The Rev. Franklin Graham -- son of famed evangelist Billy Graham – has again questioned U.S. President Barack Obama’s Christian faith and suggested that Obama is overlooking atrocities committed against Christians in Muslim-dominated countries.
Speaking on MSNBC television Tuesday, Graham said: “Islam sees [Obama] as a son of Islam because his father was a Muslim, his grandfather was a Muslim, great-grandfather was a Muslim and so under Islamic law, the Muslim world sees Barack Obama as a Muslim.”
Graham, who has also doubted Obama was born in the United States, further charged: “I can’t say categorically [that Obama is not a Muslim] because Islam has gotten a free pass under Obama… under President Obama, the Muslims of the world -- he seems more concerned about them than the Christians being murdered in the Muslim countries.”
This charge against Obama seems ludicrous.
Indeed, Obama has actually repeatedly called on Egypt’s new government to protect the rights of religious minorities, including Coptic Christians, declaring in a statement: “freedom of religion, the protection of people of all faiths, and the ability to worship as you choose are critical to a peaceful, inclusive and thriving society. And for this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia [Muslims] must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.”
Graham’s statement that Christians are being murdered in Muslim nations is not entirely false – but he is greatly exaggerating the problem’s true dimensions. However, Graham is correct when he suggests that Christians (and non-Muslims) are discriminated against in most Muslim-dominated nations.
In Egypt -- where Coptic Christians are believed to account for at least 5 percent of the population, making it the largest Christian community in the Middle East by far – sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians has indeed erupted sporadically in the aftermath of the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.
(It must be noted that Graham had praised Mubarak for protecting Christians in Egypt during his reign).
Last October, during a particularly bloody clash, at least two dozen Coptic Christians were killed while protesting desecration and attacks on churches in parts of Egypt.
“The high death toll from the clashes on Oct. 9 shows the urgent need for thorough investigations that lead to accountability and better protection for the Coptic community,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch at the time.
Last March, less than two months after the removal of Mubarak from power, a mob of Muslims attacked and burned down a church in Atfih, just south of Cairo – an act that lead to the deaths of at least 12 people and the destruction of several Christian-owned businesses.
Enmity against Copts is nothing new, even though they have lived in Egypt since the very earliest days of the Christian era, before Islam existed.
In 1952, when Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew King Farouk and established a pan-Arab nationalist republic, the status of Coptic Christians became extremely precarious.
Christians, who were resented for their wealth, witnessed the closing of some of their churches and courts and confiscation of properties, prompting many to emigrate.
HRW once noted: Egyptians are able to convert to Islam generally without difficulty, but Muslims who convert to Christianity face difficulties in getting new identity papers and some have been arrested for allegedly forging such documents.”
Some Islamic militants (who regard Christians as heretics) have even demanded that the state impose a tax on the Copts as in previous centuries.
Moreover, the election of some extremist Salafists to Egypt's parliament has also raised fears among Coptic Christians in the country.
As for other Muslim countries, the picture is rather mixed for Christians. However, since Christians tend to make up such small percentages of the local populations, their persecution and abuse often receive substantial media coverage in the West.
For example, Western Christians were outraged by a death penalty imposed on an Iranian pastor named Youssef Nadarkhani on the charge of apostasy. Iranian mullahs claimed that because he was converted from Islam to Christianity, Nadarkhani is an apostate – and liable to be executed under the laws of the Islamic Republic.
“Iran is one of the very few countries in the 21st century where authorities would drag an individual before a court of law and force him to choose between his faith and his life,” said Stork of HRW.
“Nadarkhani should not have to spend one more day in jail, let alone face execution.”
The population of Christians in Iran is believed to be very small; however, extremist elements among the ruling Islamic clergy regard them as “heretics” and “deviants.”
Morteza Tamadon, the governor of Tehran province, reportedly called evangelical Christians part of a “false, deviant and corrupt” cult.
“We have caught the leaders of this movement in Tehran province and numerous others will be arrested in the near future,” he added.
A few weeks ago in Saudi Arabia (the heart of the Muslin world), 35 Ethiopian Christians were arrested after police raided a private prayer session in Jeddah. They were reportedly abused in prison and now await deportation. This occurred despite the fact that Saudi King Abdullah recently financed the construction of an international interfaith dialogue center in Vienna, Austria.
Islam is the state religion in Saudi Arabia, although private worship by non-Muslims is supposed to be permitted.
Christians also form a tiny portion of Pakistan's population – perhaps less than 2 percent (and they too are subject to discrimination and abuse).
On Wednesday, the Pakistan Christian Post reported that dozens of Muslims attacked a Christian pastor named Atlaf Khan in Faisalabad and took possession of church property.
Perhaps the most well known case of persecution of Christians in Pakistan is the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death after being convicted of blasphemy.
Human rights activists claim that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been misused by people seeking revenge on their enemies.
Last year, gunmen murdered Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of Pakistan's Cabinet. He had voiced his opposition to the nation’s blasphemy laws.
Under the penal code of Pakistan (which is officially designated as an Islamic republic), acts of blasphemy against Islam can be punished by anything up to and including death. [No one in Pakistan has yet been executed for blasphemy, as death sentences have consistently been overturned on appeal – still several of the accused have been murdered in prison while awaiting sentencing.]
The blasphemy laws in Pakistan – which are believed to be the strictest in the Muslim world – are a relatively recent phenomenon. When Gen. Zia al-Haq seized power in 1979, he sought to gain support among religious radicals (as well as the conservative middle-class) by accelerating the pace of Islamization and the introduction of Sharia laws.
However, what specifically constitutes “blasphemy” can be subject to broad interpretation and therein lay many problems.
Hundreds of Pakistanis are currently languishing in prisons for allegedly violating the blasphemy laws – many are religious minorities; others were likely the victims of trumped-up charges.
[The blasphemy law] was designed as an instrument of persecution, said Ali Hasan Dayan, of HRW in Pakistan. It's discriminatory and abusive.
It should also be noted that Hindus, Sikhs and even Shia Muslims are discriminated against in Sunni Muslim Pakistan.
However, Graham’s comments have sparked controversy in his native North Carolina, from both Christians and Muslims.
Jibril Hough, a spokesman for the Muslim community in Charlotte, told the News-Observer newspaper: Franklin Graham's latest comments continue to feed into the conspiracy theory that President Obama is a Muslim and/or his allegiances lie with Islam.”
Regarding Graham’s claim that Christians are being murdered by Muslims, Hough cited military drone strikes by the U.S. in places like Pakistan and elsewhere.
I would venture to say that this number is much more than the number of Christians who have been killed in predominantly Muslim areas of the world, he said.
Calls and emails to Graham’s ministry, Samaritan’s Purse International Relief, in North Carolina, seeking comments were not returned at press time.