Christians, Muslims and ... Persecution


From the martyrs of the Church in the first two centuries killed in the amphitheatres of the Roman Empire to the 2015 beheading of more than 20 Coptic Christians in Libya, and from the torture of Bilal ibn Ribah, an early follower of Muhammad, to the killing of Muslims by Christian militias in the Central African Republic, sadly, religious persecution is nothing new in the world. And both Christians and Muslims experience it. This Hikmah Guide looks at the historical and present realities for both Muslims and Christians, particularly where the persecution is believed to be happening at the hands of the other community. It looks at some of the causes of persecution and recognises that both communities may feel that they are being unjustly accused. A story illustrates this tendency.

At an international Christian-Muslim conference in Pasadena in 2009, when Christians raised the issue of physical violence against Christians in places like Nigeria and the Sudan, the Muslim reply was, “but that’s political, that’s not Islam”. The Christians remained unconvinced as from their reading of Islamic texts and their study of Islamic law, the traditional and most straightforward interpretation appeared to them to support violence and discrimination. This left the Muslims to protest, “but that’s not our interpretation”. On the other hand, the Muslims raised issues to do with the “war on terror”, stop-and-search policies and western support for Israel. From their position it looked to be happening at the hands of Christians. The Christian reply was “but that’s political, that’s not Christianity”. In their turn the Muslims remained unconvinced, pointing out that George Bush and Tony Blair both explicitly identified themselves as Christians. This left the Christians to plead that “they’re not our type of Christian” 1 .

Clearly the question of the persecution of Christians and Muslims in one another’s contexts is highly emotive and not straightforward. It can be a very sensitive topic to talk about. However, it is important that Muslims and Christians do discuss it together and this Hikmah Guide provides a starting point for both communities to understand what persecution might look like for the other. The first part deals with the situation of Christians suffering in some Muslim-majority contexts and the second part deals with Muslims suffering in some Christian-majority contexts. Both sections consider the views of those Muslims and Christians who would not support discrimination, prejudice and violence against the other community and would even deny that the persecutors are members of their faith community at all. It should also be remembered that both Christians and Muslims, especially in the West, live in the presence of a secularism which has not been innocent of violence against religious believers of all persuasions, particularly during the 20th century.

Persecution of Christians

A 2019 report by the Bishop of Truro for the British Foreign Office claimed “the inconvenient truth” is that the overwhelming majority – up to 80% or some 245 million – of persecuted religious believers around the world today are Christians. His report went on to suggest that the situation is “arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide”. 2

Anyone familiar with Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels will not be surprised to know that Christians suffer for their faith. 2,000 years ago, Jesus warned that “a servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20). 3

Jesus himself was unjustly persecuted, mistreated and finally executed, all without resorting to violence to defend himself (see Hikmah Guide No.2 Christians, Muslims & War).  He predicted that the same would happen to his followers: “they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name” (Luke 21:12).  In fact, Jesus even said, “blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:11) and his brother, James, concurred, suggesting that Christians should “consider it pure joy” when they face trials (James 1:2).

Such trials were certainly the experience of the early churches and persecution through the centuries has ranged from discrimination, through imprisonment to martyrdom and even genocide. It began at the hands of the Roman Empire and has continued under many other rulers – including persecution of dissenting Christian groups by the Church at many points in history. The Church has also experienced pressure under Muslim-majority rule at certain times and places, and Philip Jenkins records instances where whole churches have even disappeared as a result. 4

More recently, Nik Ripkin, in a remarkable survey of Christian persecution around the world, suggested that suffering is still actually the normal experience for true followers of Jesus. As a western Christian, he wonders whether “perhaps the question should not be: ‘Why are others persecuted?’ Perhaps the better question is: ‘Why are we not?’”. After all, God may want to use examples of Christian suffering “to save us from the often debilitating, and sometimes spiritually-fatal, effects of our watered-down, powerless western faith”. 5

This all seems to be backed up by contemporary research. Rupert Shortt, the religion editor of the UK’s Times Literary Supplement, claims that Christians are oppressed for religious reasons in significantly greater numbers than members of any other faith. His book examines in depth the situation in 13 countries, 7 of which are Muslim-majority contexts, and briefly looks at other contexts. He believes that Christians are now at the bottom of a “rarely acknowledged hierarchy of victimhood” around the world. 6

