Joe Jenkins reports on
the continuing effort to persuade the British Government to take steps against the persecution of Christians living in Muslim states
IT CAME as little surprise when, earlier this month, three men in Uzbekistan lost their appeal against apparently trumped-up drugs charges, with each now sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.
According to reports from the Keston Institute and Compass Direct, organisations that monitor religious persecution worldwide, the men, members of the Full Gospel Church, claimed that the drugs were planted on them by police. But, more tellingly, they were also charged and convicted under laws that cover "illegal" religious activity.
The jailing and execution of Christians in countries governed under Islamic law is a far from an uncommon phenomenon. The examples of this persecution are chilling.
Two men being jailed for trying to buy ice cream could be the opening line from a Bruce Forsythe gag. Or more feasibly the outcome of black Americans attempting to get served at the whites-only end of a lunch counter in the Deep South of the 1950s, or black South Africans treating themselves while on holiday in a white resort during the Apartheid years.
But this happened in 1999, the men are Pakistani and have been jailed under the country's blasphemy laws, awaiting trial for taking the name of Mohammed in vain during an argument with an ice cream vendor who refused to serve them just because they are Christians.
Rasheed Masih, 32, married with five children, and his brother Saleem, 28, married with three children, know that they cannot expect a fair trial. According to Compass Direct, the men are charged under Section 295-C of Pakistan's penal code and are not entitled to employ a Christian lawyer. Under 295-C, their convic tion, which seems certain before a Muslim judge, carries a mandatory death sentence.
In 1996, 30,000 Muslim extremists attacked a predominantly Christian village in Punjab, raping seven women and forcing 18 women to marry Muslim men — perhaps the most insidious and common example of coercive proselytisation. They also destroyed Christian-owned property, razing 800 homes and looting 13 churches. Although the army was called in to restore order, the governor of Punjab state concluded that there was "no demand" for an inquiry and that the government need not concern itself with the incident.
The El-Kosheh incident in Egypt, reported in The Catholic Herald in November by Lord Alton, has evolved from a disgraceful internal incident into an international scandal. The Egyptian government has bullied the foreign media, notably the BBC and The Sunday Telegraph, for reporting details of the torture of hundreds of Coptic Christians, including infants, women and the elderly, after Christian suspects were arrested for the murder of two Christian men. The arrest of Muslim suspects was ruled out by police keen not to ignite tensions in a region with a history of inter-religious unrest.
IN RAWALPINDI, also in Pakistan, three Christian children aged 11, 12 and 13 were forced to convert. When their parents discovered, they were told they could not have custody of their children because they were now Muslim and could no longer live within a Christian family.
This case is only one of thousands in an everexpanding catalogue of human rights abuses and religious persecution in Islamic states, the work of extremists whose outrages have in effect been encouraged by governments that have discovered it politically expedient to tolerate harsh interpretations of Islamic law. It seems that persecu tion equals votes.
Joseph Francis, a lawyer based in Lahore, advises persecuted Christians but cannot, of course, defend them in court.
In May Mr Francis was attacked inside a court, his office has been attacked three times, he is under surveillance, his phone is tapped and his mail is read before it arrives at his office.
The sinister collusion of fundamentalists and police has so far failed to crush his resolve, and he and thousands of other campaigners working in the most impossible circumstances will be heartened that a debate is to be tabled in the House of Lords to bring to the Government's attention the extent and nature of religious persecution abroad.
From it, pres sure may be brought to bear on the Pakistan High Commission in London if the Foreign Office can be won over.
When I met Joseph Francis and his colleague Eiga in London this month, their descriptions of cases they have worked on left me in no doubt that if the United Kingdom has truly embarked on an "ethical" foreign policy under this Government, it is dutybound to put pressure on countries like Pakistan to behave responsibly towards citizens of all faiths.
Ian Linden, executive director of the Catholic Institute for International Relations in London, says that effective pressure could be put on foreign governments if senior Christians and Muslims from this country were to lobby the offending regimes together. Reassuringly, he says that the cases outlined above are extreme examples and not in evidence in all Muslim countries.
"It depends very much on the country," he says.
"It is quite difficult in, for example, Saudi Arabia and parts of northern Nigeria for Christians to get one hundred per cent equality before the law. You do find extreme situations in Pakistan and Sudan, which depend on people misapplying Islamic law.
"In certain countries judges and Muslim law Above, a fragmentfrom a list cataloguing the torture meted out by Egyptian police to the villagers of El-Kosheh, translated from the Arabic by the tenter for Religious Freeeom. Left, lawyer Joseph Francis and colleague Eiga, a fieldworker, are attempting to help persecuted Christians.
enforcement offices inter-. pret the law in a vay it is not intended to le inter-• preted."
An emotional blasphemy, in the heat of an argument is not intended necessarily as an insult to the deiy — but that is how it can bs seen by over-zealous officals with fundamentalist sympathies. Ian Linden says that Muslims in the Unied Kingdom are sympathetic towards Christians who came up against intolerance and persecution in Islanic states. "Many Muslims in this country feel very uncomfortable about the mistreatment of Christians abroad,"he says. "The best way forward is a joint Muslim and Christian approach to the govsmments of these countries ,so they can raise these issus."
But how commoi is it to hear Muslim represntatiNes complaining abou tintolerance in this, still vaguely Christian, country? lie next time you hear a Muslim attack intolerant Brain, tell them about El-Ko seh and the hideous torture e' Egyptian children, or abott the two Pakistani men wh found themselves facing e,ecution when they set out oe day to buy ice cream.
• For those who want to write to their MPs cn behalf of persecuted Chtstiars, please write to: Vilfred Wong, Jubilee Camiign, do Ian Bruce MP, Rom 201, Norman Shaw Sout, Victoria Embankment, ,ondon SW 1 A 2HZ. Tel/Fa,: 0171219 5129.