Safeguarding the Rights of Christians in Muslim Countries

11/18/2010 03:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Killings in Nigeria and Iraq and death sentence for blasphemy in Pakistan have renewed concerns about the rights and security of Christians in Muslim countries and in Nigeria with its large Muslim and Christian populations. They illustrate the dangerous and devastating consequences of intolerance and challenge Muslims to counter religious extremism and more aggressively and effectively safeguard and institutionalize the rights of all religious minorities. While majorities embrace religious diversity, a significant minority of hardline conservative, fundamentalist and militant Muslims, like their counterparts in Christianity and Judaism, are not pluralistic but rather strongly exclusivist in their attitudes towards other faiths and even co-believers with whom they disagree. These myopic religious worldviews can turn ugly. Substantive change can only come with strong leadership from government and religious leaders accompanied by religious and legal reforms.

Nigeria, home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, has historically been a country where Muslims and Christians have co-existed and interacted for generations. The situation changed dramatically with a conflict that dates back to 1999, and, according to Human Rights Watch, has claimed 13,500 lives and attacks against churches and mosques with no apparent end in sight. Though religion is increasingly playing an important role in the self-identity of combatants and their mobilization, it can mask deep seated economic, social and political tensions and conflicts.

Authorities believe that the mostly Muslim Hausa-Fulani ethnic group raided a Christian village and butchered six people. The attack was eerily similar to clashes that took place between Muslim herders and mostly Christian villagers in January and March that claimed hundreds of lives. Though President Goodluck Jonathan pledged to bring the perpetrators to swift justice, his warnings and admonitions were largely ignored: Another 500 people were killed in a nearby region shortly after his statement.

This incident took place during an equally tragic moment in Iraq. Armed gunmen who identified themselves the Islamic State of Iraq killed more than 50 worshippers at a Syriac Christian Church in Baghdad earlier this month and declared Christians everywhere as "legitimate targets." News reports were quick to point out the dwindling numbers of Christians in the Middle East as evidence of Muslim intolerance. Not often were reported was that Muslims in the neighborhood had interceded with the gunmen.

In South Asia, a court in Pakistan sentenced a Christian mother of four to death for insulting Islam. Asia Bibi, 45, is believed to be the first woman sentenced to death under Pakistan's blasphemy law. She strongly denies the charges. Pakistani Christians are rallying the United Nations in New York to pressure Pakistan to repeal the blasphemy law and overturn the sentence of Bibi.

Continued acts of violence underscore the importance of the ongoing debate in contemporary Islam on the status of non-Muslims in a predominantly Muslim country. Some cling to past practice, a "protected" (dhimmi) status, which enabled Christians and Jews to practice their faith in exchange for paying a tax. Such a solution, while progressive in its time, constitutes an unacceptable second-class citizenship today. Reformers argue that non-Muslims should have full and equal citizenship rights based on Quranic texts that reveal a pluralistic vision such as: "To everyone we have appointed a way and a course to follow'' (5.48); ''For each there is a direction toward which he turns; vie therefore with one another in the performance of good works. Wherever you may be, God shall bring you all together [on the Day of Judgment]. Surely God has power over all things" (2.148); and "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256). These verses support religious diversity in the human community and reflect support for pluralism, not exclusivism.

Muslim leaders need to not only condemn religious extremism and terrorism as many have nationally and internationally, but most importantly implement reforms in law and in society to insure equality of citizenship and instill more pluralistic and tolerant attitudes and values in the next generation of imams, scholars and the general public. Failure to do so threatens the safety and security of religious minorities and the very fabric of Muslim societies.

John L. Esposito, the author of 'The Future of Islam', is University Professor of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown University and founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Sheila B. Lalwani is a research fellow at the center.