Minority Report: Christian Persecution in Muslim-Majority Countries

Testifying before the United States House Foreign Affairs Committee in May 2015, Sister Diana Momeka of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Sienna, Mosul, Iraq, said the following:

There are many who say, ‘Why don’t the Christians just leave Iraq and move to another country and be done with it?’ To this question we would respond, ‘Why should we leave our country – what have we done?’ The Christians of Iraq are the first people of the land. You read about us in the Old Testament of the Bible. Christianity came to Iraq from the very earliest days through the preaching and witness of St. Thomas and others of the Apostles and Church Elders.

While our ancestors experienced all kinds of persecution, they stayed in their land, building a culture that has served humanity for the ages. We, as Christians, do not want or deserve to leave or be forced out of our country any more than you would want to leave or be forced out of yours. But the current persecution our community is facing is the most brutal in our history.1

The sentiment expressed by Sister Diana represents the sentiments of many Christians living in Muslim majority countries who are proud of their nationality and strive to work for the common good but nonetheless face challenging circumstances.

To help clarify the reality of the situation facing Christians in Muslim majority countries, a few statistics are particularly noteworthy2

  • There are forty-four Muslim majority countries in the world stretching from North Africa through the Middle East and into Asia with a combined Muslim population over 1.1 billion.
  • With approximately 1.6 billion total adherents to Islam in the world, 72% of the world’s Muslims live in a country where they are the majority.
  • While in Lebanon, Muslims comprise 61% of the total population and in Malaysia are 64%, these are the exceptions. The average adherence to Islam in a Muslim majority country is 90.4%.
  • In thirty-eight of the forty-four Muslim majority countries, or in 86%, Christianity is the largest religious minority.3

Altogether there are 56 million Christians living in Muslim majority countries, which equates to about 2.6% of the total, global Christian population. Strengthening these Christian communities is vitally important from a community development standpoint. Moreover, these communities offer perhaps the most strategic opportunity for multi-faith engagement and the fostering of plural civil societies.4 Though overly simplistic, four broad categories help describe the precarious situation facing many Christians living in Muslim majority countries: active persecution, structural discrimination, public passivity and interpersonal relationships.

Active Persecution

The most limited but most severe form of repression of Christians in Muslim majority countries is active persecution, and in particular active persecution perpetrated by the governments themselves or non-state actors functioning as governments. This is most clearly evidenced in the actions of the Islamic State (IS) against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.

In the summer of 2014 the armies of the IS advanced on the Nineveh Plains forcing a modern day exodus as tens of thousands of families fled the genocidal intent of the impending forces. This included a small group of Catholic nuns who had to flee overnight from the village of Qaraqosh.5 As the sisters inched their way down a crowded road in a small van late into the night, people walking alongside pounded on the vehicle and begged the nuns to take their young children in order to ensure their rescue. They took as an act of peace in the midst of violence all they could until they ran out of room.

The Islamic State’s desecration and destruction of historic sites of religious and cultural heritage is unprecedented in Iraq. In Mosul, IS has turned an 800-year-old house of worship into a place of torture.6 Churches in Mosul are also utilized as a prison and as a weapons storehouse.7 Religious minorities in Iraq are living on the edge of extinction.

To give just one example of how families have been impacted by this reality, after the Islamic State seized Mosul, one Christian husband attempted to take his wife of twenty-eight years to Mosul so she could continue receiving treatment for breast cancer.8 When they arrived at the hospital, an IS guard refused entrance because they were Christian. They were told that medical treatment was contingent upon conversion to Islam. The wife responded, “I am not going to leave the cross of Christ. I will not abandon it. For me, a love of life is not as important as the faith.” The couple—a construction worker and his wife—returned to their small village about sixteen miles away. Ten days later, she passed away with her husband and nineteen year old and eight year old sons at her bedside. According to the husband, her last words were, “I am going to hold onto the cross of Christ. I refuse to convert. I prefer death. I prefer death to abandoning my religion and my faith.” When she passed away she was forty-five.

