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Islam and Other Religions >
Why do Muslims persecute Christians in Muslim countries?

Religious conflict and persecution historically and today exist across the religious spectrum: Hindu fundamentalists have clashed with Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs in India, Christian Serbs with Muslim Bosnians and Kosovars, Jews with Palestinian Muslims and Christians, Tamil (Hindu) with Sinhalese (Buddhist) in Sri Lanka, Christians with Muslims in Lebanon, Catholics with Protestants in Northern Ireland.

History teaches us that religion is a powerful force that has been used for good and for ill. From Egypt, Sudan, and Nigeria to Pakistan, Indonesia, and the southern Philippines, Muslims have clashed with Christians. Moreover, despite an impressive record of religious pluralism in the past, the situation in Southeast Asia has gotten worse rather than better. It is often difficult to identify specific conflicts as primarily motivated by religion as opposed to politics or economics.

It is useful to recall that historically Islam's attitude toward other religions, especially Judaism and Christianity, was more tolerant than that of Christianity. However, Muslim-Christian relations have deteriorated over time under the influence of conflicts and grievances, from the Crusades and European colonialism to contemporary politics. Part of the legacy of colonialism is a deep-seated Muslim belief, nurtured by militant religious leaders, that indigenous Christians were favored by and benefited from colonial rule or that they are the product of the European missionaries and their schools that converted local Muslims, and somehow retain a connection to a Christian West. The situation is compounded in areas where Christians proved more affluent or successful. The creation of the state of Israel and subsequent Arab-Israeli wars and conflicts have contributed to a deterioration of relations between Palestinian Muslims and Christians and Israeli Jews.

In recent decades, conservative and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam (as well as the Christianity preached by leaders like Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, and others) have been sources of intolerance, persecution, violence, and terrorism. Local religious leaders who espouse and preach an exclusivist and militant view of religion raise generations of narrow-minded believers who, given the right circumstances, will take to the streets and engage in intercommunal or intersectarian battles. This has led to the torching of churches and mosques in Nigeria and Indonesia, the bombing of Christian churches in Pakistan, and the slaughter of Christians in Egypt and the southern Philippines. The rise of fundamentalism has brought with it intolerant theologies of hate that have led groups like Islamic Jihad and the Gamaa Islamiyya in Egypt or Laskar Jihad in Indonesia to attack Christians. Christians have suffered under self-styled Islamic governments in Sudan and Pakistan. “Islamic laws” such as Pakistan's and Afghanistan's blasphemy laws have been used to imprison Christians and threaten them with the death penalty.

As previously noted, however, often the main sources of conflict are political and economic rather than religious. The civil war in Lebanon, which shattered the celebrated Lebanese multireligious mosaic, is one example. Lebanon's government was established on the basis of proportional representation tied to a 1932 census in which Christians, specifically Maronite Christians, predominated, followed by Sunni, Shii, and Druze. The president was a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and so forth. Positions in government, the bureaucracy, and the military were distributed on the basis of religious sect or community. Changing demographics led many Muslim leaders and groups to call for a redistribution of power and wealth.

At the heart of the conflict in Israel-Palestine is the creation of the state of Israel and the Palestinian demand for a Palestinian state and the right to return to their lands. At the same time, for a significant minority of Muslims and Jews, the struggle is at its heart based upon conflicting religious claims to the land. Similarly, for some among the Muslim minority in the southern Philippines, autonomy or statehood has become a rallying cry against the Christian-dominated government in Manila, whose historic practice of moving Christians from the north to the south is regarded as an unacceptable occupation of Muslim lands. In Malaysia and Indonesia, the significant economic prosperity and power of the Chinese minority, many of whom are Christian, and who constitute an extremely small percentage of the population, have been and continue to be sources of resentment and conflict.

The long struggle of Christian East Timor for independence from Muslim Indonesia is another example. This conflict, though it had a religious dimension, was primarily about political independence for the former Portuguese colony. The government of Indonesia was hardly motivated by religion in its policies toward East Timor. Finally, the long civil war between North and South in Sudan has often been cast as a conflict between the Arab Muslim North and the Christian South. Actually, the majority of people in southern Sudan are animists (people who believe in souls, especially that non-human entities, such as animals, have souls) though many of the military leaders are Christian. More important, although there is a religious dimension and Christians have suffered persecution under Sudan's “Islamic” government, the struggle has been political and economic (over control of the South's oil reserves) as much as religious.

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