- - Thursday, May 29, 2014

Unfair housing, voting and employment laws. Discriminatory taxes. Religious and legal prohibitions on intermarriage. Church burnings and other acts of violence committed with impunity.

These were a few of the injustices that black Americans suffered in the American South for nearly a century through the mid-1960s. Jim Crow was a wicked regime of state-sponsored segregation and discrimination that kept millions of citizens from fully participating in American society.

Sadly, a version of Jim Crow has been resurrected — but this time, his targets are the ancient Christian populations of the Middle East.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recently issued its 15th annual report on the World’s Worst Religious Freedom Abusers. The report highlights the worst violators of religious freedom and recommends steps the U.S. government can take to encourage countries to reform.

This year’s report details how Christians in many Middle Eastern countries have become second-class citizens.

Many non-Muslims in officially Islamic states are considered “dhimmis,” meaning they are allowed to reside in the country, but do not enjoy full political or legal rights. In Raqqa province in northern Syria, radical Muslims from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) are using an ancient law known as the “dhimmi pact” to extort thousands of Christians. The pact requires that Christians pay a tax and face second-class status, convert to Islam or be killed.

Egypt’s Coptic Christians are doing better under interim military rule than they did under Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader whose government was overthrown nearly a year ago.

Christians and other religious minorities still do not enjoy equal rights or protection, though. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reports that violent attacks on Christians and their churches continued in 2013, and that violence against Christians often goes uninvestigated because police fear retribution by violent Muslim extremists.

Christians also face legal discrimination. The report states that “Egyptian courts continue to prosecute, convict and imprison Egyptian citizens for blasphemy,” broadly defined as anything deemed insulting to Islam.

Circumstances are even worse in Iran, whose government, reports the commission, “continues to engage in systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.” Despite the 2013 election of a new president, the so-called moderate Hassan Rouhani, the number of Christians and other religious minorities imprisoned for their faith increased between 2013 and 2014.

The Iraqi Constitution grants equal rights to citizens of all faiths, but it also proclaims that Islam is the religion of the state and declares that no law may contradict “the established principles of Islam.”

As with many of its neighbors, Iraq is either unwilling or unable to curb religiously motivated attacks on Christians and other religious minorities, or to punish the offenders. “This has created a climate of impunity,” the commission reports, “which in turn exacerbates a perpetual sense of insecurity for all religious communities, particularly the smallest ones.”

Saudi Arabia adheres to the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. It contains very few Christians and no churches or non-Muslim houses of worship. It also has a record of teaching its children to hate other religions. In fact, as the report notes, some school textbooks “justified violence against apostates and polytheists, and labeled Jews and Christians ‘enemies.’”

To be sure, the second-class status of Christians and other religious minorities is not confined to the Middle East. In Sudan, headlines were made recently when an Islamic court sentenced a woman to death for renouncing Islam and converting to Christianity.

The USCIRF is aware of 16 Pakistanis on death row for blasphemy and 19 serving life sentences. In Nigeria, the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram has escalated its attacks on Christians in the north, evident most recently in the abduction of about 275 girls from secondary school in the village of Chibok.

During America’s Great Migration in the second half of the 20th century, many Southern blacks moved north to escape persecution and search for better opportunities. Something similar is happening in the Middle East, as millions of Christians flee their homelands. The Christian share of the Middle East’s population has dropped from roughly 25 percent a century ago to less than 10 percent today.

There are important differences between the discrimination faced by black Americans living under Jim Crow and that of Christians in the Middle East. For one thing, black Americans were enslaved and forced to come to the United States. Middle East Christians, meanwhile, have deep roots in their countries — roots that in many cases run deeper than those of their Muslim oppressors.

Jim Crow was dismantled through a combination of litigation and legislation, protests and boycotts by black Americans and by whites’ deepening understanding that all citizens deserve equal treatment in a country founded on the idea that all men are created equal.

The civil rights movement prevailed because it posed a moral challenge to a system founded on hatred, ignorance and intolerance. A similar response will be needed if a Christian revival can ever be hoped for in the Middle East.

Gary Bauer is president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.

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