While precise numbers are difficult to ascertain, in the last decade the Christian community in Iraq has plummeted from approximately 1.5 million to under 300,000 and half of those are displaced.9 The actions being pursued by the Islamic State against religious minorities in Iraq constitute genocide and crimes against humanity.10 Although numerous political actors have been resistant to utilizing this term, a growing number of individuals have begun deploying this term as the most accurate descriptor for the actions unfolding in Iraq such as Pope Francis, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCRIF) Chairman Robert George, Former Governor of Maryland and current 2016 U.S. Presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, and International Center for Religion and Diplomacy President Douglas Johnston.11 Genocide and crimes against humanity not only negatively impacts Christians, but there is also real persecution of Yazidis, Turkomen, Shabbak, Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims. In this particular situation, Yazidis may be the religious minority most gruesomely impacted. According to some of the latest statistics provided by the Yezidi Affairs Directorate, 5,838 Yezidis have been kidnapped, 18 Yezidi Temples exploded, 12 Yezidi massacres have occurred on Sinjar Mountain and 3,758 Yezidis remain in the captivity of the Islamic State.12

Though multiple religious communities are negatively impacted by the actions of the Islamic State, in terms of numerical size the Christian community is the most significantly affected religious minority community. One recent report claims that after 2,000 years of continual existence, Christianity could be almost completely eradicated from large swaths of the Middle East in the next five years.13 Though this may be hyperbole, the fact that this report was validated by United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron highlights the challenges facing many Christians.14 While other examples are available, the actions of the IS are the clearest contemporary instance of active persecution perpetrated by the State, or in this case the effective State, against Christians. As confirmed by a 2015 report by the U.S. State Department Office on International Religious Freedom, the most pressing challenge to religious freedom today is the actions of non-state actors.15 This reality of active persecution cannot be ignored but nor should it be over-emphasized as it is the narrowest in terms of scope.

Structural Discrimination
Far more prevalent is a second category: structural discrimination. There are a wide range of policies and practices that restrict Christians living in Muslim majority countries from robustly living out their faith. Limiting full religious freedom is not unique to Muslim majority countries as evidenced in the most recent Pew research report, which notes that 77% of the world currently experiences some form of religious discrimination.16 Pew subdivides its report into two categories: (1) Government Restrictions on Religion and (2) Social Hostilities Due to Religion and then ranks actions according to the classifications Very High, High, Moderate and Low. Utilizing the two most restrictive categories, Very High and High:17

  • 70%, or thirty-one out of forty-four Muslim majority countries have Very High or High government restrictions on religion.
  • 48%, or twenty-one out of forty-four Muslim majority countries have Very High or High social hostilities due to religion.
  • After accounting for overlap between the two categories, 81%, or thirty-six of the forty-four Muslim majority countries, currently maintain either significant social hostilities or government restrictions on religion. Of all groups, the Christian community is the most significantly impacted religious minority community as it is the second largest religious grouping in thirty-one of these thirty-six countries.

These restrictions manifest themselves in numerous inhibiting laws, policies and structural practices such as:18

  • Lack of constitutional protection for freedom of religion and sometimes constitutional wording actively restricting freedom of religion
  • Interference during religious worship
  • Limitations or prohibitions on public preaching
  • Limitations or prohibitions on evangelism
  • Limitations or prohibitions on conversion
  • Limitations on the publication and distribution of religious literature
  • Exclusion of foreign missionaries
  • Harassment and intimidation of those who adhere to Christianity
  • Different court systems, limited access to the court system, and failure by the government to prosecute individuals who commit crimes against Christians
  • Denunciation by the government as a “sect” or “cult”
  • Different set of tax obligations from the Muslim majority
  • Physical abuse, imprisonment, displacement from homes
  • Lack of access to employment in certain sectors
  • Attending schools where all individuals are required to participate in education related to Islam
  • Mob violence
  • Honor killings
  • Restrictions on marital choices.

While these structural limitations do not exist in every context, they are found within many Muslim majority countries and have significant repercussions on Christians and other religious minorities living within those realities.

Blasphemy laws are another example of structural discrimination with the potential to flare into active persecution. Blasphemy laws are found throughout the world but are most heavily concentrated in Muslim majority countries.19 Seventy percent of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa criminalize blasphemy.20 Perhaps the most egregious abuses of blasphemy laws occur in Pakistan with one of the most outstanding cases is that of Asia Bibi who has languished on death row for six years after a questionable application of the blasphemy law.21

This structural discrimination is further evidenced by the way in which some governments in Muslim majority countries issue, or fail to issue, church construction and renovation permits. For example, in January 2015, Turkey received positive international commendation for granting a permit for the construction of a Syriac Christian church in Istanbul.22 While significant and positive, this was the first and only construction permit granted to a Christian church in Turkey since 1923. Turkey is not alone in this regard. This is also known to occur in Egypt where church construction projects, unlike mosque construction projects, require a special permit from the president of the country and “long, arduous rounds of papers” requiring “years on end.23 In Sudan the government has used imminent domain to bulldoze churches and denied church construction permits “on the grounds that buildings of that type cannot be allowed in areas where Muslims constitute a majority.”24