However, the following stories and examples of persecution of Christians are all taken from Muslim contexts, not because Muslim contexts are worse than others but rather because the Christian-Muslim encounter is the focus of these Hikmah Guides. It should always be remembered that there are places around the world, and always have been, where Muslims and Christians coexist with few problems and other places, such as in Central Asia, where they both face persecution. For instance, Alex Awad, a Palestinian pastor, believes that "generally, the Christian minority (in Palestine) has fared well living with a Muslim majority and under Muslim rule” and says that “most Palestinian Christians are surprised when they hear reports from the West about the persecution of Christians by Muslims in Palestine”. 7 Nonetheless, these voices have to be balanced against other Middle East Christian voices. In May 2019 the Rt Rev Bashar Warda, Archbishop of Erbil in Iraq, complained that “fundamentally, in the eyes of Islam, Christians are not equal. We are not to be treated as equal; we are only to be tolerated or not tolerated, depending upon the intensity of the prevailing Jihadi spirit”. 8

There are many different Christian organizations around the world, mainly in the West and Latin America, dedicated to supporting persecuted Christians whom they describe as being part of the “suffering church”. 9 Their publications carry countless stories of how Christians are suffering for their faith around the world today.  They maintain websites, produce monthly magazines, circulate newsletters asking for prayer, raise petitions, lobby governments and speak in churches.  Agencies such as Voice of the Martyrs and Elam Ministries publish “prisoner profiles” to help the Church worldwide pray for particular Christians imprisoned for things such as blasphemy, apostasy and evangelising Muslims, including both nationals and expatriates. 10

Open Doors publishes what it calls a “World Watch List” showing that out of the top 50 countries where it is “most difficult to live as a Christian” over 30 are Muslim-majority countries. 11 Of the top 10 countries on the list, 7 are Islamic with 4 of them – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Iran – enshrining the sharīʿa in their constitutions in some way. However, a commentary in the May 2016 edition of the Open Doors magazine emphasised that the list shows that it is Islamic extremism (rather than just Islam) which they believe to be “by far the most common driver of (Christian) persecution”. 12

There have been several infamous cases in recent years in which Christians have faced significant discrimination.  In 2009, Asia Bibi, an illiterate Pakistani Christian farm worker, was arrested, charged with blasphemy and sentenced to death after some Muslim women in her village accused her of insulting Islam.  Bibi was eventually acquitted and released in 2018 but had to go into hiding. 13 In 2014, Mariam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, a young Sudanese woman, was accused of apostasy and sentenced to death after marrying a Christian man. She was considered to be a Muslim as her father was a Muslim, although she herself was raised as a Christian by her mother. 14 Finally, in 2006, Abdul Rahman, a Muslim in Afghanistan who had converted to Christianity, was sentenced to death for apostasy.  He too was eventually released. 15

These cases illustrate how Christians sometimes believe that they are being discriminated against by the law, especially in countries where the sharīʿa plays a significant role in the judicial process. The sharīʿa depends to a great extent on the hadīth (the recorded traditions of Muhammad’s sayings and actions) and these are sometimes harsher than the Qur’an itself. For instance, in the case of apostasy, Bukhāri (author of maybe the most important collection of Sunni hadīth)reports the Prophet saying, “if somebody discards his religion, kill him” and Muslim ibn al-Hajjāj (author of another important hadīthcollection) reports the Prophet saying, “it is not permissible to take the life of a Muslim who bears testimony but in one of the three cases: the married adulterer, a life for life, and the deserter of his religion”. 16

Under Islamic law blasphemy is also often considered a crime worthy of death. This can include insulting the Prophet or speaking against Islam. In the West such insults have occasioned protests, riots and even murder, such as during the Danish cartoon and Charlie Hebdo affairs. In Muslim-majority contexts they can result in court proceedings, such as the death penalty charge brought against Bibi in Pakistan. It should be noted, of course, that the blasphemy law can easily be abused by vindictive people wanting to settle personal scores with their neighbours or by one community to intimidate another. For this reason, Release International has been “calling for many years for the repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws”, which it believes fuel religious hatred and target minorities. 17 When cases do reach court, there is a concern that the testimony of Muslim and non-Muslim witnesses may not be treated with equal weight, making it hard for Christians to receive a fair trial in some instances.

However, probably the greatest concern is that traditionally under the sharīʿa there has been no freedom of religion for Muslims who wish to change their faith. All four Sunni law schools as well as the main Shi‘i law school prescribe death for male apostates who choose to leave Islam. Muslims who defend such laws point out that apostasy is akin to treason. It is an attack on the community. Other Muslims are campaigning for such laws to be changed or reinterpreted as being outdated. For instance, Abdullah Saeed argues that "there is no verse of the Quran that specifies any kind of punishment in this life for converting from Islam, let alone death". Rather, "there are close to one hundred verses in the Quran that broadly support religious freedom". 18 These reformers believe that the harsh stipulations found in the hadīth are unreliable and need to be challenged and updated.

