Last week, Youcef Nadarkhani was executed in Iran for being a Christian. Or was he? Reports of his hanging now appear to have been exaggerated. Whether he be dead or alive, one thing is certain: the Iranian regime takes perverse pleasure in playing Russian roulette with his life. And what grievous sin has this apostate from Islam committed ? He is refusing to recant his Christianity. Freedom of belief is one of the most basic of human rights, but in Iran it cannot be taken for granted.
The previous weekend I went to a demonstration organised by the British Pakistani Christian Association in London’s Trafalgar Square. Some five hundred people had gathered to commemorate the first anniversary of a Christian government minister murdered in Pakistan for standing up for minority rights. The plight of Christians in Pakistan – some 1 to 2 percent of the population – is bad, and getting worse. A Christian woman, Asia Bibi, has been imprisoned under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws. Blasphemy carries the death penalty.
At the demonstration I learned from Coptic Christians that hundreds of thousands of their brethren are said to have fled persecution in Egypt since the ‘Arab Spring ‘ broke out. Three-quarters of the Assyrian Christian population have fled Iraq since its ‘liberation’ from Saddam Hussein. I met a lady battling on behalf of a 76-year-old Indian sentenced to death on so-called spying charges and kept by the Pakistanis in solitary confinement since 1991. (She received the good news just a few days ago that the man had been released).
These cases rarely get any mainstream media attention. Even with the spotlight on Syria, who has heard that Bashar al-Assad has been slaughtering Christians because they have been tending to the wounded rebels?
I went to Trafalgar Square to show Jewish solidarity with the non-Muslim victims of violence and persecution. Did the crowd know, I asked, that almost a million Jews, who had preceded the Muslims by 1,000 years, had been ethnically cleansed from the ‘Arab’ and Muslim Middle East and North Africa? In Iraq, where my family comes from, there are six Jews : in 1948 there were 140,000. Incidentally, some 3,000 Jews from Pakistan had also been driven out in the last 60 years.
First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people. It is too late to save the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa, most of whom were granted sanctuary in Israel. But we must show that the exodus and dispossession of Jews from Arab and Muslim countries world is part and parcel of the same wave of intolerance and abuse afflicting Christians now.
The bigotry that drove the Jews out of the Arab world predates the conflict with Zionism. It is the same racism that is driving the conflict with Israel. The Pakistani Christian organisers of the Trafalgar Square rally understand this: they invited a representative of the Campaign for Israel to speak at their demonstration. He is a Muslim who was once a rabid Jew-hater. He now stands with Israel because it is a bastion of freedom and democracy.
Israel is part of the solution, not the problem. Jews and other minorities have been persecuted because of the fascist and totalitarian nature of Arab Muslim regimes. Jews would have been forced out even if Israel had not been created. In fact the plight of Jews living among Arab and Muslims would have been ten times worse had Israel not existed to give them refuge. Israel is not perfect, but the human rights of its citizens are protected by law.
Too many dialogue groups rush in to embrace Muslim groups without enquiring first what their attitude is to non-Muslim minorities. It might be more useful to build bridges with those non-Muslim and non-Arab minorities. We need to partner with non-Muslim and non-Arab groups fighting arabisation and Islamisation.
Too many interfaith initiatives build a false equivalence between antisemitism and islamophobia. In fact antisemitic incidents in the UK are eight times more prevalent.
We also need to carve out alliances with Muslim groups – but let it be with those who are trying to reform Islam from within, and groups which show genuine empathy with the human rights of dissenters and minorities.
Minority rights guarantee the rights of the population at large. If minorities are persecuted, driven out or die, society in general suffers. That’s why we Jews should show active concern for Youcef Nadarkhani and Asia Bibi. Their fight is our fight.
Lyn Julius co-founded Harif, a UK Assocation of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. Info@harif.org