by Barney Zwart
The Age (Melbourne)
Friday, November 7, 2003
As Islam flourishes in the West, Christian minorities in Muslim countries are being increasingly persecuted. Barney Zwartz reports.
A government school in an Islamic stronghold in England now teaches only an Islamic syllabus, according to a documentary on Britain's Channel 4 last week. All students have to study the Koran, and non-Muslim girls must cover their heads.
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, a London-based international expert on Islam and adviser to governments, tells the story to illustrate Islam's growing strength in the West - as the plight of Christian minorities in Muslim countries gets worse.
Islam is flourishing in the West, he says, through increasing numbers of Western women who marry Muslims and convert, through intensive conversion campaigns, through a faster birth-rate, through immigration of marriage partners, through multiple marriages - which, while not legal, do occur - and through asylum seekers, official and unofficial.
Sookhdeo does not think Britain will soon be predominantly Muslim, as some predict, but pockets are already Muslim-majority areas, such as Bradford, Birmingham and Leicester. The Bishop of London says inner London will have a Muslim majority by 2020.
"Society has moved a considerable way to meeting Islamic demands to consolidate Islamic identity," he says. Last year, Britain introduced pensions that comply with sharia (Islamic law), and this year sharia-compliant mortgage providers.
He fears a voluntary separatism, even apartheid. "Because Islam has a peculiar identity which is religiously based, increasingly we have a separate community developing, with Islam as the primary identity and the British identity as secondary."
Meanwhile, Sookhdeo says, the West - crippled by guilt over the crusades and its colonial past, and its own loss of identity - rushes to appease Islam, thus condemning Christian minorities to increased persecution.
Sookhdeo - founder of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity, and of the Barnabas Fund, an aid group for persecuted Christian minorities, who was in Australia last week to incorporate the fund here - says the difference in how the West and Muslim worlds treat religious minorities is becoming starker.
He says 40 million Christians live under Muslim majorities, where they increasingly find themselves an embattled minority, with dwindling rights, trapped in poverty and uncertainty. Numbers range from large minorities - 15 million in Indonesia, 9 million in Egypt and 3 million in Pakistan - to just a few dozen, as in the Maldives. In Saudi Arabia there are officially no national Christians.
In most of these countries they are despised and distrusted second-class citizens, facing discrimination in education, jobs and from the police and courts, where the witness of a Christian is worth less than a Muslim's.
Now it's getting worse. There are several reasons, he says.
First is the widening imposition of sharia. In Sudan, the government has imposed sharia and the Arabic language on the Christian south. The result is 3 million Christians dead so far and up to 5 million refugees. In Nigeria, where 12 of the 19 states have declared sharia, 15,000 Christians have been killed in the past few years.
Second is the rise of militant terrorism groups. Long before Osama bin Laden targeted the West, Sookhdeo says, he was attacking Christian minorities. His training videos feature troops firing on a cross. In Indonesia, the Laskar Jihad has killed about 30,000 Christians.
Third is the increasing pressure extremists are putting on moderate Muslim governments, who appease them by restricting Christians further. In Egypt, for example, last week 22 Christians were arrested.
The fourth factor is the apostasy law of Islam, which prescribes death for deserting Islam.
Because the Christian minorities lack oil or geopolitical significance, Western governments are little concerned. But more painful, Sookhdeo says, they feel betrayed by the indifference of the Western church, which embraces interfaith dialogue and claims Islam is all about peace.
Sookhdeo does favour dialogue. He says it is important that religions talk to each other and promote peace. Asked by Muslim organisations, he spoke out against injustices by the then Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbian church.
"Where Christian minorities are suffering in a horrendous way we have called on Christian and Muslim leaders to speak out. Muslims have been quiet and, sadly, most church leaders have been quiet. So in the dialogue the status of Christian minorities have not generally been on the agenda. Not only myself but many Christian leaders see that as a betrayal."
Sookhdeo believes the Western church is paralysed both by uncertainty about its own theological foundations and guilt about its past. Secularism has neutralised the Christian faith in the West and pluralism has marginalised it, creating a spiritual and moral vacuum that Islam is filling. "The church has engaged in appeasement. Faced with Islam, she has no consensus and tends to acquiesce."
Barney Zwartz is The Age's religious affairs writer.