Ziya Meral, a Christian from a Turkish background, in his report on apostasy for Christian Solidarity Worldwide points out that whilst only “Sudan and Malaysia have codified laws which stipulate capital punishment for apostasy” several other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Mauretania and Iran, rely on sharīʿa for their law and therefore by implication have the death penalty, although he observes that it is seldom used owing to international pressure. 19 However, even if apostates are not killed, they may face other sanctions and may be denied the right to work in certain jobs or forced to divorce their spouse.  Jonathan Andrews has also researched policies in different states and discovered that in the majority of Muslim countries it is impossible for Muslims to change the religion on their identity card if they want to leave Islam. 20

It is not only legal processes that may discriminate against Christians. Christian advocacy groups report that they may face persecution for political reasons. Some of this happens at the hands of groups usually described as being extremist but which are rejected as being Muslims at all by other Muslims. The most shocking of these in recent years was the campaign against Christians and other minorities conducted by the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Many Christians and Yazidis were killed, expelled or enslaved if they refused to convert to Islam. Persecution has been particularly severe where indigenous churches have been seen as too close to the ruling dictatorships which Islamic fighters are seeking to overthrow. For instance, several Syrian Orthodox bishops and pastors have been kidnapped and their fate is unknown, although it is possible that some of them are still alive. 21

It has not only been extremist groups such as Islamic State and Al-Qaeda that have perpetrated such violence. Human Rights Watch, a secular agency, reported on incidents of churches being burned down in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood came to power there. The most infamous incident was during May 2011 when three churches were destroyed by mobs in Imbaba, near Giza, and the authorities did little to prevent it. 22 Aid to the Church in Need, a Roman Catholic foundation, carried stories of atrocities committed by extremists but in its 2017 report claimed that Muslim-majority governments also discriminate against Christians. The report records churches being destroyed by the government in Sudan, property confiscated in Turkey and inaction by Iraqi authorities in support of the victims of persecution. 23

Such action against a minority by a government can be a popular vote winner amongst religious conservatives the world over. This may especially be true at times of heightened tension between Muslim and western governments. Christian minorities are frequently seen as being closely aligned to western powers, which are often viewed by Muslims as “Christian” governments. They fear that the Christians may be a “fifth column” and could be part of western attempts to influence politics in the region.

There is also great social pressure from within societies to preserve cultural norms. Muslim-majority cultures often place a high value on honour and outward appearance. This is by no means unique to the Muslim context and Christian communities in similar places sometimes exhibit similar values. However, honour is a significant factor in why, for example, apostates from Islam are frequently rejected by their families and even in extreme cases murdered. The shame they have brought on the family has to be visibly expunged by radical action.

Historically Christians living under Islam have been considered as dhimmis, that is people protected under a covenant. This concept is based on Qur’anic principles and explicit sayings of Muhammad in the Hadith. 24 However, more restrictive dhimmi regulations can be traced to a document called the ‘Pact of ‘Umar’, which is sometimes attributed to the second Sunni caliph of that name but is more likely to originate from a later period. 25 The document records a Christian community agreeing to a list of restrictions on their buildings, marriages, worship, opposition to Muslims, critique of Islam, exercise of authority, housing, public appearance, status and behaviour. The Christians also agree to give assistance and loyalty to the Muslim rulers. Many historians – Muslim, Christian and other – see these rules as an improvement on the treatment of minorities at the time they were promulgated. Certainly, they were better than the treatment received by minorities, particularly Jews, under Christian rule in Byzantium and medieval Europe. Today, of course, by the standards of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by many Muslim-majority countries, the dhimmi regulations would clearly be restrictive and discriminatory if applied, a fact which Christian advocacy groups often rehearse and criticise.

However, many Muslims argue that these rules were abandoned during the Ottoman period in favour of the millet system under which each confessional community had its own courts. Nonetheless, some Christians are concerned that the dhimmi regulations are still discernible in the attitudes of some Muslim societies and the restrictions which Muslim governments place on minorities. For instance: it is still not permissible in most Muslim-majority countries for a non-Muslim man to marry a Muslim woman (although the reverse is allowed); in some countries it is difficult to get permission to build or repair churches; conversion from Christianity to Islam is permitted and can be recorded on identity cards but not the reverse; the proselytising of Muslims is forbidden; and criticism of Islam is harshly repressed. The Barnabas Fund is particularly critical of how it perceives old dhimmi regulations to be still influential today. For instance, it claims that “Christians in Pakistan have never officially been given dhimmi status, but the gradual Islamisation of Pakistan’s laws and constitution has eroded their originally equal status. In lower courts, there is a tendency for the judiciary to believe the word of a Muslim over a non-Muslim, in line with sharīʿa laws which rule that the testimony of a dhimmi is of lesser value”. 26

