Translated from Die Welt, January 19, 2015
Every religion can become the origin of injustice, claims Thomas Schirrmacher. In this interview, the human rights activist speaks about persecuted Christians and fairness for IS terrorists. By Till-R. Stoldt
Every year Christian persecution becomes a major theme in German public life, especially from Christmas until the commemoration days for martyrs in January. But however significant the seasonal impact of these events might be, all too often they have an undifferentiated effect and produce a caricature of Christian persecution. At least this is the opinion of Thomas Schirrmacher in his evaluation of the latest reports. How the Director of the International Institute for Religious Freedom and President of the International Society for Human Rights came to this conclusion is the topic of this interview.
Die Welt: Professor Schirrmacher, in recent days the so-called Islamic State appears to be even more evil than in the past. It became known that the terrorists in Paris understood themselves as IS followers. However, you are researching the questionwhether people are unfair to IS and ascribing atrocities to IS without cause. How is this going?
Thomas Schirrmacher: In my opinion, truthful reporting is important in itself. And if European newspapers show a picture of Christians who were apparently crucified by IS, and if, indeed, the Pope declares that this picture led him to tears on behalf ofChristians who were crucified by IS, then the picture should really show Christians who were crucified by IS.
Die Welt: And this was not the case?
Schirrmacher: No. The people in this picture were clearly already killed in another manner before they were tied to a cross, not nailed to a cross. The victims were also not Christians, but clearly rebellious IS soldiers who were killed by other IS soldiers because of treason.
Die Welt: Also not very nice.
Schirrmacher: It was hideous. But the violence had nothing to do with Christian persecution, yet it was presented as if it were related to Christian persecution. We can be reasonably sure that this deception originates with the propaganda apparatus of Syria’s dictator, Assad. The picture first appeared on the regime’s websites. The same is true of a photo in which an IS soldier is supposed to have decapitated a baby.
Die Welt: How do you know it was falsified?
Schirrmacher: The picture is already several years old, which has, in the meantime, become indubitable. It comes from the time before the IS invasion. Additionally, it does not show an execution. It shows a man with a sabre and a baby seated a short distance away. The International Society for Human Rights and the InternationalInstitute for Religious Freedom have been intensively engaged, working through people who have ties in the region, to find any possible witnesses for decapitations or the execution of children.
Die Welt: Wasn’t there a report from an oriental bishop on this topic?
Schirrmacher: Yes, but he had no documentation. Despite months of searching and good contacts in the area, we could not find any witnesses. Such situations are rather common.
Die Welt: How do you explain this?
Schirrmacher: Christian persecution, at least in parts of the Middle East, has become a theme in the media wars, partly used by the Assad regime. It plays into the hands of the regime, especially if the West is afraid of hostility against Christians coming from IS.
Die Welt: Whoever strikes such differentiating tones runs the risk of being regarded as someone who regards IS as harmless.
Schirrmacher: The indisputably documented cruelty of IS against Christians and other people groups is terrible enough. But it is really grist in the mills of those who regard Christian persecution as truly exaggerated if one tries to document persecution with falsifications.
Die Welt: Is the extent of Christian persecution really exaggerated?
Schirrmacher: One should not really put it like that. On the one hand, there truly is massive discrimination and also persecution of Christians, especially in Muslim majority countries. On the other hand, many attempts to quantify this persecution have been unreliable.
Die Welt: For example?
Schirrmacher: For a long time American researchers have been publishing the “Status of Global Mission,” which has also been used by Roman Catholic mission agencies. According to this source, the number of Christian martyrs in 2010 was around 178,000. But then the number sank, shortly after our criticism of their survey methods, to a rounded 100,000. It has remained at about this level since that time, but this estimate may still be much too high.
Die Welt: How was this number reached?
