- Updated December 21, 2012, 6:39 p.m. ET
The Most Persecuted Religion
Christians are targeted—by independent groups or governments—in some 131 countries world-wide.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
By ABRAHAM COOPER, JOHN HUFFMAN AND YITZCHOK ADLERSTEIN
At the height of the Nazi Holocaust, the wretched human cargo spilling out of cattle cars onto the platforms of Auschwitz was immediately subject to a brutal selektion by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, whose flick of a finger to the left meant immediate death in a gas chamber; to the right, slave labor and slow death from starvation or disease.
Fast forward to 2012 Nigeria, where a latter-day incarnation of selektion has been used—this time not against Jews, but against Christians.
Nigeria is the most populous black nation on earth. Among its chief blessings are oil and a large array of religious, tribal and language groups. Yet conflict, violence and terrorism are part of reality there, too.
Recently a new line of inhumanity was crossed. In October, armed attackers, presumed to be members of Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist group with links to al Qaeda, invaded the Tudun Wada Wuro Patuje area, entering the off-campus housing of the Federal Polytechnic State University.
The attackers called students out of their rooms and asked for their names. Those with Christian names were shot dead or killed with knives. Students with traditionally Muslim names were told to quote Islamic scripture. The selektion completed, at least 26 bodies were left in lines outside the buildings.
The attack was a pogrom, the victims of which were African Christians, not European Jews. To be sure, it lacked the scale and scope of Hitler’s total war against the entire Jewish people. The Boko Haram seem content to burn churches and to maim and murder those—including other Muslims, but especially Christians, by the scores—who would stop the spread of their version of Shariah law in Nigeria alone.
But is this where it ends?
Think again. To classify these outrages as nothing more than tribal and territorial ones with a veneer of religion is a moral outrage. We are dismayed that Johnnie Carson, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, sanitized the intentions of this murderous group while giving a “Live at State” online interview in September. “The bulk of the Boko Haram movement is . . . trying to do everything in its power to show that the government is ineffective in the defense of its people and in the protection of government institutions,” Mr. Carson said. Two months before he spoke, Boko Haram had claimed responsibility for the murder of dozens of Christians in the city of Jos—just one of many such attacks.
In earlier times, armies clashed over territory. Objectives were clear, as was the identity of the “enemy,” lurking beyond a defined border. Nowadays people in too many parts of the world are taught to identify as the enemy neighbors who are indistinguishable from themselves, save by their beliefs. They have to be “selected” before they can be butchered. Whatever the original cause of a conflict, once religion becomes the driving ideological tool, it is no longer just about oil reserves or farmland.
Today, Islamist extremists’ rage has the power to transform small, local conflicts into infernos that can snuff out lives thousands of miles away. Threatened targets of religious hatred today include Hindus, Sunnis, Shiites, Bahais and Jews, but the most widely menaced are Christians. A Pew Forum study last year found that Christians are persecuted—by independent groups or governments—in 131 of the 193 countries in the world.
We cannot cure religious strife, but we must take action to forestall ever-increasing murder and mayhem in the name of God. International bans against blasphemy, offensive cartoons and videos will do nothing to stem the tide.
For starters, religious leaders, human-rights organizations and the United Nations must lobby all governments to establish laws that guarantee protection from violence to religious minorities within their own borders. That is a Herculean task, which must be led by the United States. In his second term, President Obama can steer a new course for U.S. foreign policy that links future foreign aid to Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond to this basic human right.
If America fails to exercise leadership, it will further embolden those who invoke God’s name to murder and maim families in their houses of prayer and, as in Pakistan earlier this year, young girls who dare dream of an educated future. Theological manipulators of hatred will not be deterred unless and until they face the long arm of international action.
We must, and we can, ensure that the faithful attending a mosque on Friday, a synagogue on Saturday or a church on Sunday can be confident that they’ll return home safely. We urge the president to use the next four years to protect not religions, but the religious, wherever they may be.
Rabbi Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rev. Huffman is the pastor emeritus of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, Calif. Rabbi Adlerstein is director of interfaith affairs at the Wiesenthal Center.
A version of this article appeared December 22, 2012, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Most Persecuted Religion.