The most extreme example of those claiming to be Muslims seeking to apply the dhimmi regulations today was at the height of the Islamic State’s reign of terror in Iraq and Syria. It is well-documented that Islamic State insisted Christians, whom it considered to be dhimmis, should either convert to Islam, pay the jizya tax, flee or be killed. 27 This was met with horror by many Muslims who believed that Islamic State was misinterpreting and misusing the concept of jizya and the dhimmi status. 28

This response is typical of many Muslims who do not support the poor treatment of Christians in Muslim-majority contexts. Some Muslims point back to historical periods where Christian and Jewish minorities have been well-treated by Muslim majorities. More recently some Muslims have been signatories to letters that “condemn any mistreatment and persecution by Christians or Muslims including in situations of conversion” 29 and aim to make it “more widely known that the Prophet Muhammad, in his time, personally pledged the safety of Christians, and others, in Muslim society”. 30 Moreover, in 2016 the Marrakech Declaration, convened by Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, affirmed that it is “unconscionable to employ religion for the purpose of aggressing upon the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries”. 31

This makes it all the more important that, as Judd Birdsall warns, advocacy on behalf of persecuted Christians should be undertaken with care. 32 Stories should not be sensationalised or reported in an uncritical, partial manner. Ramez Atallah, General Secretary of the Bible Society of Egypt, even believes that his ministry in Egypt is much “more fruitful than in any so-called ‘free’ western country” and suspects that some “western fundraisers” have “exaggerated this persecuted-minority image” to motivate donors to give. 33 This is a good reminder that the West, including Christians, should beware of hypocrisy and be careful that they themselves are treating minorities well and not ignoring the persecution of Muslims (see section below).

Nonetheless, many Christians in the West today are left with the feeling that their brothers and sisters around the world are suffering in many different contexts and especially under Islam. This has a profound effect on their feelings about Muslims. As Colin Chapman points out:

When stories of persecution are combined with the big political issues related to Muslims and Islam, it is only natural that Christians begin to feel afraid. They then find it harder to trust Muslims or to develop natural and meaningful relationships with them. If Christians find that they are responding to Muslims and Islam more out of fear than out of love, it becomes very much harder for them to obey the commands to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 19:19). 34

Persecution of Muslims

Muslims too experience persecution and suffer discrimination and mistreatment. One recent report suggests that, whilst “anti-Christian persecution, for so long a great untold story, has started to gain the world’s attention ... in many countries — Sri Lanka, India, the Central African Republic and elsewhere — it’s Muslims who have the most reason to fear violence”. 35 For instance, recently Rohingya Muslims have been suffering persecution in Myanmar at the hands of Buddhists and tens of thousands of Muslims have been imprisoned in communist China to be indoctrinated by the state. For instance, a report on global terrorism in 2011 by the National Counterterrorism Centre  in Washington suggested that “Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years” 36 (see the Hikmah Guide on Sectarianism ). However, in this Hikmah Guide, it is Muslim persecution and injustice at the hands of Christians which is the focus and it is certainly the case that many Muslims around the world feel that they are persecuted and discriminated against by the Christian West.

Historically, Muslims look back to Muhammad’s time in Mecca and remember that the first Muslims were persecuted by the polytheists of Mecca before they migrated to Medina. The “lower classes” particularly suffered, being imprisoned, beaten and exposed to the burning heat of the sun “so as to seduce them from their religion”. 37 Bilal ibn Ribah, a black slave, was the most famous of these and went on to become the first muezzin (the person who gives the call to prayer). It is said that he was laid out on his back in the hottest part of the day with a heavy rock laid on his chest yet refused to deny Muhammad before eventually being freed by Abu Bakr, an early companion of Muhammad. It is said that “when the apostle saw the affliction of his companions” he sent some of them to Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia) to be protected by the Negus, the Christian ruler there. 38 After the hijra (migration) to Medina, however, Muhammad grew politically stronger and the suffering of the early Muslims shifted in focus to martyrdom in battle (see the forthcoming Hikmah Guide on martyrdom). Ibn Ishaq’s account records the names and lineage of the Muslims who died in battles such as Badr, Uhud and Khaybar.

After these early wars, Muslims did not experience loss or persecution in the majority of their heartlands until the period of the Christian Crusades from the very end of the 11th century to the 13th century. The Crusaders saw themselves as fighting a holy war under the banner of the cross – from which the word crusade derives – and believed that their efforts to defeat the Muslims, whom they described as “pagans”, would be rewarded with the forgiveness of their sins. 39 Extant accounts record the bloody capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders and suggest that on Temple Mount “the slaughter was so great that (the) men waded in blood up to their ankles”. 40 These events are still remembered by many Muslims today and western intruders in Muslim lands are often referred to as “Crusaders”.

