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In religious wars across the planet who really is suffering the most?

They claim they're harassed, imprisoned and murdered for their beliefs in 110 countries. But are Christians really the world's most persecuted religious group? And, if so, what are we in the West doing about it?

By Ivan Little

Belfast-born TV reporter John Irvine chose his words carefully for his harrowing report from the top of Sinjar Mountain in Iraq where thousands of desperate members of a little-known religious sect begged a helicopter crew to pluck them to safety from the threat of death by Islamic fanatics.

Irvine, who'd flown in with the Kurdish military crew, spoke of the "persecution of the poor souls" surrounded by the "evil of IS in a mile-high hell". He talked of salvation, of redemption from the devil's alternative. He finished by calling the mercy mission to save 50 Yazidis a triumph of good over evil.

The near-Biblical language was clearly no coincidence in the heart and heat of a crisis, where IS – the Islamic State – are vowing to kill thousands of Yazidis and Christians who don't do their bidding and convert to Islam.

Little wonder then that thousands of members of the two communities who won't agree to the deadly bargain are taking to the hills in the hope that someone – anyone – will help them to escape the clutches of their tormentors.

Only a few months ago, in Syria, the Islamic terrorists issued similar warnings to Christians who were told to pay taxes in return for their safety; to curtail their worship and to follow IS rules.

"If they reject, they are subject to being legitimate targets and nothing will remain between them and Isis other than the sword," said a blood-curdling statement from IS.

But Iraq and Syria aren't the only countries where Christianity is under assault.

Only a few months ago, a study by the Pew Research Centre in the US, who describe themselves as a non-partisan think-tank, said that Christians were the most oppressed religious group in the world.

The Pew study acknowledged that Muslims and Jews were experiencing six-year highs in the number of countries in which they were harassed by national, provincial or local governments, but added that Christians had reported persecution against them in 110 countries.

The Pew study reported that 76% of the world's population – more than five billion people – lived in countries where there were high levels of restrictions on religion.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, whipped up controversy recently when he echoed the claim that Christianity was now the most persecuted religion on the planet.

"I hope we can do more to raise the profile of the persecution of Christians around the world," he said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also used that persecution line and Prince Charles has addressed the issue in almost identical terms.

Prominent American writer John L Allen Jnr recently told a Senate hearing in Washington that there was a global war under way against Christianity.

In a book on the subject, Allen wrote: "The carnage is occurring on such a vast scale that it represents not only the most dramatic Christian story of our time, but arguably the premier human rights challenge of this era, as well."

A Vatican official told the Human Rights Council in Geneva last year that 100,000 Christians are killed every year because of their faith. He also said millions more face bigotry, intolerance and marginalisation because of their beliefs. His numbers, however, have been questioned by a number of independent observers of this most unholy of wars.

Pope Francis is currently on a five-day visit to South Korea, while, in neighbouring North Korea, Christians have to practice their faith in secrecy.

Commentators on North Korea have claimed religious persecution in the country has grown even more intense since Kim Jong-un succeeded his father as leader.

In March, 33 North Koreans were reportedly executed on Kim's orders because of their contacts with a Baptist missionary who wanted to start more underground churches.

The Pope's options for trying to change North Korea's stance against Christianity would appear to be limited.

And Church insiders say there's little he can do on a practical level to offer effective assistance to Christians, who fear they are going to come under even more pressure – especially in the Middle East and Africa.

Church analysts say he's restricted himself to urging his own people to examine their consciences and show solidarity with their under-threat fellow Christians.

The Pope did issue a strongly-worded statement this week on the crisis in northern Iraq, calling on the international community to protect people affected by persecution and violence.

Last month, too, he met Christian woman Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag after she had been freed from a death sentence in Sudan.

She'd been sentenced to hang for refusing to reject Christianity and Churches across Ireland were vocal in their demands for her to be released.

The secretary of the Church of Ireland Council for Mission, the Rev Patrick G Burke, has written extensively on the subject of religious persecution.

He told me: "I would agree that Christians are the most persecuted group around the world. It's far more widespread even than Christians in the West realise.

"Thousands of Christians are dying every year because of their faith and hundreds of thousands more suffer from attacks, beatings and rapes

"We all know about the expulsions of Christians from Mosul in Iraq, but then there have also been the attacks on the Coptic churches in Egypt and then there's Boko Haram in Nigeria who aren't just anti-Western, but anti-Christianity, as their kidnapping of 200 mainly Christian schoolgirls illustrated. They've also killed over 12,000 Christians in the last couple of years."

Earlier this week, it was reported by news agencies that the Nigerian terrorists had massacred more than 100 people in the mainly Christian village of Gwoza.

Graphic eye-witness accounts related how Boko Haram arrived in the middle of the night on motorcycles, trucks and vans and threw bombs at buildings in the village before singling out individuals for murder, sometimes slitting their throats.

Mr Burke, who's rector of Castlecomer in Co Kilkenny, said his council had been visited by members of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an organisation who campaign for religious freedom for all denominations.

He said: "To be honest it was an eye-opener for the council because like most people we got our information from the mainstream media who, for whatever reason, have tended not to highlight the oppression against Christianity because it plays against the narrative of Christians persecuting others."

Mr Burke said his council were trying to raise awareness of oppression against Christians around the world.

"But for the most part what we need is for politicians in the west to wake up and treat this with the seriousness which it deserves," he added.

