Living in an Islamic World

Author: ZENIT


Living in an Islamic World

Interview With Human Rights Coalition Director

For Reverend Keith Roderick, the story of Vivian comes to mind when he thinks of religious persecution.

Reverend Doctor Roderick is an Episcopalian minister who is the secretary-general of the U.S.-based Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights.

He told the story of 15-year-old Vivian in this interview with "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.

Vivian was kidnapped as she was walking home from school in her native Iraq; her assailants told her mother, "We don’t want your money. We want to break your heart."

In this interview, Roderick speaks not only of Vivian's case but of the fundamental problems for Christians living in an Islamic world.

Q: How long have you been doing this work and what first got you started in this work for the persecuted and repressed church?

Roderick: For over 23 years actually … actually longer than that. Time goes quickly. I was working with an organization in England assisting religious prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union. We organized sending packages to the prisoners' families, writing cards to the prison camps where they were held and doing other kinds of work. Toward the end, with the disillusionment in the Soviet Union, we started receiving requests to do the same thing for religious prisoners in the Islamic world. So we broadened our perspective and became involved first in Egypt and Pakistan and then Lebanon and finally Iraq, Iran and Sudan.

Q: Can you give us a context? What is the fundamental problem for Christians living in an Islamic world?

Roderick: Number one, they are a minority. As with everything that goes along with being a minority, there is discrimination in employment as well as other social rights. As a minority in an Islamic world, they have also the stigma of being “dhimmi."

Q: What does that mean?

Roderick: It is an institutionalized second-class citizen. A “dhimmi” is, in Islamic terms, an infidel who pays the “Jizyah” tax in order to be tolerated. They are excused from participating in the military. That’s about the only benefit. It’s a very humiliating status and it is a way of keeping, so to speak, the minority population in its place. This is derogatory and dehumanizing and the basic dignity of minorities as individuals is often eroded, and that permits acts of violence as well as other ways of ethnic cleansing.

Q: What is the goal of the Islamist in this regard?

Roderick: The Islamist wants to Islamize their society. That implies the establishment of Sharia law over the population — and sometimes even establishing Sharia law over non-Muslims — and that creates a lot of difficulties. The basic goal is to try to reintroduce orthodox Islamic thought from a very conservative perspective.

Q: In 1900 Christians constituted about 20% of the population in the Middle East. Today they constitute less than 2%. What are the reasons for this diminishing population?

Roderick: I think the continuing pressures put upon the minority populations, primarily Christians. They feel, and are defined by the majority population, somewhat as interlopers, not belonging — even though they are the indigenous population. Christianity has been there long before. So, of course, if you are made a stranger in your own country, you’re in trouble. So I think this is one of the major reasons for not only the violence that erupts from time to time — as we have seen in Iraq — but also the constant kinds of discriminatory practices by the institutions of government and society, which tends to marginalize and continues to marginalize. With the new Islamic resurgence, these pressures have intensified and it has become much more difficult now than it was in the 1900s.

Q: What would be examples of discrimination versus outright persecution?

Roderick: One of the most common forms of institutionalized discrimination begins with the religious ID card. In fact, in many countries such as Egypt, you have to have on your ID card — your national card — your religious identity. What this means is there are automatic restrictions placed upon you with regard to what kinds of jobs you may qualify for, your educational opportunities and even your marriage. You have to declare your religious preference or your religious identification: Christian, Muslim or Jewish. That is a way of controlling and it is almost, in some ways, comparable to the yellow star during the times of the Nazis.

Q: Who do you think of when you think of religious persecution?

Roderick: I think of so many people who have lost their lives for their faith and just for their identity of being a Christian. As an example, in Iraq, a young woman — 15 years old — walking home from school one day, is kidnapped. The school children come to the parents and say: “Your daughter Vivian has been kidnapped." The parents wait for that phone call in the evening for a ransom, thinking that they will do whatever they can to retrieve their daughter. This is a young schoolgirl just walking home from school and the phone call comes and the mother says to the other voice: “Tell me what you want, we will pay you anything." And the voice replies: “We don’t want your money. We want to break your heart."