The next serious Muslim persecution came after Christian forces completed the "Reconquista" of the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. Forced conversions in the 16th century were followed by the expulsion of the Moriscos (Muslim Moors of North African descent) in the 17th century. 41 Later, during the western colonial era in the 18th century to 20th century, many majority-Muslim countries were conquered and subdued by western powers mainly for economic gain. During these occupations Muslims were often treated extremely harshly.

Algeria was forcibly annexed by France in the early 19th century and, despite France being a very secular country, many Christian institutions and churches were established during the colonial period. At the same time the Muslim population was subdued to such an extent that it has been referred to as genocide. 42 Resistance and independence movements in Algeria were ruthlessly put down and there was an extremely bloody war of independence (1954-62).

In Libya there were relocations, incarceration and executions of Muslims under Italian rule during the early 20th century. Great Britain conquered the Islamic Mughal Empire and ruled the whole of India for about a century, sometimes stirring sectarian rivalry between Muslims and Hindus and brutally putting down resistance to British rule such as following the Indian Rebellion of 1857. 43 Great Britain’s sudden, chaotic departure from India and the subsequent partition of the country resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Muslims, leaving unrest between Pakistan and India that still reverberates today. 44

Whilst many Christians today look back at these events with horror, at the time Christian missionaries quickly followed in the wake of political and military expansion. Churches were built and conversions encouraged. Despite all the good things that the western empires may have brought by way of medical, educational and engineering achievement, it is perhaps not surprising that many Muslims look back at the colonial era as a period of suffering at the hands of Christians which leaves them at a distinct economic and technological disadvantage even today.

Indeed, anger at Christian missions is still prevalent in some – although not all – Muslim countries and communities. According to Kate Zebiri, missions are regarded by some “as part and parcel of the imperialist venture, with little or no reference to differing motives or aims of missionaries on the one hand and imperialists on the other”. In fact, “missionaries are not generally credited with any honourable motives, and are seen in terms which are diametrically opposed to the invariably idealistic self-definition of missionaries themselves”. 45 She quotes Lebanese scholars 'Umar Farrūkh and Mustafa Khālidī, as saying that “missionaries attempt to stir up divisions and unrest in Arab and Muslim countries, so that their own nations can assert political and economic control over them. 46

Towards the end of the 20th century, Muslims were killed at the hands of the Christian Phalange militia in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon in 1982, and by Bosnian Serb Orthodox soldiers in the town of Srebrenica in 1995. Many Muslims point to western support for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 as an act of neo-colonialism at the expense of the Palestinians who suffered loss of land and restrictions on freedom of movement. They particularly associate this with Christian Zionists, especially in the USA (see Hikmah Guide on Israel). More recently in parts of Africa Christian and Muslim militias have been reported attacking one another in sectarian violence with clear religious labels, although often with political motivations. Muslims have particularly suffered at the hands of “anti-balaka” Christian militias in the Central African Republic, which has a majority Christian population. 47

During the 1990s, there was a huge amount of ill-feeling about what many Muslims saw as the immoral sanctions against Iraq, imposed by the United Nations led by the USA and other western nations, during which as many as half a million – mainly Muslim – Iraqi children died. 48 In the 21st century there has been similar anger about western wars fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and drone strikes in various places which together have killed at least a quarter of a million civilians, mainly Muslim. 49 Oftentimes it is the huge imbalance in numbers between Muslims killed in such wars and Christians killed by extremists which causes the most anger and criticism amongst Muslims. 50

Probably the most damaging episodes for the reputation of the West in the region was the abuse of prisoners by both American and British forces in places like Abu Ghraib prison and the extrajudicial internment of prisoners in Guantanamo.  These are often seen by Muslims as not just western injustices but as Christian actions.  Abdal Hakim Murad (aka Tim Winter) in his article on ‘America as a jihad state’ identifies “hardline evangelical” Christians, such as General William Boykin, former US deputy undersecretary of defence for intelligence, as some of what he sees as the worst offenders and suggests that “perceived evangelical control of the major detention facilities in the War on Terror has had a substantive impact on Muslim public opinion”.  He recalls meeting a Sufi leader near Timbuktu in Africa who was well-aware of the role of the Christian Coalition in America during the run-up to the Iraq war, “despite living in a region …. where internet access is almost impossible. Yet he was familiar with the names of Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, and other icons of the Christian Right”.  Clearly a belief that Christians are behind the suffering caused by western military actions is widespread. 51

Europe too is not exempt. Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University points out that “Muslims across the world (are being) persecuted, abused and murdered” and believes that “the epicentre of this Muslim cleansing (is) in the US and Europe rooted in historic hatred of Islam and Muslims in the European context”. He links this to Christianity, albeit in a distorted form: “the historic hatred of Muslims rooted in their version of Christianity have (sic) now reached epidemic proportions among racist, xenophobic, and proto-fascistic movements, best evident in the Brexit crisis but equally staged in the rest of Europe”. 52 He does recognise that “Muslims killing Muslims is not any less evident on the global scene” but points out that it is “the US and Europe (who) are chiefly responsible for arming (the) Arab countries” where much of the killing is taking place.