Additional examples of ways in which constitutions, laws, policies and practices leave Christians and other religious minorities in an insecure situation include:

  • Repression related to clothing such as when in July and August 2015, fifteen Christian women were arrested in Khartoum, Sudan for wearing trousers and skirts, which was deemed to be “immoral” because it did not conform to Sharia law.25
  • Confiscation of personal property such as a recent report noting that since 2003, seventy percent of the homes that belonged to Christians in Baghdad have been illegally confiscated and resold by members of the government.26
  • Economic limitations such as in Kurdistan in northern Iraq where Catholic nuns have reported difficulty accessing their bank accounts and withdrawing money for failure to be accompanied by a male.27

Public Passivity
Undergirding some of the active persecution and structural discriminations is a third category: public passivity. While there are proponents for religious freedom in each Muslim majority country, there are many in the public who at least tacitly support some of these discriminations or otherwise remain passive to the impact of the societal structures on religious minorities. In 2013 the Pew Research Center surveyed individuals in twenty-three countries related to Muslim perspectives on religion, politics and society and found in part:28

  • On average 64% of the population of Muslim majority countries favor enshrining Sharia as the law of the land.
  • 43% of those in Muslim majority countries believe that Sharia should apply to all citizens of the country, even non-Muslims.
  • In the thirteen Muslim majority countries included in this particular survey, on average 47% of the population indicated support for the death penalty for those who convert from Islam.

On the one hand it is noteworthy that some of these views are held by minority populations while also acknowledging that sizable segments of the population nonetheless retain positions problematic for the development of religious freedom. To further underscore this reality, this same Pew research found that 73% of those interviewed agreed they had religious freedom and 64% believed that religious minorities in their country also had religious freedom.29 If on average 64% of the population in Muslim majority countries perceive that religious freedom already exists for Christians and other religious minorities, public sentiment will passively allow the maintenance of structures that allow for the regular occurrence of religious discrimination.

While there are multiple causative factors related to tacit public support of the status quo in regards to religious discrimination, one reason relates to education. According to the United Nations Development Programme, the average number of years in formal education in Muslim majority countries is 6.25 years in comparison to a global average of 7.9 years.30 The impact of education on the situation of religious minorities was made clear on a personal level over a dinner in 2007 with a Christian Pakistani pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh. During the conversation this friend confessed ignorance about the Holocaust and asked for a description. Her rationale was that while her public school textbooks in Pakistan covered World War II, they had neglected to include any details pertaining to the Holocaust. A corroborating 2011 USCIRF Pakistani literature review found that “public school textbooks used by all children often were found to have a strong Islamic orientation, while Pakistan’s religious minorities were either referenced derogatorily or omitted altogether.”31 If critical events and accurate descriptions of minority communities are not included in the general education, the result will be broad portions of a population who passively allow the continuation of negative structures.

Interpersonal Relationships

The fourth category, interpersonal relationships, is the broadest and most difficult to analyze with precision. Throughout Muslim majority countries there are often many strong and positive interpersonal friendships, connections and affiliations between Muslims and Christians. Until the Islamic State emerged, there were communities in Iraq where Muslims and Christians had lived as peaceful neighbors for more than one thousand years. One Catholic father from northern Iraq stressed that he and many of his fellow religious leaders “love Muslims” and maintained many positive multi-faith relationships.32

As just one anecdotal example, in 2006 a small Pentecostal church existed on one of the far-flung edges of Khartoum, Sudan.33 The church met in an empty neighborhood lot underneath a simple, open-air structure in a neighborhood that was predominantly Muslim. The church sound system clearly carried the worship and preaching to the immediate surrounding area without hindrance or reported complaint. One Muslim neighbor volunteered to allow the church to run an electricity cord from the church and across the street to his home. Even more, this Muslim neighbor voluntarily paid for the electricity generated by the church.


