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Where following Jesus gets you killed

The United States should not turn a blind eye to rampant Muslim persecution of Christians

An Assyrian Christian stands amid the rubble of a destroyed church blown up by Islamic State militants in northern Syria on April 1, 2018.. Associated Press/Photo by Hussein Malla

Where following Jesus gets you killed
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In almost any restaurant in the United States, Christians can pray to give thanks before their meal. Their religious freedom is protected by law. Many even gather in groups in cafés to do their Bible studies—sometimes on a weekly basis. They can publicly and openly express their devotion to Christ, with no questions asked. It’s normal to see followers of Christ get together in parks to sing Christian songs and even preach the Good News of Christ.

Any of these actions can get you killed in other parts of the world, as Christians face horrors and severe persecution.

In a recent Open Doors’ World Watch List, a report lists 50 countries “where Christians face the most extreme persecution.”

Merely due to their adherence to Christianity, about 5,000 Christians were killed and 300,000 displaced in 2023. These numbers, the report insists, are “absolute minimum” figures, and the reality could be significantly more. In the same year, about 4,000 Christians were abducted and 15,000 churches attacked or forced to close. The attacks not only target Christian churches, but also harm Christian homes and properties. Over 21,000 Christian homes were attacked, and over 5,000 shops and businesses assaulted. Overall, the report summarizes the persecution data, indicating that 1 in 7 Christians are persecuted worldwide. The number becomes 1 in 5 in Africa, while it’s doubled in Asia, as 2 in 5 Christians face tangible persecution.

Bottom line: Tangible discrimination and clear persecution affect over 350 million Christians. These numbers are substantially accurate as the methodology is audited by the International Institute for Religious Freedom.

It comes as no surprise that nine Muslim-majority countries are identified among the top ten where Christians are most persecuted today: Somalia, Libya, Eritrea, Yemen, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, Iran, and Afghanistan. In particular, the report highlights Nigeria—which has recently reached a majority Muslim population with 51 percent of Nigerians following Sunni Islam. It has become the deadliest country for Christians, with more than 4,000 Christians killed for their faith last year. Most of these killings are carried out by terrorists from radical Muslim groups, foremost among them is Boko Haram. When Islam is the majority’s religion, very little attention seems to be given to the protection of religious minorities’ rights and freedoms—and Christians appear to be the first victims in these lands.

This report must bring the worldwide Church to intercede for persecuted Christians, but we cannot stop there.

Notable in the report is the new inclusion of two countries with “extreme” persecution against Christians: Syria and Saudi Arabia. While “extreme” persecution of Christians may fit Saudi Arabia due to its well-known practices of religious suppression against any religious groups except Sunni Muslims, the inclusion of Syria is definitely surprising and alarming. After all, for many centuries Syria was a major Christian center—a land where Christianity flourished and even survived the Muslim conquests. The world should be alarmed that this land has become an epicenter for persecution against Christians.

This report must bring the worldwide Church to intercede for persecuted Christians, but we cannot stop there. While prayers are our most important spiritual weapon against the pervasive darkness in the world, there must be a diligent and collective international effort to bring economic and political pressures on countries that persecute religious believers. In this regard, countries with a heavyweight influence—including the United States and other major Western powers—have a significant role to play.

As a start, these influential nations must never turn a blind eye when atrocities against religious minorities are committed and clearly documented. Through economic sanctions and political pressures, the world should ensure that religious freedom is affirmed and followed, not merely proclaimed as a slogan.

In particular, religious minorities are vulnerable in Muslim-majority lands. Christian minorities are the most notable in this regard, as the Open Doors’ World Watch List this year emphasized. A major source of this discrimination against Christians is the way Islam’s scripture denigrates Christians and Christianity.

The international community should hold Muslim-majority countries accountable concerning Christian minorities. Christians should be protected through clear laws that oppose discrimination. Importantly, the application of these laws should be checked and scrutinized by the international community. No one should merely take the word of the governments of these Muslim countries, especially as history suggests that many of them simply declare they have anti-discrimination laws, but these are merely on paper.

Without a clear and defined effort by many in the international community, the persecution of Christians and the marginalization of their communities in the Middle East will persist and escalate. The world cannot be silent. We should all declare loudly that these persecuted Christians are not forgotten. We should do this, not only with words, but through enforcing clear policies, taking strong actions, and following effective measures.

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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