Last week saw the surprising release of Said Musa, the Afghan Christian convert whose name has spilled across headlines in recent months as he awaited death for the crime of apostasy in Afghanistan. The Afghan Army veteran, amputee, father of six, and Red Cross Red Crescent worker was arrested in May of 2010 because of his conversion to Christianity.
Months later, while regimes were toppling throughout the region, and protests fueled by a desire for freedom, democracy, and economic opportunity began to spread like a wildfire throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Said Musa remained trapped in a cell in Afghanistan, enduring physical abuse and demands to recant his Christian faith. The irony of the situation is that Said was in a prison cell in a nation that the United States and other free nations have invested in, a country that has been aided, cultivated, and fostered toward freedom, a nation that has had every opportunity to embrace democracy and freedom of religion, but can’t quite seem to get it, due to the continuing role of radical Islam in shaping the nation’s government.
Winds of Change
There can be no doubt that the winds of change are blowing throughout this region of the world—but can lasting changes result from the demonstrations while radical Islamic elements persist in Egypt and Libya? There are millions of individuals who would embrace freedom in a heartbeat (many have risked their lives just to make it an option on the menu), but for radical Islamists, freedom means nothing without control.
“Right now there is a lot of uncertainty and fear, especially among Christians in Egypt and Libya,” says Aidan Clay, regional manager for the Middle East at International Christian Concern. “Many Christians participated in the protests, seeking greater freedoms, for the end of the dictatorship, but now there is a lot of uncertainty about what free elections could bring to Egypt.”
In the wake of the protests, a Coptic priest has been stabbed to death in his home. Neighbors observed several masked men emerging from the priest’s home days ago, shouting, “Allahu akbar," or "God is great," as they left.
Clay is clear on the dangerous realities faced by Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. “If [the protests] lead to the Muslim Brotherhood taking power, it would be much a greater problem for Christians than they have faced in the past,” he says. “The ideals behind the revolutions have been good. The only concern is who might take control.”
Dr. Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors USA, says that the good news of Said Musa’s release is tempered by the ongoing reality of anti-Christian persecution throughout the Middle East and the world at large. “The fact is that 70 percent of the world’s 6.8 billion people live in countries with little or no freedom of religion,” he says. “Afghanistan is ranked No. 3 this year on the Open Doors World Watch List of the worst persecutors of Christians. And for good reason.”
‘No Religious Freedom’
Not surprisingly, the role played by radical Islam in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is a strong one. “There is absolutely no religious freedom in the country where our troops are spilling their blood,” Moeller says regretfully. It’s a land “where Afghan Christian blood has also been spilled by Muslim extremists.”
If Afghanistan and Iraq serve as indicators for religious freedom under new governments in the region, the outlook is a dismal one. Within the past year, churches have been bombed, and Christians have been arrested, abused, and even murdered. Christian women have been kidnapped and raped. The horrifying plight of Christians in Iraq has brought the nation’s ancient church to the brink of extinction, as thousands flee the country.
Clay has concerns for the future of the Church in post-Mubarak Egypt. “It’s very likely in Egypt that the control could go to extremist groups,” he says. “It is very unstable; it’s a very crucial time. What is going on today will dictate the future, especially as far as anti-Christian persecution.” And the brutal murder of a Coptic priest is far from settling concerns of Christian believers in the nation.
Advocating for Freedom
But as the eyes of the human rights community turn toward the remarkable release of Said Musa, advocates are gaining an understanding of how to most effectively navigate the complex politics of the Middle East to seek protection for Christian believers. Faith McDonnell is the director of religious liberty programs at the Institute for Religion and Democracy. She is grateful for the release of Said Musa, and says that the advocacy process was a team effort.
The relief felt by Christians around the world at the release of Said Musa is tangible. After months of wondering if this man would die because of his conversion to Christianity, those fears have been put to rest. Musa has been shuttled out of the country, and out of danger. But the tragic reality is that for every Said Musa, for every freed prisoner of faith, thousands more await rescue.
Will religious freedom ever be a reality in the Middle East? The earnest desires of pro-democracy protesters tell us that, in spite of the current dismal plight of religious minorities in this region of the world, freedom is hoped for by millions. And as Christians residing in free countries, we have an obligation to reach out and strengthen our brothers and sisters in harm’s way, to support efforts for true religious freedom.
According to Faith McDonnell, there is much more work to be done. “Now we must all focus our attention on the remaining prisoners of faith in Afghanistan,” she says. “It would be wonderful to see whole congregations, thousands of churches, seeing our persecuted brothers and sisters as an absolute priority.”
Kristin Butler has visited with Christian communities throughout the Middle East and Asia. She is a contributing writer at BreakPoint.org and Crosswalk.com, covering topics related to religious freedom, human rights, and philanthropy. For more articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.net or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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