Murderers and Martyrs The Difficult Struggle of Christians in the Orient
Just moments after the new year began, a bomb outside a church in Alexandria killed 21 Coptic Christians. A week later, a Pakistani governor was murdered for standing by a Christian convict. The two cases dramatically illustrate the worsening plight of Christians in the Orient. By SPIEGEL Staff
Khalil Hamada Street is 20 meters (66 feet) wide. On one side stands the Coptic "Church of the Two Saints"; on the other side is a mosque. The church was built first, but the mosque followed just a few years later. And when the Christians constructed a new annex, the Muslims followed suit. Over time, the minaret has grown significantly higher than the church's steeple. The mosque fills up five times a day after the muezzin makes his call to prayer; the church's bells only ring twice a week.
"Heaven and earth are filled with heavenly peace," the church's members sang on New Year's Eve. That was also the last thing Mariam Fakri heard as she exited the church with her sister Martina, her mother and her aunt. They were among the first to do so. After having spent the whole day cooking, they wanted to get home to break their fast with a celebratory meal. Miriam was 21 years old, and she was planning on getting engaged in a few days. In addition to her university studies, she also taught Sunday school to youths at her church. She was happy and easygoing, and she had many Muslim friends. Before heading off to church, she had written on her Facebook page: "2010 is over. I enjoyed experiencing this year. I have so many wishes. Please, God, stand by my side and help them come true."
Then the explosion struck. Mariam died on Khalil Hamada Street under an image of St. Mark the Apostle holding a little church in his hand. The screws, screw nuts and ball bearings that had been packed into the bomb also tore into the other three women. The only member of the family to survive was Mariam's father, who had been standing behind them. The next day, he had to identify his daughter. Her body was so horribly burnt he could hardly recognize her.
Soon thereafter, the four women were buried at the St. Mina Monastery along with 17 other victims, where they would soon be joined by two others. The monastery is about 60 kilometers (37 miles) outside Alexandria. Although it's a special honor to be buried there, it was also one final indignity: For security reasons, the authorities had reportedly insisted that the burial be held outside the city. Thus, even in death, the Coptic Christian Mariam Fakri had to show respect for a state that had failed to protect her.
A Murderer's Smile
Egypt is not the only Islamic country that lets its minorities and those who come to their aid fend for themselves.
Three days after the attack in Alexandria, roughly 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) to the east, an elegantly dressed man emerged from a coffee house in Islamabad. After having met up with a friend, Salman Taseer, the 66-year-old Muslim governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab, was on his way home to his villa in the northeastern part of Pakistan's capital city.
But before Taseer could climb into his car, a burly man emerged from the group of his bodyguards, pulled out a gun and started shooting at the governor. When his fellow bodyguards -- who initially stood there doing nothing -- finally overpowered him, he merely stretched out his chin and smiled.
There, on the ground in front of Gloria Jean's Café, lay a man shot more than 20 times, a man who had taken on some powerful opponents: bigotry, incitement and militant Islamism. Like Mariam, he too had posted a new year's message online. "I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I'm the last man standing," he wrote on his Twitter page. And a few days later, he added: "Peace prosperity & happiness for new year ... i'm full of optimism."
The fear spread by Taseer's enemies pursued him even after death. When his family wanted to bury him on the following day in observance of Muslim customs, even the state-appointed prayer leader refused to utter even the first verse of the Muslim funeral rites. A preacher from Taseer's party eventually volunteered to fulfill the duty. And his supposed friend, the president of Pakistan, didn't come to the burial -- for security reasons.
A Bloody Reality
As little as the death in Islamabad and the massacre in Alexandria have in common, there is one thing that binds them. They make it clear that, at the beginning of the first decade after the 9/11 terror attacks, the "clash of civilizations" -- used by Western political scientists as a theoretical paradigm -- has become a bloody reality for Christians in the Orient. Islam is the majority religion in eight of the top 10 countries where Christians are persecuted, according to the "World Watch List" compiled annually be the Christian organization Open Doors. In seven of those countries, the situation deteriorated for Christians in 2010.
It's not just the pope, bishops and patriarchs who are making more urgent calls than ever for these Christians to be protected. A growing number of politicians -- ranging from US President Barack Obama to Volker Kauder, the parliamentary floor leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats -- are intensifying their warnings. "We are already past the stage where we can merely express our dismay or our sadness," complained recently appointed French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie. She has demanded a coordinated European Union plan to protect Christians in the Middle East. The issue is to be placed on the agenda for an EU foreign ministers meeting scheduled for January 31.
Mere appeals, however, will not suffice. The situation is much direr than it was even a few months ago. The recent attacks in Egypt and Pakistan have both served as examples of just how weak the regimes in the Islamic world are. They may have anchored the protection of religious minorities in their constitutions, but they long ago lost the power to protect Christians and other minorities. Even the elites who want to do so have lost the power to make it happen.
A Solemn Vow
"You are free," intoned Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, in a 1947 speech he delivered at the constitutional convention. "You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed " It was a vision of religious tolerance; it was a solemn vow.
When the new state drew up its penal code, it kept four sections which the British colonial masters had composed for India in 1860. They are still in force today. These sections penalize the defilement of sacred places, the interruption of religious gatherings, the desecration of cemeteries and intentionally insulting religious sentiments with up to 10 years in prison.
Between 1947 and 1986, there were only five convictions based on these sections. But in the 1980s Islamist Pakistani President Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, the general who had assumed his position after a military coup, strengthened the laws. He made it illegal to show disrespect to the Koran and to denigrate the Prophet Muhammad. The four sections devoted to protecting all religions were replaced with two new sections on blasphemy -- focused entirely on Islam. One section carried a penalty of lifetime imprisonment; the other death. The West did nothing. As long as the Soviet army, the communist rival, remained next door in Afghanistan, the Americans had no problem with an Islamic dictator in Pakistan.
Abuse of the law began immediately. For someone to be convicted of blasphemy, it sufficed to have a "trustworthy" Muslim testify in front of a Muslim judge that the alleged violation of the law took place -- without even having to say the exact words used in the insult. Even if Pakistan has yet to carry out a single death sentence for blasphemy, over the years, roughly a thousand Pakistanis have been charged with violating the two new sections of the penal code. Just last November, an illiterate Christian peasant woman named Asia Bibi was convicted of blasphemy for allegedly having denigrated the Prophet Muhammad during a fight with a neighbor.