To these injustices must be added Muslim resentment at a global economy rigged to benefit the western powers. Globalization is seen to be destroying cultures and Christianity itself is feared to be a harbinger of a secularization that will undermine public morals. 53

In western contexts today, the most common term used by Muslims to express a feeling of persecution, prejudice and injustice is Islamophobia.  This is a large topic all of its own and it is hoped to deal with it in more depth in a future Hikmah Guide. 54 However, a few words need to be said here. Muslims living in the West are understandably concerned at the rise in abusive language, physical violence and attacks on property directed against them, often in response to visible religious identity markers. In the UK alone, for instance, one report recorded 1,201 verified incidents in 2017. 55 In response to such attacks, various Muslim organizations have been formed aimed at counteracting the hatred. Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks), for instance, is a “secure and reliable service that allows people from across England to report any form of Anti-Muslim abuse” and Islamophobia Awareness Month was launched by Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND) to highlight the menace of anti-Muslim hate crime and showcase the positive contributions of Muslims to society.

The exact definition of the term Islamophobia is contested.  It first came to prominence in the UK with the publication of the Runnymede Trust report 'Islamophobia: a challenge to us all' in 1997, which defined Islamophobia as “dread or hatred of Islam - and, therefore, fear or dislike of all or most Muslims”. 56 20 years later, a second Runnymede report shifted the emphasis towards Muslims rather than Islam but controversially redefined Islamophobia in terms of race. 56 The concern expressed by many, including some Christians, is that the definition of Islamophobia and any resulting laws may stifle freedom of speech and the right to criticise religious systems. Clearly, crafting a definition of Islamophobia that protects Muslims from abuse and persecution whilst at the same time maintaining freedom of speech which allows criticism of religious beliefs and ideologies is not so easy.

What is clear is that Muslims in many western contexts feel threatened and under pressure. Ironically, at the same time, some in white Anglo-Saxon communities are looking at Muslims and feeling threatened by Islam. Meanwhile in the Middle East many Muslim civilians are dying sometimes at the hands of other Muslims and sometimes as a result of western military actions. At the same time, and often in the same places, Christian communities are being discriminated against, driven from their ancient homes and killed. The situation is little better in other parts of the world.

It is very important, therefore, that Christians and Muslims face their fears, talk together openly about their experiences and think clearly about how to respond and how to combat all religious persecution in whatever community and wherever in the world it takes place. This Hikmah Guide is a starting point and the following reading and questions should help you to explore this important topic more deeply.

Further reading on persecution

All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom. 'Article 18: an orphaned right'

Birdsall, Judd. 2018. 'Pitfalls in combatting persecution', Cambridge Papers, 27/4: 1-6

Grim, Brian & Roger Finke. 2011. The Price of Freedom Denied: religious persecution and conflict in the twenty-first century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Sullivan, Winnifred, Elizabeth Hurd, Saba Mahmood & Peter Danchin. 2015. Politics of religious freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Further reading on persecution of Christians

Brother Andrew & Al Janssen. 2007. Secret Believers: What Happens When Muslims Turn to Christ? (London: Hodder & Stoughton)

Mounstephen, Philip. 2019. 'Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review for the Foreign Secretary of FCO Support for Persecuted Christians: Interim Report'

Jenkins, Philip. 2009. The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died (HarperOne)

Ripken, Nik & Gregg Lewis. 2013. The Insanity of God: a true story of faith resurrected (B&H Publishing Group)

Shortt, Rupert. 2012. 'Christianophobia' (London: Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society)

Taylor, William, Antonia Van der Meer & Reg Reimer. 2012. Sorrow and Blood: Christian mission in contexts of suffering, persecution, and martyrdom (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library)

Under Caesar's sword Project. 2018. 'In response to persecution: Findings of the Under Caesar’s Sword Project on Global Christian Communities' (University of Notre Dame)

Further reading on persecution of Muslims

Dalrymple, William. 2006. The last Mughal: the fall of a dynasty, Delhi 1857 (London: Bloomsbury)

Gallup, ‘Islamophobia: Understanding Anti-Muslim Sentiment in the West’,

Polk, William. 2018. Crusade and Jihad: the thousand-year war between the Muslim world and the global north (New Haven; London: Yale University Press)

American Civil Liberties Union, ‘Nationwide Anti-Mosque Activity’

Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), ‘Bias against Muslims’,

Tell MAMA, ‘Annual Report’,

There will be further reading on Islamophobia in a future Hikmah Guide.