Though there are many healthy and strong interpersonal relationships, in Muslim majority countries Christians and other religious minorities face multiple challenges ranging from active persecution, structural discrimination and a broader public passivity that allows for these realities to continue. Persecution of Christians in Muslim majority countries remains a pressing reality. For example, in the 2015 USCIRF annual report, fifteen of the twenty-seven countries recommended as countries of particular concern were Muslim majority countries.34

At the same time it must also be stressed that persecution is not unique or intrinsic to Islam and in some areas there is discrimination against Muslims35 or outright persecution of Muslims perhaps most notably of Uighur Muslims in China,36 Rohingya Muslims in Burma,37 and Sunni Muslims in Syria by the actions of the Bashar al-Assad government.38 Rather, as religion sociologist Rodney Stark argues elsewhere, regardless of the religion, religious monopolies such as those that exist in Muslim majority countries, create contexts where religious freedom and religious minorities are negatively impacted and where public corruption is more likely.39 In support of his sociological observation, 50% of all Muslim majority countries are ranked in the bottom third of the Corruption Perception Index and ten of the fifteen lowest ranking countries on this index are Muslim majority countries.40 Stark further notes that religious conflict is most prevalent where religious monopolies exist while pluralism actually diminishes religious conflict.

The potential for persecution exists among people of all religious faiths and no religious faith. Moreover when persecution occurs, it negatively impacts religious minorities as well majorities engaged in the persecution, whether that persecution is active or part of more passive structural discrimination, both of which are experienced by Christians living in Muslim majority countries. Similarly, religious freedom – when extended to people of all faiths – is a universal good necessary for the promotion of the common good.


