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Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese RELEASE:17 Apr 2014:
Easter is the most holy week of the Christian calendar but as millions prepare to mark the crucifixion of Christ followed by the joy of His resurrection, the persecution of Christians worldwide continues to escalate.
Christians in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, North Korea, Nigeria and other parts of Africa as well as in ancient communities throughout the Middle East are living lives of terror as extremist Muslims go on the rampage, burning churches, dragging nuns through the streets, murdering priests, ransacking Christian-owned businesses and entire communities, and destroying priceless centuries' old Christian treasures and artefacts.
Anti-Christian violence is on the rise and a recent report by America's prestigious Pew Insitute found that Christians face harassment in no fewer than 151 countries worldwide. These include nations such as Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia where Christians are not permitted to worship openly. In some countries laws force Christians to convert to Islam before they can marry or own property. Almost any and everyone can be charged with blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed. In Pakistani police recently charged a nine month old baby with attempted murder and blasphemy for supposedly taking part in a recent riot in Lahore.
The baby had to be comforted with a bottle while he was finger printed and given bail.
Critics, human rights activists and Christians all say situation was ludicrous and showcased Punjab's ill-trained, ill-educated police and the region's shambolic criminal justice system where false charges can ensnare the innocent and be used as a pretext for land grabs by unscrupulous villagers.
This was certainly the case when Asia Bibi, a 42 year old Christian mother of five was charged with blasphemy in 2009 after militant Muslim women in her village in the Punjab claimed she had blasphemed the Prophet. Their claim led to Asia Bibi's arrest and had her sentenced to death by the High Court of Lahore. Her small holding in the village meanwhile was taken over by the women who had brought the charges against her.
Asia Bibi has appealed her death sentence. However four years after the sentence, her appeal has yet to be heard, with the High Court of Lahore constantly postponing the hearing with flimsy excuses such as the temporary absence of one of two judges on the date that had been set.
Meanwhile Asia Bibi remains in solitary confinement in Punjab's grim Sheikhupuru Prison four to five hours drive away from her village, family and husband.
While Asia Bibi languishes in prison this Easter, other Christians are being imprisoned, tortured, murdered in war-torn Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Libya as well as the Middle East.
In Nigeria yesterday feared Boko Haram Islamic Militants continued their reign of terror, setting off explosions that killed more than 60 as workers and shoppers boarded buses and taxis in the crowded centre of the town of Abuja. The same day in Northern Nigeria Boko Haram militants abducted 200 girls, all students at a local high school. Their whereabouts remains unknown and it is not even known if they are still alive.
Boko Haram like many other Muslim extremist fundamentalist such as Al Queda is not only against Christians and all other religious, but against the education of women.
In Egypt the situation is equally troubling particularly in a nation where until recently Christians and other religious minorities were able to live in harmony. Today despite the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood being outlawed once more, Christians continue to be targeted. Coptic Christians who can trace their ancestry back to the time of the Pharaohs and were among the world's first people to convert to Christianity continue to battle daily terror of harassment, abuse, violence and murder.
As recently as last week, an English teacher and Coptic Christian was shot in the head at a school in the Minya province by the 16-year-old brother of one of his students who claimed the teacher had been insolent in taking the student to task for smoking in class.
In Syria countless treasures, buildings and villages from the earliest days of Christianity have been destroyed in the ongoing civil war, with the most recent casualty the Fifth Century Greek-Melkite shrine of Mars Sarkis in the village of Maalula. The shrine, the church in which it stood along with sacred books, religious objects and icons were severely damaged earlier this month by rebel militias who occupied the Christian village before being forced out by the Syrian Army.
But it is the human toll that is deeply troubling and the continued abductions, murder and kidnapping of Christian clerics and Christians inside the country offering humanitarian aid.
Two of the nation's most senior Orthodox Catholic Bishops were kidnapped 12 months ago and have not been seen since while priests and religious are increasingly targets of Al Qaeda -backed militias.
The most recent casualty was elderly Dutch born Jesuit priest, Francis van der Lugt who chose to remain in Syria to help those in the besieged city of Homs and was shot dead early this month by a masked gunman.
Children are also the casualties of the violence against Christians with the missile strike against an Armenian Catholic School in Damascus two weeks ago yet another tragic example.
The increasing persecution of Christians has been the subject of many recent articles and books, in including US Catholic journalist, John Allen's The Global War on Terrorism and British author, Rupert Shortt's "Christianophobia: A faith under attack."
Both books catalogue the violent attacks on Christians across the world as well as the less lethal but clear human rights violations, abuses and intimidations against Christian minorities.
While successive Christian leaders across the world including Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have spoken out against the persecution of Christians, few political leaders of Christian countries have done so. However on the Eve of Easter this week, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said Christians were the most persecuted religious group in the world and urged everyone to "stand up against the persecution of Christians and other faith groups wherever and whenever we can."
SHARED FROM ARCHDIOCESE OF SYDNEY