Questions for further reflection

For all

Why do you think religious persecution is on the increase almost everywhere in the world today?

What should and can be done about it?  Can governments or the faith communities themselves make a difference?

Are you aware of how Christian and Muslim texts talk about suffering and persecution?

Is it a particular concern for you?  What are you doing to help both Christians and Muslims who may be suffering?

For Christians

Do western governments, and indeed Christians, bear any responsibility for the way in which Christians are being treated in Muslim contexts especially in the Middle East?

How can Christians best support their brothers and sisters who are experiencing discrimination, imprisonment and death around the world?

Are you as a Christian aware of and sympathetic to Muslim suffering in different parts of the world?  Should Christians support Muslims who are experiencing persecution? How?

How can you as a Christian live together well with your Muslim neighbours when you hear of Christians being persecuted by Muslims?

For Muslims

Do Muslim governments and indeed Muslims bear any responsibility for the way in which Christians are being treated in Muslim contexts especially in the Middle East?

How can Muslims best support their brothers and sisters who are experiencing discrimination, imprisonment and death around the world?

Are you as a Muslim aware of and sympathetic to Christian suffering in different parts of the world?  Should Muslims support Christians who are experiencing persecution? How?

How can you as a Muslim live together well with your Christian neighbours when you hear of Muslims being persecuted by Christians?

