Adviser to the Holy See, Josef Klee (second from the right) gave a thoughtful analysis.
By Josef Klee February 2012

As we can hear and read in the media every day, the Middle East region is currently undergoing a historic and dramatic transformation in terms of political and constitutional structures. In this process, religious minorities such as Christians, Jews and the Baha’is are severely restricted in practicing their
religion, and often are persecuted under threat of physical harm, forcing them
to leave their homelands.

   The magazine Newsweek published, last month, an article about the persecution of Christians and concluded that terrorist attacks on Christians in Africa, the Middle East and Asia increased 309 % from 2003-2010. The article states: “Christians are being killed in the Islamic world
because of their religion. It is a rising genocide that ought to provoke global

   We all know that the Middle East is the cradle of three world religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam; and that Christian minorities have co-existed in the Arab region for centuries. In spite of this
historic fact, Christians in particular have been under attack and have been the object of escalating violence over the past several years.
As a consequence, the Arab world is being drained of its Christian residents; and the rate of Christian emigration from Lebanon,Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, the Sudan and Syriahas reached unprecedented proportions.  For instance, in the early 1990s, Iraq had approximately 1.5 million
Christians out of a population of 18 million, then comprising more than 5 percent of the population. It is estimated that, at present, the Christian population is as low as 500,000.
Christians in the Palestinian territories have dropped from 15 percent of the Arab population in 1950 to just 2 percent today. Both Bethlehem and Nazareth, which had been overwhelmingly Christian towns, now have strong Muslim majorities. Today, three-fourths of previously Bethlehem Christians live abroad, and more Christians from Jerusalem live in Sydney, Australia, than in their place of birth.
In Lebanon, Christians once constituted a solid majority of the country’s population. Today,
they number less than one million people and this number continues to shrink. In Egypt, Copts – the oldest religious community with about 11 % of the population- have long felt the brunt of violent physical attacks from both the State radicals and Islamic fundamentalists. Inthe last months the persecution of Copts has escalated.

In several other Islamic countries, conditions are fundamentally as worse. For example in Nigeria,
with the largest Christian minority [40 percent] Muslims and Christians havelived on the edge of civil war and Christians have suffered of various formsof violence. Similarly, Christians in Sudan have been severely persecuted.
In Saudi Arabia,Islam is the state religion and all citizens must constitutionally be Muslims. Accordingly,in Saudi Arabia,it is illegal to import, print or own Christian or non-Muslim religious materials.
  Now, let now discuss what the outside world has done to alleviate the
plight of religious minorities in the Middle East.

What has the United Nations done? Very early, in 1948, the United Nations has established the principle of protection of religious freedoms with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In general, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims in its Article 2 that “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinctions of any kind, such as race, colour, sex,language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin,
property, birth or other status.” With its Article 18, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates in more detail, that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and
religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Over the years, the United Nations has developed a number of additional human rights instruments and institutional mechanisms geared toward thepromotion and observance of human rights protection worldwide, including the promotion of religious freedom and protection from discrimination and persecution based on religion. In this respect, the United Nations Human Rights Body, in 1968 ,established the position Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. The Special Rapporteur acts as an independent expert with the mandate tomonitor and identify obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom ofreligion or belief and to recommend ways and means to overcome the obstacles.He transmits letters of allegation and urgent appeals to states with regard to
cases of infringements or impediments to the exercise of the right to freedom of religion or belief; he conducts fact-finding visits to countries in question; and he submits an annual report to the Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly on his activities and findings.
   However, the effectiveness of the Special Rapporteur is rather limitedsince the office holder performs his/her functions only part time and the funds for his office are very small; and because many countries under review are not prepared to fully co-operate with the visits and appeals of the Special Rapporteur.   In 2010, the General Assembly took another major step towards fightingpersecution of religious minorities by adopting a very strongly wordedresolution. This resolution condemns all forms of religious intolerance and discrimination as well as violations of freedom of religion or belief and
emphasizes the obligation of states to investigate and punish acts of violence against persons belonging to religious minorities.

