By Joel Brinkley

This Christmas season, Christians are under assault around the world.

Certainly a focus of the problem is the Middle East, where Islamic extremists consider anyone who holds another faith to be a heretic, often subject to execution. But it's surprising to learn that Christian groups report heinous persecution on almost every continent. And for them, the nation considered the worst place to live is North Korea.

There, believers must worship in secret, and if caught they are imprisoned, tortured and sometimes killed.

North Korea may be the most brutal of the non-Muslim states, but it is far from alone at this. Bhutan forbids the building of churches. In Uzbekistan, Christians are hated, and authorities cut off their water and electricity, among other tactics, trying to drive them away. In Azerbaijan, even after churches register with the government, police shut some of them down. In Belarus, the government forces churches to register, and that takes several years. In China, "unregistered" Christians are beaten and imprisoned.

In a report to the European Parliament last month, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said that while Muslims and Jews face significant persecution, "Christians faced some sort of harassment in two-thirds of all countries," or 133 states.

Why? The faith preaches tolerance and eschews violence, though of course not every Christian lives up to its tenets. But Christianity is the world's largest religion. Almost one-third of the world's people identify themselves as Christian. Still, in many places the religion labors under the perception that it is a vehicle of Western imperialism, and its adherents are the wealthy oligarchy of Europe and the United States. It doesn't help that Christians aggressively proselytize.

However, the truth is that almost 400 million Christians live in Africa, 511 million in Latin America and about 200 million in Asia. Those people certainly aren't Western imperialists. That's half the religion's population, and among them are the world's poorest people.

While persecution persists around the world, the most brutal examples come from the Islamic world, of course. Christianity was born in the Middle East, and Christians have lived there since the first century -- long before Islam was born. But they earn no respect there now. The most visible example is Iraq, where extremists detonated explosives in a church two months ago, killing more than 70 people. Because of that and other attacks, Christians are fleeing, and those who remain are asking for their own dedicated community in the north.

Last month in Egypt, where 10 percent of the population is Christian, two people died and dozens were wounded in riots after police forbade a Coptic group to build a church. South of Cairo, enraged Egyptians burned the homes of five Christians over rumors that a Christian boy had been flirting with a Muslim girl. An Egyptian news service quoted a local cleric saying, "we have reason to believe that there is a plan to force Christians to convert" to Islam.

Then, of course, you might expect the worst from Iran. There earlier this month, a court sentenced Youcef Nadarkhani, a 32-year-old Christian pastor, to death on charges of apostasy. He is the minister for a 400-person Church of Iran congregation. His crime: He admitted that when he was 19, he converted from Islam to Christianity. A second priest is facing a similar charge, CNN reported.

I could go on ... and on and on. But both Christians and Muslims like to note that Christian Arabs were important leaders of the Arab nationalist movement that grew up after the war with Israel in 1948. They have been important parts of the community for thousands of years.

Yet horrors like this one occur all the time: In Pakistan, Asia Bibi, a mother of five, is sitting in jail awaiting execution simply because she is Christian. She's accused of blasphemy because she tried to bring water to Muslim neighbor women working in a field. They refused to take it -- because she is Christian.

Pakistan's president has suggested he might pardon her, but a Pakistani court forbade him from doing it. Earlier this month, a hard-line cleric offered $6,000 to anyone who kills her if she is ever released from jail.

As all of this continued, at the United Nations last week, the Islamic Conference of Muslim nations forced through a motion to hold a conference next year, known as Durban III, on racism and intolerance. Already at the top of their agenda: ardent complaints about "Islamophobia."


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