  1. McCallum, Richard. 2012. 'Love: a Common Word between Evangelicals and Muslims?', Journal of Political Theology, 13/4: 400-413.
  2. Rt. Rev. Philip Mounstephen. 2019. ‘Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review for the Foreign Secretary of FCO Support for Persecuted Christians’, 50 & 16.
  3. All Bible quotations are from the New International Version.
  4. Jenkins, Philip. 2009. The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died (HarperOne).
  5. Ripken, Nik & Gregg Lewis. 2013. The Insanity of God: a true story of faith resurrected (B&H Publishing Group), 311.
  6. Shortt, Rupert. 2012. Christianophobia: a faith under attack (Rider Books), 304.
  7. Awad, Alex. 2001. Through the Eyes of the Victims: the story of the Arab-Israeli conflict (Bethlehem: Bethlehem Bible College), 70.
  8. In an address at Civitas, 20 May 2019,
  9. See for a list which includes non-western agencies, although some in the developing world cannot be listed for security reasons.
  10.  Elam is run mainly by Iranians living in the west.
  11., accessed 22 August 2018.  The report is compiled considering “the state of religious freedom for Christians in five areas of life: private, family, community, national and within the church” and is “independently audited by the International Institute for Religious Freedom”.
  12. Open Doors Magazine, May 2016, p11.
  13., accessed 1 May 2019.
  14., accessed 17 May 2017.
  15. Tarzi, Amin. 2006. ‘Afghanistan: Apostasy Case Reveals Constitutional Contradictions’, Radio Liberty,, accessed 13 June 2019.
  16. Sahih Bukhari Volume 4, Book 52, Hadith 260 and Sahih Muslim Book 16, Hadith 4152.
  17., accessed 22 August 2018.
  18. Saeed, Abdullah. 2017. Islam and Belief: At home with religious freedom (Washington D.C.: Center for Islam and Religious Freedom), 9.
  19. Meral, Ziya. 2008. 'No Place to Call Home: experiences of apostates from Islam, failures of the international community' (Christian Solidarity Worldwide), 4.
  20. Andrews, Jonathan. 2016. Identity Crisis: Religious registration in the Middle East (Malton: Gilead Books).
  21. ‘Five years on, hope remains for missing Syrian bishops’,, accessed 1 May 2019.
  22. ‘Egypt: Mass Attacks on Churches’,, accessed 20 August 2018.
  23. Aid to the Church in Need. 2017. 'Persecuted and Forgotten? A report on Christians oppressed for their Faith 2015-17', 19, 25, 35.
  24. Doi, Abdur Rahman. 1984. Shari'ah: the Islamic law (London: TaHa), ch.24.
  25. Levy-Reubin, Milka. 2011. Non-Muslims in the Early Islamic Empire: From Surrender to Coexistence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Ch.2 has a discussion of the dating of the Pact of ‘Umar.
  26. Danger, discrimination and dhimmitude’, Barnabas Aid, March/April, 2018, 7. It should, of course, be noted that other minorities in Pakistan face discrimination including the Ahmadiyya Muslims, who are considered to be an apostate Muslim sect by the Pakistani government.
  27. See for instance Lister, Charles. 2015. The Islamic State: a brief introduction (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press), 45-46.
  28. See for instance, Oxford Foundation. 2014. 'Open letter to Dr. Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri, alias 'Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi'', 11,, accessed 1 May 2019.
  29. Statement on Violence, Hatred, Mistreatment of Minorities and Terrorist Attacks’, Christian-Muslim Forum, 16 August 2012.
  30. Deaths of Shahzad Masih and Shama Bibi’, Christian-Muslim Forum, 24 November 2014.
  31. Although “hundreds of Muslim scholars and intellectuals from over 120 countries, along with representatives of Islamic and international organizations” and even the king of Morocco attended the conference in Marrakech, unfortunately no formal signatories are listed on the document or website.
  32. Birdsall, Judd. 2018. 'Pitfalls in combatting persecution', Cambridge Papers, 27/4: 1-6.
  33. Atallah, Ramez, ‘Reflections on the Christians of Egypt Today’, in Andrews, Jonathan (ed.). 2018. The Church in Disorienting Times (Carlisle: Langham Global Library), 15.
  34. Chapman, Colin. 2007. Cross and Crescent: Responding to the Challenges of Islam (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press), 42.
  35. Dan Hitchens, ‘When will the West take a stand on the persecution of Muslims?’, The Spectator, 31 March 2018.
  36. Collecting this sort of data is problematic and, of course, not all these would have been targeted for religious reasons.
  37. Ibn Ishaq, Life of the Messenger, translated by Guillaume, 143-4.
  38. Ibn Ishaq, 146-150.
  39. See Glaser, Ida. 2010. Crusade Sermons, Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther: What does it mean to 'take up the cross' in the context of Islam? (Oxford: Church Mission Society).
  40. Taken from Gesta Francorum, translated in August Krey, The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eyewitnesses and Participants, (Princeton: 1921), 256-57 at
  41. See Carr, Matthew. 2017. Blood and faith: the purging of Muslim Spain, 1492-1614 (London: Hurst & Company).
  42. See for instance Kiernan, Ben. 2007. Blood and Soil: a world history of genocide and extermination from Sparta to Darfur (New Haven: Yale University Press).
  43. For the decline of the Mughals see Dalrymple, William. 2006. The last Mughal: the fall of a dynasty, Delhi 1857 (London: Bloomsbury).
  44. See for instance Tharoor, Shashi. 2017. Inglorious Empire: what the British did to India (London: Hurst & Company).
  45. Zebiri, Kate. 2001. 'Muslim Perceptions of Christianity and the West', in Ridgeon, L. (ed.) Islamic Perceptions of Christianity (Richmond: Curzon Press), 179-203, 179 & 182.
  46. Quoting 'Umar Farrūkh and Mustafa Khālidī. 1970. Al-Tabshīr wa'l-Isti'mār fi'l-Bilād al-'Arabiyyah (Missions and Imperialism in Arab Lands), 4th edition, Beirut: Al-Maktabat al-'Asriyyah, 22-3.
  47. Smith, David, ‘Christian threats force Muslim convoy to turn back in CAR exodus’, The Guardian, 14 Feb 2014.
  48. ‘Iraq Sanctions Kill Children, U.N. Reports’, New York Times, 1 December 1995,, accessed 1 May 2019.
  49. Crawford, Neta, ‘Human Cost of the Post-9/11 Wars: Lethality and the Need for Transparency’, Watson Institute, November 2018, 1,, accessed 1 May 2019.
  50. Polk, William. 2018. Crusade and Jihad: the thousand-year war between the Muslim world and the global north (New Haven; London: Yale University Press) in a comment made to Polk by a young Muslim student.
  51. Murad, Abdal-Hakim 2009. 'America as a Jihad State: Middle Eastern Perceptions of Modern American Theopolitics', Faith and Public Policy Seminar, Kings College, London,
  52. Hamid Dabashi, ‘Muslim cleansing: A global pandemic?’, Al-Jazeera, 22 December 2018.
  53. Zebiri, Kate. 2001. 'Muslim Perceptions of Christianity and the West', in Ridgeon, L. (ed.) Islamic Perceptions of Christianity (Richmond: Curzon Press), 179-203, 183. See also Akhtar, Shabbir. 2011. Islam as Political Religion: the future of an imperial faith (Abingdon: Routledge), 9 & 258.
  54. See discussion of various definitions at
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  56. Runnymede Trust. 1997. 'Islamophobia: a challenge to us all' (London: Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia), 1.
  57. Elahi, Farah & Omar Khan. 2017. 'Islamophobia: still a challenge for us all' (Runnymede Trust).