This month the beautiful lights, music and family celebrations of Hanukka and Christmas have brightened the winter for Jews and Christians around the world. The miracles that interweave the two faiths' holiday stories recall the power of God, and His intervention in the lives of those who trust Him. But in recent days, events featuring Hanukka candles and warm holiday greetings have also illuminated pockets of darkness in which, despite seasonal good wishes, both anti-Semitism and the persecution of Christians continue unabated.
A recent visitor to Jerusalem, Majed El Shafie, bore witness to both of these harsh realities at a reception and press conference held at the Van Leer Institute on December 14. Shafie and his colleagues formally introduced his Toronto-based international human rights organization, "One Free World International."
The group's press release states that One Free World "focuses its activities on the rights of persecuted minorities in the world and especially of the Christian minorities in Muslim states. The organization works hard to promote interreligious tolerance and addresses decision makers and the public at large to turn their attention to cases of violation of freedom of religion throughout the world. The organization numbers some 3,000 members who are divided into 28 branches that are active in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and even in Iran."
Shafie knows a great deal about Christian persecution: He converted from Islam to Christianity in his Egyptian homeland when he was 18. "During my years in law school in Alexandria," Shafie explains, "the persecution of Christians was going on all around me and it made me wonder why it was happening. For the first time in my life I started to think about it. I started asking questions of my best friend Tamer, who was a Christian, and I started reading the Bible. I started making comparisons between the Bible and the Koran. And that's when I decided to convert to Christianity."
Of course, converting from Islam to Christianity - or to any other faith - is dangerous business in Muslim lands. Under Shari'a law such conversions are understood to be a capital offense - enforced by the death penalty in some states, and bringing about various abuses and vigilante tactics in others. Nonetheless, Shafie was outspoken about his new faith.
"After I converted I wrote a book about the difference between Islam and Christianity which soon caused me to be arrested and imprisoned. There were three charges. The first charge was that I was trying to make a revolution against the Egyptian government. The second charge was that, because I was seeking equal rights for Christians, I was accused of trying to change the state religion to Christianity. The third charge was that I worshiped Jesus. So in fact I looked at the judge and I said, 'Guilty as charged.'"
Shafie was imprisoned and tortured. Even today scars on his back testify to the violence he endured. After a lengthy hospitalization, he was placed under house arrest in Alexandria, and it was from there that he escaped and made his way to Israel. "I hid behind the largest police station in Alexandria because I knew they would never look for me there. After that the Egyptian government put a price on my head, and my friends told me I shouldn't stay in Egypt any more. So I managed to get to Sinai, where I stayed with some Beduin for two months."
During that time Shafie began to plot his escape.
"THERE ARE two ways to escape from Taba. One is through the mountains - but the mountains are very high. The other way is through the Red Sea. It is patrolled by both Egyptian and Israeli boats, and either of them will shoot you. But at about 5:30 one day I stole a jet ski and I crossed the border on a jet ski. There is only one way you can get away with doing that, and that's by coming between the two boats - that way they won't shoot because they don't want to shoot each other. That's how I was able to do it. I got to Eilat and ran into the Princess Hotel where I asked for asylum. I was handed over to the Israeli police and they locked me up again - in the Beersheba jail."
Through Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Shafie's case was made known to the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ).
ICEJ, a Christian Zionist organization, works on behalf of Israel, in its words, "reaching out in practical ways to the people of Israel, while seeking to inform, educate and inspire Christians round the world to stand against the rising tide of hostility and anti-Semitism directed against the Jewish state." At times ICEJ has also worked quietly to help Christians fleeing persecution. So when the UNHCR approached the Christian Embassy about a young Egyptian Christian in a Beersheba jail cell, they quickly agreed to assist him.
Malcolm Hedding, executive director of ICEJ recalls, "Majed gave his story to the authorities and applied for asylum in Israel on the grounds of religious persecution in Egypt. His plight was eventually brought to our attention. The Israeli authorities agreed that Majed was not a criminal and could be placed in our custody on condition that certain guarantees would be furnished by us to the relevant Israeli immigration authorities and security agencies. We provided them.
"We then officially employed him, gave him lodging and food and integrated him into our staff. At the same time we entered into discussions with the UNHCR and Amnesty International concerning Majed's future. Eventually the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv was contacted about the possibility of Majed being repatriated to that country."
Finally in 2002 Majed got approval to enter Canada. The ICEJ Canadian branch continued to support him for two years. Since that time, Shafie has been ordained as a Christian minister and has launched One Free World, his human rights organization.
Shafie's December trip to Israel was, in part, a gesture of thanks to a country that gave him a new beginning. He also took the opportunity to affirm his personal support of Israel as a free nation and to take a stand, in solidarity with Israel, against anti-Semitism.
Shafie appeared at his press conference with two Canadian members of Parliament, Scott Reid and Mario Silva, both of whom are actively engaged with issues related to human rights and anti-Semitism. Dr. Frank Dimant, executive vice president of B'nai B'rith Canada, and Timothy King, a One Free World board member, also shared the podium with them. The speakers agreed that "anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism."