1U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, “Sister Diana Momeka, Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, Mosul, Iraq,” under “Ancient Communities Under Attack: ISIS’s War on Religious Minorities,” http://docs.house.gov/meetings/FA/FA00/20150513/103454/HHRG-114-FA00-Wstate-MomekaS-20150513.pdf (accessed October 22, 2015).
2The following numbers are based on an analysis of the data in “Religious Composition by Country, 2010-2050,” Pew Research Center, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projection-table/2010/number/all (accessed on October 5, 2015).
3The exceptions are Bangladesh and Pakistan where Hinduism is the second largest religion, Mali and Mauritania where folk religions are larger than Christianity, and in the Comoros and Maldives where the information is not specific enough to make a determination. Qatar is evenly divided between Christianity and Hinduism.
4For an important reflection on the differences between inter-faith and multi-faith see Bob Roberts, Jr., Bold as Love: What Can Happen When We See People the Way God Does (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012).
5Name withheld due to security concerns, interview by author, Erbil, Iraq, January 23, 2015.
6“Edge of Extinction: The Eradication of Religious and Ethnic Minorities in Iraq,” 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, http://www.21wilberforce.org/am-site/media/edge-of-extinctionfinal.pdf (accessed October 15, 2015).
8Name withheld due to security concerns, interview by author, Dohuk, Iraq, January 26, 2015.
9The decline in Iraq is part of a broader trend that has seen the Christian population throughout the Middle East diminish from approximately 15% of the total population in 1900 to less than 5% of the region today, Douglas Jacobsen, The World’s Christians: Who they are, Where they are, and How they got there (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 68.There has been an even more precipitous loss of the Jewish population in Iraq from around 150,000 in 1950 to approximately four in 2015.
10For more information on how the actions of the Islamic State meet the legal definition of genocide see “The Ongoing Genocide of Religious Minorities Under ISIS: A Wilberforce Fact Sheet,” 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative http://www.21wilberforce.org/am-site/media/wilberforce-fact-sheet—genocide.pdf (accessed October 16, 2015). For a more historical reflection on genocide see Samantha Power, “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Basic Books), 2002.
11For additional information see “Who Has Acknowledged the Islamic State’s Genocide?” 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative http://www.21wilberforce.org/am-site/media/who-has-acknowledged-genocide.pdf (accessed October 16, 2015).
12Email to author, from Lou Ann Sabatier, Director of Communication for the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, October 6, 2015.
13“Persecuted and Forgotten? A Report on Christians Oppressed for their Faith, 2013-2015,” Aid to the Church in Need http://www.acnuk.org/persecuted (accessed October 16, 2015).
14Harriet Sherwood, “Christianity Under Global Threat Due to Persecution, Says Report,” The Guardian (October 13, 2015), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/13/christianity-under-global-threat-persecution-says-report?CMP=twt_gu (accessed October 16, 2015).
15“International Religious Freedom Report for 2014,” United States State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm#wrapper (accessed October 16, 2015).
16“Latest Trends in Religious Restrictions and Hostilities (2015),” Pew Research Center, http://www.pewforum.org/files/2015/02/Restrictions2015_fullReport.pdf (accessed October 18, 2015).
17Based on an analysis of the “Latest Trends in Religious Restrictions and Hostilities (2015),” Pew Research Center.
18These examples are included as the majority correlate to specific questions used to generate scores related to government restrictions and social hostilities as listed in the Appendix of the “Latest Trends in Religious Restrictions and Hostilities (2015),” Pew Research Center.
19For more on the connection between blasphemy laws and religion, conscience, speech and international jurisprudence see “Blasphemy Laws: State-Sponsored Persecution of Religion, Conscience and Speech: A Wilberforce Fact Sheet,” 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, http://www.21wilberforce.org/am-site/media/wilberforce-fact-sheet—blasphemy.pdf (accessed October 18, 2015).
20Angelina E. Theodorou, “Which Countries Still Outlaw Apostasy and Blasphemy?” Pew Research Center (May 28, 2014), http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/05/28/which-countries-still-outlaw-apostasy-and-blasphemy/ (accessed on October 18, 2015).
21For more on the case of Asia Bibi see Elijah Brown, “Blasphemy Laws Should Be Illegal,” 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative (July 14, 2015), http://www.21wilberforce.org/blog/wilberforce-aert-blasphemy-laws-should-be-illegal/191/ (accessed October 18, 2015).
22Thomas D. Williams, “Turkey Allows Building of First Christian Church in Nearly a Century,” Breitbart (January 7, 2015), http://www.breitbart.com/national-security/2015/01/07/turkey-allows-building-of-first-christian-church-in-nearly-a-century/ (accessed on October 18, 2015).
23“President Morsi for First Time Approves Construction of New Church in Egypt,” World Watch Monitor (June 11, 2013), https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2013/06/2521620/ (accessed October 18, 2015).
24Taisier Mohammed A. Ali, “Reflections on Religion & the Post Colonial State in the Sudan: What is Mine is Mine and What is Yours is Negotiable,” in Self-Determination, The Oil and Gas Sector and Religion and the State in the Sudan (London: African Renaissance Institute and Relationships Foundation International, 2002), 217. For a more in-depth analysis of the situation facing Christians in Khartoum, Sudan see Elijah M. Brown, “The Road to Peace: The Role of the Southern Sudanese Church in Communal Stabilisation and National Resolution” (Ph.D. Thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2008), 84-121.
25“Three More Christian Women Found Guilty of ‘Immoral’ Dressing in Sudan,” Christianity Daily (August 13, 2015), http://www.christianitydaily.com/articles/5448/20150813/three-more-christian-women-found-guilty-immoral-dressing-sudan.htm (accessed on October 18, 2015).
26This was first revealed by Mohammed al-Rubai a member of Baghdad’s Municipal Council in an interview with the Al-Mada television station, Robert Erwin, “Iraq: Official Claims 70% of Christian Homes in Baghdad Illegally Seized,” Independent Catholic News (June 10, 2015), http://www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=27645 (accessed October 18, 2015).
27Name withheld due to security concerns, interview by author, Erbil, Iraq, January 23, 2105.
28Based on an analysis of the data in “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society,” Pew Research Center (April 30, 2013), http://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-overview/ (accessed on October 18, 2015).
30Based on an analysis of the data in “HDI Indicators By Country 2014,” United Nations Development Programme, https://data.undp.org/dataset/HDI-Indicators-By-Country-2014/5tuc-d2a9 (accessed October 18, 2015).
31“Connecting the Dots: Education and Religious Discrimination in Pakistan: A Study of Public Schools and Madrassas,” United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (November 2011), http://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/resources/Pakistan-ConnectingTheDots-Email(3).pdf (accessed October 22, 2015).
32Name withheld due to security concerns, interview by author, Erbil, Iraq, January 24, 2105.
33Name withheld due to security concerns, interview by author, Khartoum, Sudan, March 20, 2006.
34“United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Annual Report 2015,” United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, http://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/USCIRF%20Annual%20Report%202015%20%282%29.pdf (accessed October 19, 2015).
3541% of the American public have a “cool” or negative view of Muslims according to “How Americans Feel About Religious Groups,” Pew Research Center (July 16, 2014), http://www.pewforum.org/files/2014/07/Views-of-Religious-Groups-07-27-full-PDF-for-web.pdf (accessed October 19, 2015).
36“United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Annual Report 2015,” United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 34.
37Ibid., 28-29.
38Ibid., 116.
39Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 365-366.
40Based on an analysis of the data in “Corruption Perceptions Index 2014: Results,” Transparency International, http://www.transparency.org/cpi2014/results (accessed October 15, 2015).