Schirrmacher: It is an estimated average number over the last decade which is lightly adjusted annually. However, this number includes all of the Christian victims of civils wars and domestic conflicts. For example, the victims of the genocide in Ruanda were included, although both the Hutu and Tutsi are nominally Christians and the genocide was ethnic in character, not confessional. However, even the Papal Nuncio used this number in the UN General Assembly.
Die Welt: Where has the reporting about Christian persecution led us astray?
Schirrmacher: Many reports, with those coming from your publication “Die Welt” as an explicit exception, arouse the impression that discrimination against people of another religion is a Muslim specialty. This is not objective reporting. There are also Jews and Christians, Hindus and Buddhists who increasingly want to limit religious freedom, although with very different levels of brutality.
Die Welt: Violence in the name of the Buddha?
Schirrmacher: Indeed. In Sri Lanka, where Buddhism plays a dominating role as the state religion, every now and then, monks arouse lynch mobs against Christian pastors. And club swinging Buddhist monks beat up Hindu priests and burn down Hindu temples because, they say, the Hindu faith has no place on the holy ground of Sri Lanka.
Die Welt: Don’t we hear similar claims coming from Myanmar?
Schirrmacher: These are not mere claims. There was an outright expulsion of the Muslim minority. Very shockingly, this was led by machete wielding thugs organized by the Buddhist cloisters. The monks roused them to protect the Buddhist culture of Myanmar from the growing Muslim minority. Hundreds of people were killed, and over 100,000 Muslims were driven out.
Die Welt: So, this violence was legitimated in the name of a religious/cultural identity which they believe should be protected in this manner?
Schirrmacher: Yes, religious nationalism is marching on, becoming socially acceptable on a global level. For example, in several states in India, already for several years, it has been illegal for other religions to practice mission work or to invite Hindus to leave the Hindu religion. What is new, however, is that a protagonist of this assault on human rights is so acceptable to the voters that he could be elected Prime Minister of the subcontinent.
Die Welt: And what is the situation in the parts of the world shaped by Judaism and Christianity?
Schirrmacher: The trend is also clear. In Israel, now for the first time, a Prime Minister has proposed a constitution that stipulates that only Jews may be citizens. And now foreign missionaries who promote the Christian faith are being expelled. Here we see the assertive power of a religiously defined society, at the cost of religious freedom.
Die Welt: This assertive power also characterizes the Pegida demonstrators as their driving motivation.
Schirrmacher: Naturally, but Pegida represents the concerns of religious nationalism in a relatively harmless manner. Within Christian circles, the lands with an orthodox orientation are much more known for religious nationalism.
Die Welt: Are you thinking of Russia, where the old connection between church and state has been recently reaffirmed?
Schirrmacher: Yes. Though only 0.3% of the population attends an Orthodox church on a normal Sunday, and only 3% participate in worship services on Christian holidays, nevertheless both church and state emphasize ever more loudly their readiness to defend Orthodox Christian Russia against supposedly dangerous members of other faiths.
Die Welt: Is the Orthodox Church being helped according to law?
Schirrmacher: Religious publications have to be approved by the state before they are printed. Religious communities which are not Orthodox are frequently denied this approval. Catholic or Muslim religious organizations have a very difficult time obtaining the permit to build a house of worship. Such approvals are becoming, year by year, ever more difficult to obtain. Simultaneously, across the land, thousands of Orthodox churches are being built at the cost of the state.
Die Welt: You are continuously seeking to broaden our perspective on offenses against religious freedom so that all religions come into view as offenders. Why?
Schirrmacher: Because narrowing our attention to one supposedly offending religion will blind us to important factors that are driving restrictions on freedom of religion.
Die Welt: Especially religious nationalism?
Schirrmacher: Yes, where a land is no longer ethnically and culturally homogeneous, politicians, the majority religion, and the media play the confessional card in order to unify the population. This corresponds with the desire of many in the majority population to protect their cultural identity against growing minorities of a different faith. And this quickly leads to limitations on the freedom of religion, to offending against human rights.