Shafie went on to say that the report on the IDF's Cast Lead operation in Gaza by the head of the UN fact-finding mission, Justice Richard Goldstone, serves as a disturbing example of anti-Zionist rhetoric. Shafie underscored specific facts about Hamas's tactics and the IDF's response that were not mentioned in the Goldstone report:
"We needed to know from his report that Hamas was using civilians as human shields. We needed to know from his report that for I don't know how many years Hamas has been shooting thousands of rockets into Israel. We need to know from his report that before the Israelis bombed any target in Gaza, they sent thousands of fliers into the area and told the people to get out - 'We're going to bomb here in two hours.' Goldstone's report is a disgrace!"
After speaking about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, Shafie then began to discuss the plight of persecuted Christians. One Free World reports that in 2008, 165,000 Christians were killed worldwide because of their faith, claiming, "Every three minutes a Christian is being tortured in the Muslim world... between 200 million and 300 million Christians are persecuted in the world, of which 80 percent are in Muslim countries and the rest in communist and other countries."
Shafie says, "In the course of five years of activism in my organization, I have personally helped over 300 persecuted refugees... in law courts, parliaments and through anonymous and secret actions in the Muslim world."
Other international survey organizations, such as the respected WorldChristianDatabase.org, likewise report between 160,000 and 170,000 Christian deaths per year. And Muslim countries are, indeed, in large part responsible for these deaths. It is interesting to note that the same Muslim nations that expelled or forced some 850,000 Jews from their homes and native lands between 1948 and 1970 are now driving Christians out as well. As the saying goes, "First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people..."
SHAFIE HAD returned from Pakistan three days before his arrival in Israel. Pakistan is, in fact, particularly notorious for its abuse of religious minorities. As with many other Muslim countries, only a handful of Jews remain there, in a tiny Karachi enclave. These days Pakistan's draconian "blasphemy laws" are often used to imprison Christians and others, sometimes leading to their deaths at the hands of vigilantes, even after the formal blasphemy charges have been dropped.
Shafie expresses further concern about Pakistan's "hudud" laws which, according to the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, prescribe mutilating punishments such as amputation, stoning and whipping for offenses including theft, robbery, unlawful sexual intercourse, false accusation of intercourse and the consumption of alcohol. Shafie also seeks to help shut down forced labor camps, which often abuse poverty-stricken Christians and Hindus.
At his organization's press conference, a video showed Shafie in Afghanistan, visiting Canadian soldiers who are participating in NATO operations against the Taliban. Although Afghanistan is another infamous persecutor of Christians, Afghan Jews no longer share in their suffering. It was widely reported in 2007 that only one Jew remains in the entire country. In a lonely vigil, Zebulon Simantov tends the dilapidated synagogue in Kabul.
Meanwhile Christians, whether native or foreign, continue to be mistreated. In February 2006, an Afghan Christian convert from Islam, Abdul Rahman, was arrested for apostasy. In the course of his trial, amid protests from human rights groups, one of his accusers declared, "Afghanistan does not have any obligation under international laws. The prophet says, when somebody changes religion, he must be killed." The Afghan Constitution was cited, which proclaims, "No law can contradict Islam and the values of the constitution." Rahman fled the country in 2007.
In July 2007, Taliban forces kidnapped 23 Christian humanitarian workers from South Korea who were traveling by bus from Kabul to Kandahar. On July 25, the bullet-torn body of 42-year-old Pastor Bae Hyung-kyu was discovered. A second hostage, Shim Sung-Min, was murdered days later, after refusing to convert to Islam. The remaining hostages were eventually released, thanks to alleged promises from South Korea to withdraw troops and forbid further missionary travel to Afghanistan.
As for the conditions in his own homeland, Egypt, Shafie expresses concern regarding the abuses suffered there by both Coptic Christians, who make up roughly 10 percent of the population, and Evangelicals. A December 2009 New York Times article reported that in October, "Muslims hurled stones at Christian workers in Al-Badraman, a village south of the city, because they were going to raise the steeple and add a bell at a church, according to press reports. In 2007, riots erupted in Behma, another southern village, after word spread that Copts were going to build a church without a permit. About 27 Christian-owned houses and shops were torched."
As for Egypt's Jews, in 1948 the number of Jews living in Egypt was estimated between 85,000 and 100,000. Today fewer than 50 remain. Shafie points out that even now Egyptian textbooks contain anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements. He has called upon Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak to put an end to anti-Semitism in Egypt and to the persecution of the thousands of Christians living in there.
One Free World asserts, "Throughout the years Rev. Shafie has built a close and positive relationship with the State of Israel, where he visits frequently. He considers Israel a frontline state against radical Islam and a major factor in ensuring freedom of religion in the entire world."
Lela Gilbert is a freelance writer and journalist who has authored or co-authored more than 60 books in the field of ecumenical non-fiction, including the 2009 release Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion. She is an adjunct fellow at Hudson Institute.