The New York Times carried a poignant story (Jan. 19) entitled "Last Christians Ponder Leaving a Hometown in Iraq."
Written by John Leland and Duraid Adnan it described a town of 10,000 people in the Anbar Province of Iraq, where Muslim and Christian once lived next door to each other and Sunni and Shiite Muslim coexisted.
This no longer is true. As al-Qaeda has grown stronger and the economy has grown more fragile, the Christians have left one by one. Now, an empty Catholic Church is tended by the town's last Christian, who daily sweeps and cleans the abandoned church and whose 11-year-old son cannot remember attending a Christian worship service. Many of the town's Muslims grieve the departure of their former friends.
Hardly a week passes without another story of this theme. National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" recently reported from Khartoum, Sudan, that Sudanese Christians in the northern half of the nation are leaving that part of the nation en masse as a result of violence and oppression because of their faith.
As Sudan prepares to split into two nations, the northern half indicates it will become a much more conservative Islamic republic, leading the Christians to fear even more violence. One Catholic parish in Khartoum has lost three-fourths of its members as the Christians are moving south and returning to ancestral lands.
Violence is done to Christians as they worship in Egypt, Iraq, the Philippines and Pakistan. Churches are bombed and strafed and innocent worshipers are slaughtered, simply because they have attended worship.
In Pakistan, our "ally" in the war against al-Qaeda, a heresy law is used to execute those who follow Jesus. Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, is on death row as a result of some inconsequential argument she had with her neighbors. Many times these death sentences are commuted at the last minute, but such a law is unconscionable to those in the West.
Earlier this month, a prominent Muslim Pakistani politician who had expressed his opposition to this heresy law was assassinated by a fundamentalist advocate of this brutal law.
This is not a column contrasting a peaceable Christianity to a violent Islam. Things are much more complex than that; a violent internecine debate is being played out within Islam itself over whether it is possible to be a faithful Muslim and be tolerant of others in a changing, modern world. And to be sure the church has its own history of oppression and intolerance. Even so, I can cite no contemporary examples where Christians are using such violent methods to win adherents or terrorize others.
Pope Benedict XVI, in a recent address, called on governments around the world to guarantee religious freedom for the church, saying that the violence in many places "shows the urgent need to make progress in (toleration): the worship of God furthers fraternity and love, not hatred and division."
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.