KELLNER: Religious persecution can mean political upheaval

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Rising persecution of minority religious communities in Pakistan, Iran and Syria — and other nations — is a serious threat to stability in those countries and their neighbors, a panel of specialists said at a Hudson Institute forum this week, showing how religious tensions can have larger political ramifications in hot spots around the world.

Sunni Muslims, for example, may use “Syria” as a rallying cry to recruit volunteers for al Qaeda and other terrorist movements if the dominant Alawite Shiite Muslims aligned with Syrian President Bashar Assad pursue the country’s brutal civil war, said Stephen Schwartz, a journalist and executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism.

“If the Alawites destroy Syria, the Sunnis will pay back the [Shiites] in blood, and the non-Muslims will be caught in the crossfire,” said Mr. Schwartz, a Sufi Muslim.

Mr. Schwartz listed numerous incidents of attacks on Sufis merely because they reject the notion of allowing Muslim clerics to hold political positions of authority. Iran is notably hard on the Gonabadi-Nimatullahi Sufis in that country, he said, provoking “riots and resistance” in response.

Mr. Schwartz is extremely pessimistic about the future of Sufis in some parts of the world, especially Pakistan, which he said “is probably the worst country in terms of the repression of Sufis, in terms of bloodshed.”

“I don’t think that we Sufis have any hope — it’s been 14 years since 9/11 and no one thinks about the Sufis,” he said. “People don’t know anything about Sufism. Nobody is going to help us, we’re going to have to help ourselves, in some cases by demonstrations or even by fighting, because the alternative is torture, imprisonment and even execution. All because we reject the idea of governance by clerics.”

Mr. Schwartz insisted that the Sufi branch of Islam desires peaceful relations with all, particularly the major monotheistic religions, which, he said, “can and should live together, and have dialogue. But it shouldn’t be a fake dialogue.”

Farahnaz Ispahani, a former member of the Pakistan parliament who is now a scholar at the D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says there has been a “steady decline in religious tolerance in Pakistan over the last 65 years. At the time of the [1947] partition [from India], non-Muslims comprised 25 percent of the population; now, they comprise only 5 percent.”

Forced conversions of Hindus and Christians to Islam are frequent, Ms. Ispahani said, citing a statistic quoted by Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat, who spoke of “20 to 25 kidnappings every month” in which victims are forced to convert.

One of those who did not convert, a 42-year-old farmworker and mother named Asia Bibi, is perhaps one of the most famous Christian persecution victims in Pakistan. Three years ago, Ms. Bibi was accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death; her execution is on hold, but two of her defenders, Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, a Muslim, and government Minorities Minister Shabaz Bhatti, a Christian, were assassinated in 2010. Ms. Ispahani said the killings were carried out, at least in part, because of their defense of religious minorities.

She said the March 2013 burning of a Christian neighborhood in Lahore, Pakistan, “is a reminder of how unsafe Pakistan has become for religious minorities,” adding that the treatment of religious minorities is “a genocide.”

“None of the non-Muslim minorities have the police, the state, [or] the constitution backing them,” Ms. Ispahani said.

Speaking about Iran, where persecution of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Mandeans and Baha’ists is rampant, Jamsheed K. Choksy, a professor of Iranian, Central Eurasian and Islamic Studies at Indiana University, said the country’s attorney general called Iran’s long-ago assent to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — whose Article 18 guarantees religious freedom, including the freedom to change one’s beliefs and share one’s faith — “an unintentional mistake.”

Baha’ists are the “most persecuted religious minority in Iran,” Mr. Choksy said. They “often face charges unrelated to their faith; national security charges,” he added. If Baha’i women are convicted of a crime in Iran, they must bring infant children with them to prison, he noted.

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