What has the United States done? The US is perhaps the most active country in monitoring worldwide the status ofreligious freedoms and the occurrence of religious persecutions. The United States has established the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which is an independent, bipartisan U.S.federal government commission. Its principal
responsibilities are to monitor and review the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedoms internationally, and to make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and to the Congress. The work of this US Commission on International Religious Freedom is
based on international human rights standards, such as those established in theUniversal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Commission proposes countries to be closely monitored according to anestablished watch list, and it issues
an annual report on the current situation regarding the protection of religious freedoms
in those countries. It recommends which countries the Secretary of State should officially designate as “Countries of Particular Concern” because of engaging in or tolerating “systematic,ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom”. Once a country is designated a “Country of Particular Concern”, the President is required by law to take action, including economic sanctions, or a decision to waiver of action.
As of 2011, the Commission has recommended that the following 13countries be designated as countries of particular concern: Burma, China,Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
 What have European countries done? The European Countries are also concerned with the issues of religious freedom and protection of religious minorities. Among the European countries, Italy is a very strong advocate for the protection of religious minorities.In 2011, the European Parliament adopted a widely-backed resolution requesting sanctions against countries which do not protect religiousminorities. Leaders from all political parties called for a review of current foreign policy instruments of the European Union (EU) to make them more suited to protecting Christian communities in third countries more effectively. The resolution lists proposed measures against states that knowingly fail to protect religious denominations. In particular, the EU stresses that silence and
inaction are no options.
However, the 27 Foreign Ministers were unable to adopt the resolution of the
European Parliament because of political correctness. They could not agree in drafting their text that Christians were victims of religious persecution.
Here I should mention that after the meeting the “brave” Italian Foreign Minister expressed his disappointment and stated that the over-emphasis of the prevailing secularculture would harm the credibility of Europe.
In 2010, after the initial attacks against Christian minorities in Iraq, Italy strongly supported an “EU Action Plan” which contains concrete measures to protect religious freedom in the world. The plan covers four areas, namely: bilateral actions, multilateral initiatives, financial support through the European Fund for Democracy and Human Rights, and training and capacity building. At the United Nations, Italyalong with other EU partners, promotes each year at the General Assembly the above mentioned UN resolution regarding the elimination of all forms of religious intolerance.
What has the Vatican done? The Holy See has been very vocal in defending religious freedom and condemning religious persecution. Since his election, Pope Benedict has often spoken out
in defense of religious freedom and against persecution of Christians. In his message for the 2011 World Day of Peace, the Pope made a very strong case for religious freedom.
In the introduction of his letter the Holy Father referred to the killings of two priests and more than 50 worshipers in the Baghdad Cathedral and stated: ”At present, Christians are the religious group which suffers most from the persecution on account of its faith.”One of the Pope’s suggestions is that all religious communities must defend the rights and freedoms of religious minorities. And the leaders of the
great world religions and the leaders of nations should renew their commitment to promoting and protecting religious freedom, and in particular religious minorities.
   Also, this year in his New Year Address to the Ambassadors at the Vatican, thePope strongly defended religious freedom and called for an end to thepersecution of Christians. Pope Benedict hasrepeatedly expressed his concern regarding the precarious situation of Christians in the Middle East and has called for action against the persecution of Christians in this region.The pontiff has also repeatedly expressed his solidarity with the Copts and called on world leaders to protect them.
In December of last year, at a meeting of the Organization for Securityand Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the “Foreign Minister” of the Vatican suggested that the OSCE should designatean annual international day against persecution and discrimination ofChristians.
What have countries in the Middle East done? In general, the countries in the Middle East
have shown very little interest and concern regarding the protection and
promotion of religious freedom.Among the states in the Middle East, Jordan, a predominantly Muslim country, is a strong supporter of overall Christian-Muslim relations; and the members of
the royal family have led the way in promoting inter-religious dialogue.In an open letter launching the Common World initiative in 2007, Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal stated that all Jordanian citizens - Christians and Muslims - are equal citizens under Jordan’s law and "all share in creating our country's future."
   During Pope Benedict’s visit to Jordan in 2009, King Abdullah, in his
address to the pope, stated that Muslims, Christians and Jews - as "believers in the one God" - have
an obligation to love God and to love one another, as uniform commandments found in the holy books of all three faiths. Furthermore, he emphasized the importance of dialogue to promote respect among believers and peace in the world.

