned with shielding Islam against any association with attacks executed by self-identified Muslims than admitting the horrific nature of the attackers’ anti-Christian religious texts. After each instance of violence, we often hear the claim that Islam has nothing to do with these attacks.

But this is simplistic and naive.

Unless the world realizes and emphasizes the anti-Christian religious texts as a source of hostility, the Peshawar attack will not be the last. We cannot be silent about the Islamic commands driving atrocities against Christians and other non-Muslims. Clearly, someone is paying attention.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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