How traumatic and terroristic is that for the family? Several days later, her body, mutilated, raped several times, is dumped in the town square and the family was called to retrieve it. It is such a loss. It is degradation — not just the killing — but absolutely mutilating a person. Where did the teaching go that allows one human being to do this to another human being?

Q: And this is not in the Quran?

Roderick: And this is not even in the Quran. This is exactly true. But it goes on. In Egypt, oftentimes the state security service will torture prisoners within the first three days of their arrest. They have two departments within the Lazoughly headquarters: One to monitor Islamic fundamentalists and one to monitor Christians. And oftentimes Christians, primarily Muslim converts, are arrested to take pressure off the pressure that they are applying on the Islamic fundamentalists — to show evenhandedness. Many times they are tortured in horrendous ways for the first three days and if there is no one to speak on their behalf, they simply disappear in the prisons.

Q: I want to stay a little bit with Iraq, particularly because it’s such an evident Christian persecution. The Iraqi Christian population numbers now less than half before the invasion. Are all these acts like kidnapping a way of purging the land of Christians?

Roderick: Yes. Some of the acts of violence are of course opportunist and criminal, but the majority is actually targeted to put the pressure on the population to force them to leave. For instance, in the Dora neighborhood in Baghdad in which 20,000 Christian families were living in 2004, by 2006 there were maybe 1,000 individuals hanging on there trying to hold to what property they have. It was, in fact, a program of ethnic cleansing to allow the militias to use that neighborhood to base their operations against the coalition forces in Baghdad. Now a lot of those elements — because of the surge, which has taken place over the last year and a half — have actually moved north so now you see greater problems in Mosul or Kirkuk or even the Nineveh plains. Smaller villages there have complained that Al Qaida have set up bases and go back and forth to Mosul and use the Christian population as a shield.

Q: Why are they such a soft target?

Roderick: They’re a soft target because after the liberation all the militias were asked to lay down their arms. The only militia that heeded the request and gave up their arms was the Assyrian militia. So there is no protection. There is no independent police force to offer protection to the villagers. There are only consequences and strategies involved and unfortunately the Christians are usually on the receiving end.

Q: The Christians who remain in Iraq speak about a ghettoized church. What is a ghettoized church?

Roderick: A ghettoized church is closed off. It is allowed to survive in conditions, which are less than fully free within the society. To that extent, it is becoming a greater norm in some countries. It’s a great fear in Iraq because of the displacement of populations.

Q: Even in the birthplace of Christ, we see now Christians making up 2.4% of the total population. Do Christians face extinction?

Roderick: I think the question is: Will they be simply caretakers of the religious monuments or will they have a significant role to play in society? And I think that is the bigger question: whether they will be completely eradicated is not likely. The church is Christ and Christ will not let it disappear, but unfortunately much of the life of those churches now exists in the diaspora, and the diaspora holds a lot of promise and potential to reinforce and support those indigenous populations where they are at. Yes, indeed the population in the Holy Land has dwindled and almost become insignificant, but I don’t think that this is necessarily the future course forever. So we can remain hopeful, but it has to be protected. Christians have to assert themselves in defense of their brothers and sisters, and as much as we decry what has happened to the Christians in the Middle East, part of the responsibility lies upon the Christians in the West. Have they undertaken any initiatives? Why aren’t they the voice? Why don’t they come out and protest? Why is it that you hardly ever hear from the pulpit or in the bulletins prayers being asked for the Christians who are being persecuted in the Middle East? Part of it is our problem. We haven’t been engaged. We expect the Christians in the Middle East to hold up the burden by themselves. They’ve carried the cross by themselves. We need to step in and be a real force to give them support and this we have not done very well.

Q: What can we do — you and I as Christians?

Roderick: Well, I think, the most important thing is to put pressure on policy makers. There has to be some kind of grass roots effort that gives them [politicians] the momentum and the support to do it. I believe, it is also very important for a kind of individual relationship to exist between those who are persecuted and those in the West that have the freedoms to begin to formulate themselves — to apply pressure on the American, British, French and European governments — to begin to pressure those governments that tolerate the intolerable in their own countries.

* * *

This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. — On the Net: For more information:

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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