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Why Islamist Extremists Target Christians

Why Islamist Extremists Target Christians

Explainer

4 min read

Coffins of victims of a suicide blast on Easter day in Lahore, Pakistan, March 2016. 

The Taliban faction said Salahuddin Khorasani was a "martyr." The bomber had blown himself up at a crowded park in Lahore, Pakistan on 27 March, killing 73 people and wounding hundreds. Most of the victims were Muslims, but as the militant Taliban offshoot Jamaat-ul-Ahrar stated, the attack had been timed for "the eve of the Christian festival Easter."

After the Gulshan-e-Iqbal park blast, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, which also claimed responsibility for two attacks on churches in Lahore in 2015, vowed that more "devastating" assaults would target Christians and other religious minorities in the country.

The great majority of the victims of global extremism are Muslim. However, Christians in Pakistan – less than 2 per cent of the country's population – are singled out by jihadis, alongside other minorities, such as Shia and Ahmadis. In fact, a number of times in the past few months, Islamist extremists have targeted Christian communities across the Middle East and South Asia. 

In Yemen, the status of a Catholic priest reportedly kidnapped by ISIS or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in March remains uncertain. Tom Uzhunnalil went missing after gunmen attacked a care home, killing four Indian nuns, two Yemeni staff members, eight elderly residents, and a guard.

ISIS has claimed several attacks on Christians in Bangladesh. Last month militants affiliated with the group claimed to be behind the murder of a Christian convert, killed for being an "apostate... who changed his religion and became a preacher for the polytheist Christianity." The group described his death as "a lesson to others." The attack came amid a renewed wave of violence in the country against Shia, Sufi and Ahmadi Muslims, secular bloggers, and Hindus. In February, ISIS said it was behind the beheading of a Hindu priest outside his temple.

Christians in the ‘Caliphate’

Christian communities are most at risk in ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria, however. The group adheres to an interpretation of sharia law that is hostile to non-Sunni 'people of the book,' namely Jews and Christians. The followers of these Abrahamic faiths are eligible for the jizyah (a protection tax for non-Muslims, or dhimmi). This means that they are legally more privileged than faiths accused of practicing shirk, or polytheism, such as Yezidis and Druze.

ISIS sees Western intervention in Syria as a 'Christian Crusade.'

In reality this has not protected Christians from ISIS' brutality. According to reports emerging from the town of al-Qaraytain, which Syrian forces recaptured from ISIS in April, the group killed some 21 Christians for "breaking the terms of their dhimmi contracts." Failure to abide by this 'covenant of protection' is sanctioned by expulsion or death. The mass exodus of Christians from Iraq's Nineveh province after the capture of Mosul by ISIS in 2014 was further evidence of this.

In Syria, the closeness of the Christian community to the Assad regime has only helped push jihadi groups to invoke Christianity as an enemy. This has had international implications, with Russia framing its intervention in Syria as a 'holy war.' The head of the Russian Orthodox Church's public affairs department was quoted in 2015 as saying that "the fight with terrorism is a holy battle and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it." Meanwhile, Russia's President Vladimir Putin claims that protecting Christians is key to Moscow's foreign policy.

This rhetoric has not been lost on ISIS, which frames the Western intervention in Syria as a Christian 'crusade' and 'a war on Islam' in its propaganda.

Jihadis speak of an inevitable clash between Christians and Muslims.

The group's imagery harks back to an era of religious conflict. Much of its propaganda uses medieval chivalric motifs to emphasise the nobility of jihad, with pictures of fighters on horseback, or references to Saladin. The fourth issue of ISIS' English-language magazine, Dabiq, featured the group's infamous black flag flying over St Peter's Basilica in Rome. The title on the cover read: 'The Failed Crusade.'

The magazine itself is named after a town in northern Syria, which in Islamic eschatology is one of two possible locations for an epic battle between Christians and Muslims that will signal the end of days. The defeat of 'Rome' is a crucial part of the group's apocalyptic worldview. Such references can be found in 48 per cent of jihadi propaganda, according to research by the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics.

Taking security into their own hands

In some areas, Christian communities have taken security into their own hands. The 'Babylon Brigade' militia in Iraq claimsChristians were left with little choice but to arm themselves in light of ISIS attacks. They present it as their religious duty to protect their co-religionists. Similar 'protection groups' have emerged in Syria and Lebanon in response to increasing extremist violence.

Questioning who suffers most from extremist violence is unhelpful. All faiths suffer at the hands of jihadi groups. Nevertheless, they peddle a narrative of inevitable clash between Christians and Muslims, a 'war against Islam' by 'Christian Crusader' powers. 

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