Other voices in the Middle East exist who are advocates for religious freedom; but these are not strong enough to have an impact on the policy positions of their countriesWhat has the Civil Society done ? One can find the strongest support for religious freedom and the protection of religious minorities in the civil society. In the last decade, dozens of non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) have been established to advocate on behalf of the protection of religious minorities. Many of these organizations are affiliated with religious denominations. Here, I can only mention a few examples which are not necessarily representative: The organization “Aid to the Church in Need” with seat in the UK monitors worldwide religious freedom issues and publishes a yearly report on the situation of religious minorities under the title: ”A report on Christians Oppressed for their Faith”.Its 2011 edition covers more than 30 countries, providing pertinentstatistics and describing in detail incidents of discrimination and violence against religious minorities.

  Another active watchdog organization is the International Christian Concern (ICC) headquartered in Washington.This group has a strong advocacy function and provides practical support for persecuted Christian churches. It works through US government leaders (from US Congress, State Department, and the White House) to change legislation, bring pressure on persecuting countries, or to secure
the release of the imprisoned Christians. It also provides practical help and financial assistance to persecuted communities and their underground pastors, as well as to the families of hunted, imprisoned, or murdered pastors.
   In addition, the Christian Concern group has a strong public awareness program through the distribution of reports and its daily news bulletins and pressreleases on religious violence, persecution and discrimination.Also, the Christian Concern publishes an Annual Hall of Shame List of countries
that have the worst record regarding the persecution of Christian minorities.In 2011, this list contained eleven countries.

   Coptic Solidarity is a newly founded NGO to protect the human rights of Coptic communities, and to empower the Copts in Egypt so that they attain full and inalienable citizenship rights and equality, under Egypt’s secular constitution and laws, - in compliance with current international standards set by Human Rights conventions.
Specific activities of Coptic Solidarity include, among others: promoting political awareness and Human Rights Campaigns; lobbying for support at the international level; and providing legal assistance in Egypt as needed to prosecute violations and criminals and to defend the religious rights of victims.
The Baha’is are a religious minority which suffers grave persecution invarious countries, especially in Iran. Hundreds of their members havebeen killed in Iran and thousands have been imprisoned. An organization named Iran Press Watch (IPW) closely monitors all incidents of persecution and discrimination against Baha’is; and it issues reports and press releases which are widely

Finally, let me mention Pax Romana, which is an international Catholic student and professional organization. I am a member of Pax Romana and together with a few friends we have established a tiny office in New York with the objective to advocate within the UN community the protection of religious minorities in the Middle East and raise awareness of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.We meet with diplomats and UN staffers to lobby for our cause, we organize
seminars and events at universities, conduct briefings for visiting students groups and compile information on the topic.

Closing Remark So many initiatives exist, both at the international and at the local evel, to promote religious freedom and to protect religious minorities.But so far, all these efforts have not shown real results. In the last year,the number of cases of violence particularly against Christians in the Middle East and also in the Far East, has increased.
We need a much stronger campaign at the international level to stop persecution and discrimination of religious minorities. Many countries are reluctant to address this issue in meetings at international organizations.In other words, the struggle will be a very difficult and long one.It is up to each and every one of us to participate in this great human rights cause. We can join and support advocate organizations.
Personally, I wish Rotarians would get involved in this struggle and help to put an end to the persecution and suffering of religious minorities.In these unfortunate circumstances, silence and inaction are certainly no options.
   The Newsweek article expresses this sentiment with the following conclusion: “The conspiracy of silence surrounding this violent expression of religious intolerance has to stop. Nothing less than the
fate of Christianity - and ultimately of all religious minorities - in the Islamic world is at sake. ”Similarly, as Martin Luther King stated: “In the end, we will remember
not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends”