A new word is making the rounds in the cautious world of human rights diplomacy--Christianophobia. The United Nations has denounced it as an issue of worldwide concern along with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has just named an expert on racism to monitor discrimination against Christians there. But most Christians have never heard this term describing persecution of their faith. In many developing countries, only the persecutors themselves deny that that they are persecuting Christian minorities. In Pakistan or Sudan, for example, Christians have been physically attacked by the Muslim majority and have little or no legal protection. Hindu nationalists in India have passed laws barring conversion to Christianity in some states and pressured Christians to "reconvert" to Hinduism. Saudi Arabia bans churches and public Christian worship. In Iraq, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world is rapidly disappearing as many frightened members emigrate to escape church bombings, kidnappings, and attacks by Islamist militants. These and more cases are amply documented in UN human rights reports. But should the world's largest faith present itself as a victim that needs special help? Christian groups have been pleading the cause of religious freedom for years. Apart from lobbying governments and international organizations, evangelicals run several websites such as Voice of the Martyrs
and Persecuted Church to spread the news about repression against Christians around the world. The Roman Catholic Church has also championed believers' rights as a guiding light of its diplomacy. But these campaigns usually focused on separate cases of persecution. With tension between faiths rising around the globe, international human rights organizations have singled out anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as broad problems of special concern. It gradually became difficult for the world's largest church not to speak up for Christians as a group. So over the past year, the Holy See has quietly lobbied the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to recognize Christianophobia as a new social evil and issue regular reports on it. Last month, the UN took up the cause; its General Assembly endorsed it in a resolution on December 20. The OSCE stopped a step short of approving the new term. But in early December, in addition to naming monitors to track anti-Semitism and bias against Muslims, it appointed a third expert to survey all forms of discrimination, including against Christians and other believers. The Vatican's foreign minister only mentioned the issue publicly early in December when he told a conference on religious freedom that the Church had insisted that it be mentioned in Human Rights Commission documents.
"It should be recognized that the war against terrorism, even though necessary, had as one of its side-effects the spread of Christianophobia in vast areas of the globe," Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo added. He diplomatically avoided mentioning countries, but recommended a recent report by the Catholic charity "Aid to the Church in Need" which singled out Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea and Iraq as some of the worst offenders. The Holy See is pressing this point despite several setbacks. In June, the European Union refused to refer to the continent's Christian heritage in its new constitution despite repeated appeals from Pope John Paul II and traditionally Catholic countries such as Ireland, Italy, Spain and his native Poland. Last month the European Parliament urged the EU in vain to require Turkey to enforce full religious freedom there before it could open negotiations to become a member. These setbacks so frustrated the Vatican that a senior official there, Cardinal Renato Martino, grumbled about a secularist "Inquisition" against the Church. Doudou Diène, the UN special rapporteur on racism and xenophobia, said his research led him to think the UN could not ignore Christianity while investigating bias against Jews and Muslims. "This discrimination deserves the same treatment as anti-Semitism and Islamophobia," he said. "The other major religions, such as Buddhism, may be subject to the same discrimination in other parts of the world. The challenge here is to treat both the
specifics of each case and the universal issues involved." The Rev. Drew Christiansen, international affairs counselor for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said awareness of the persecution of Christians was low. "I think there is Christianophobia out there and it's not recognized," he explained. Some participants at a recent UN conference on religious intolerance seemed to think Christians have been so powerful in history that they can't now count as victims, he said. Even Christians had trouble with the idea. "Christians have a sense of being a privileged majority, so we don't easily see ourselves as victims," he said.Not all Christians agree with the idea of using the term Christianophobia. Franciscans International, a Catholic human rights group, think that creating new categories for separate faiths diverts attention and could end up undermining the overall right to religious freedom. Other religions would also be tempted to press their case for special mention. "Obviously we have seen many countries where Christian minorities are in danger, but we don't think this is the appropriate way to really ensure protection," said Alessandra Aula of the Franciscans' Geneva office. "What we fear is that this is the way to start eroding universal human rights. Where does it end?" The World Council of Churches (WCC), which represents Protestants and Orthodox around the world, is also not convinced. "There is always a risk with these kinds of labels comparing anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and Christianophobia," said Peter Weiderud, international affairs director for the WCC. "It's not helpful to look at the problem as one religion against another."
Individual Protestant groups are wary of the term. "The Baptist World Alliance would prefer not to use this term, or any other religion's name," said its General Secretary Denton Lotz in Washington. "I do not think one should single out certain religions, but rather be conscious of religious persecution of any religious tradition and then defend that groups' right for full religious freedom." "We find the listing of specific communities not particularly helpful," said Peter Prove of the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva. "Inevitably it causes the discussion on freedom of religion or belief to focus on those stated communities. Once you start listing, then where do you stop?" Prove also said this approach would also "distract from ...belief systems other than religious belief systems" such as pacifism. The term Christianophobia emerged so quietly that many Christian groups hadn't even heard it until recently. "This came to us as a total surprise -- we were never consulted," said Aula. Few at the WCC, which is only a short drive from the UN building in Geneva, knew of it. In the United States, a major evangelical publisher and several religious rights activists hadn't even heard the word until they were asked about it. Who coined the unwieldy term is also not clear. In late January 2005, five non-governmental organizations--three Christian, two secular--issued a statement urging the Human Rights Commission to stop giving special prominence to the three "religions of the book" and promote equal treatment to all cases of religious intolerance. The groups, representing Quakers, Lutherans, the Catholic Franciscan order as well as the International Association for Religious Freedom and the International Service for Human Rights, said the Commission could change course at its next annual meeting in Geneva from March 14 to April 22.

At the OSCE, some delegations argue that the wave of attacks on Jewish people and property in Europe recently made anti-Semitism more than a religious issue. "I hope we can get back to the original focus on racism and xenophobia," a diplomat in Vienna said. Aula, of Franciscans International, also hopes to focus on universal religious freedom at the Geneva meeting. "We are talking with some delegations now to see if we can get back to the original text. Some seem to be interested. It may be surprising to see the Franciscans saying this, but it is a matter of human rights," she said.

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