He said he believed that there were a variety of reasons for the upward spiral in figures for the oppression of Christians.

"I don't want to get into what might be considered to be political incorrect territory, but it is aggressive secularism in some countries; a clash of ideologies in others. The reason for the persecution in a lot of the countries is radical Islam," he said.

"But I would stress and it is clearly stated that moderate Islam in the West would not approve of this."

Others have urged caution over the claims regarding the level of oppression against Christians.

One observer said: "What we are looking at it is minority faiths being persecuted around the world and we have to acknowledge that Christianity is still the largest religion in the world.

"So if you think about it even in numerical terms, there are more Christians who are available to be persecuted – especially when they are the minority community.

"But in Christian countries in the West what is always going to be the focus are the attacks on people of their own faith."

Another analyst said that "persecution" wasn't the right word to describe what was happening and that officials from a number of churches who gave statistics for Christians killed around the world church officials didn't always put them in context.

"A lot of the Christians who have died have been killed in civil wars where Christianity wasn't the issue. It would be like saying 3,500 Christians were killed in Northern Ireland – which they were, but not necessarily because they were Christians.

"And, let's face it, Christianity was not the driving force here; there were other reasons underlying the civil conflict."

Patrick Corrigan, of Amnesty International in Northern Ireland, said: "Assertions that Christians are the most persecuted religion around the world are dubious when we know that religious minorities of other faiths are widely persecuted, too.

"Amnesty International has documented discrimination and persecution faced by Christians in many countries worldwide. The ill-treatment runs a spectrum from low-level harassment to widespread massacres.

"But, tragically, these are experiences suffered by people of other religious faiths around the world – including, sometimes, at the hands of Christians."

Mr Corrigan said Amnesty had documented the destruction of ancient Christian communities in their homelands in Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East, including the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Christians from parts of northern Iraq by Islamic State.

He added: "Unfortunately, there are dozens of other contemporary examples, including a wave of anti-Coptic violence in Egypt, a persistent threat of violence against Christians in Pakistan, the risk of long prison sentences in China, mob attacks on Christian churches in Indonesia, repeated pogrom-style Boko Haram killings of Christians in Nigeria.

"Despite all this, though, we need to keep in mind that there's no strong evidence that Christians are uniquely persecuted for their religious beliefs. Islamic State in northern Iraq aren't simply targeting Christians, but also Yazidis and Shia Muslims."

Mr Corrigan said a recurring pattern throughout the world was of majority groups targeting a minority religion, especially in highly politicised situations or in ones where economic grievances were used to justify the behaviour.

He also said that while armed Muslim groups in the Central African Republic had massacred entire Christian households, including burning people alive in their homes, in recent times it had been Christian militias who had been murdering hundreds of Muslims and forcing tens of thousands of civilians to flee to neighbouring countries in what he called "a truly ferocious burst of Islamaphobia".

Mr Corrigan said: "There's no monopoly on victimhood and no fixed pattern to religious discrimination and violence. Christians are persecuted in many parts of the world – so are Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Buddhists and Jews. Christians are persecutors in some parts of the world – as are Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Buddhists and Jews.

"When we demand respect for human rights for one group, we must be willing to demand it equally for all."

Meanwhile, back on Sinjar mountain, the humanitarian mission to help the Yazidis goes on and tragedy follows tragedy after a rescue helicopter crashed during the week, killing the pilot who led the relief operation.

Terror and isolation … faith under fire around the globe

A study by the Gatestone Institute in New York has claimed that Christians are becoming isolated and terrorised in a number of countries around the world. They include:

  • North Korea — It has been described as the most difficult place on earth to practise Christianity. Thirty-three people were reportedly killed recently on the orders of the new young leader, Kim Jong-um, because they'd been found to have had contact with a Baptist missionary. The Pope's visit this week to neighbouring South Korea hasn't been reported in North Korea.
  • Iraq — The focus of the world's media this week, as Yazidi and Christian refugees flee from Islamic terrorists. In the capital, however, the well-known Vicar of Baghdad, Canon Andrew White, from St George's Anglican Church, has seen 1,200 of his flock killed in the last 10 years. But he is refusing to leave.
  • Nigeria — Reports say thousands of Christians have been killed by the militant Boko Haram group, who have even attacked congregations in their churches. They also kidnapped 200 schoolgirls who were mainly Christians.
  • Kenya — Christian pastors say they are being routinely targeted by Muslim extremists. One was killed in Mombasa for apparently preaching near a Mosque where jihadis were being trained.
  • Libya — An organisation called Ansar al-Sharia, who have links to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, took seven Coptic Christians from their homes and killed them. Shortly afterwards, the body of another man was found — relatives believed he was killed because he had a tattoo of a small cross on his arm.
  • Pakistan — The Catholic Church held a protest after the death of a young Christian man in police custody. It was claimed he was tortured and the Church said, while police brutality was rife, it was usually worse against Christian men.
  •  Indonesia — A small Christian community, who were planning to build a new place of worship, watched helplessly as hundreds of Muslim men stormed their land and occupied it. In another part of the country, where the majority of residents were Christians, Sharia law was extended to non-Muslims.
  •  Malaysia — Religious tensions have been reportedly rising in the country where the majority of the population are Muslims. Christians have found themselves coming under attack and a cemetery was desecrated for no apparent reason.

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