WASHINGTON – A senior Vatican official and several international experts told a House subcommittee that Christians are still enduring violence, torture, and death across the globe.
Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, the Vatican’s envoy to the United Nations, said “flagrant and widespread” persecution of Christians rages in the Middle East.
“No Christian is exempt, whether or not he or she is Arab. Arab Christians, a small but significant community, find themselves the target of constant harassment for no reason other than their religious faith,” Chullikatt testified before the House subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations last week.
Before taking the post as the permanent observer of the Vatican to the UN, Chullikatt served as a Vatican representative in Iraq and Jordan.
The persecution of Christians in Iraq has increased in the wake of the country’s democratic transition. Chullikatt said that under Saddam Hussein religious minorities enjoyed more protection because law and order were “forcibly imposed.”
“[Religious] minorities felt protected because they were participants on the benefits that came about from the strict law and order that was imposed by those regimes,” Chullikatt said. “Minorities, because of the situation that prevailed, could exercise all their rights.”
Chullikatt said that today “Christians are caught in the crossfire” because of insecurity and sectarian tensions.
He warned that a deterioration of the conflict in Syria could have similar results.
Chullikatt said one of the most egregious examples of the ongoing persecution is the rise of a so-called “tradition” of bombing Catholic and other Christian places of worship every Christmas Eve.
Three bombings killed at least 34 people in Baghdad last December, including a car bomb that exploded as worshippers were leaving a Christmas service.
From more than one million Christians before the onset of the Gulf War in 1991, Chullikatt said that today about 300,000 Christians are left in Iraq.
“As we witness the black flag of al-Qaeda again fly over cities such as Fallujah, which we had won at the cost of so much American blood, we wonder how it is that for Christians in Iraq, life appears to be worse now than it was under the vicious dictator Saddam Hussein,” said subcommittee chairman Chris Smith (R-N.J.).
Smith cited research by the Pew Center that concluded Christians are the single most harassed group worldwide. According to the report, Christians were harassed in 139 countries around the world between 2006 and 2010.
John Allen, associate editor at the Boston Globe and a veteran journalist who has written extensively on the persecution of Christians, said many ignore the issue because of outdated preconceptions.
“Say ‘religious persecution’ to most Westerners, and the images that come to mind are the Crusades, the Inquisition, the wars of religion,” Allen said. “The typical Christian in today’s world is not an affluent American male pulling up to church in a Lincoln Continental; it’s a poor black woman and mother of four in Botswana.”
Allen said one reason Christians are increasingly persecuted is that Christianity is expanding in countries that lack religious freedom.
Other speakers at the hearing testified about violence against Christians in India, Nigeria, Myanmar, Sudan, Eritrea, and Indonesia.
Tehmina Arora, an attorney at the Alliance Defending Freedom, said India, in spite of its long tradition of religious tolerance, finds itself in the midst of religious fundamentalism and violence against religious minorities.
Arora said the rise of violent Hindu extremists has meant trouble for the Christian minority in India. She listed several examples of Christians being violently attacked by these groups, but the full extent of the persecution is revealed when taking into account the lack of police action on such crimes.
“India’s northeastern state of Orissa was the scene of the most violent anti-Christian pogrom of the early 21st century,” Allen said. “In 2008, a series of riots ended with as many as 500 Christians killed, many hacked to death by machete-wielding Hindu radicals, and thousands more injured and at least 50,000 left homeless.”
Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that other countries that experience religious freedom must hold other countries to a higher standard.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has found that of the 16 worst offender states in terms of violations to religious freedom, Christians are the only religious community at risk in all of them.
“Christians remain the most persecuted group in the world and thus deserve special attention,” Abrams said.
Abrams also raised the possibility of sanctions, but only if other methods fail.
“All too often, there are no sanctions, or there is double-padding – the sanctions for religious freedom are tacked on to other sanctions,” Abrams said. While Abrams clarified that sanctions are a last resort, and should not be used in every instance, “some form of economic sanction will get the message home.”
Abrams said that past administrations have not taken the issue of Christian persecution in earnest. He urged the administration to appoint an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom at the State Department – a post established by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The seat, which is a key position in the U.S. on religious freedom, has been vacant since October when Suzan Johnson Cook stepped down.
“If there is a long vacancy, it weakens the attention of the executive branch, it weakens the efforts of the executive branch, and it sends a message to countries around the world of inattention and lack of concern,” Abrams said.
The administration has not set a date for the nomination of another ambassador-at-large. The president said at the annual prayer breakfast on Feb. 7 that he “looks forward” to nominating someone for the position.