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Free at last

Christians in many Islamic countries face hardships ranging from official employment and housing discrimination to violence and death at the hands of Muslim extremist groups

Issue: "Iraq and terrorism," Nov. 11, 2006

On Aug. 22, Syrian police police arrested Samer, a Jordanian man. For 50 days he sat locked in a small cell, a prisoner of the government. Even today, he does not know the exact nature of his alleged crimes. (WORLD agreed to use only Samer's first name and leave out some details of his story so as not to enable targeting by Jordanian and Syrian authorities of those who helped him.)

"We heard so many stories," said the former Muslim who converted to Christianity 15 years ago. "Some said it was because of our ministry to the Kurdish people. . . . Others said it was because I was trying to get Kurdish-language Bibles into Syria, and the Kurdish language is illegal there."

On Oct. 26, just 16 days after his release from Syrian custody, Samer and his family set up housekeeping in a one-bedroom home in Texas, guests of the United States and aided by a refugee group.

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America is their final stop in a two-year flight from religious persecution. The odyssey that carried his family from the Shariah courts of Jordan, to secret meetings with Christians in Syria, through the custody ordeal, and on to the Texas suburbs has left Samer with a message for Americans. "I want them to understand that there is a false image of Islam as a religion of peace and compassion. Many countries of the Middle East have a good image here in the U.S., but their rules are not what Americans think. . . . When [Islamic countries] talk about human rights and freedom, it's not true-unless you remain in Islam."

According to the U.S. State Department's 2005 report on religious persecution, Christians in many Islamic countries face hardships ranging from official employment and housing discrimination to violence and death at the hands of Muslim extremist groups and even family. In Egypt, for example, the constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and practice. But in reality, the government restricts Christians from serving in politics, education, or the military, and blocks Christians' access to state-controlled media while it subsidizes media that attack Christianity.

Saudi Arabia's government engages in torture, cruel treatment, and discrimination against non-Muslims, according to the U.S. State Department: "Credible reports indicate that the Saudis are funding . . . efforts to propagate globally, including in the United States, a religious ideology that promotes hate, intolerance . . . and violence toward members of other religious groups." The report lists at least 10 other Muslim-dominated Middle Eastern countries where the "religion of peace" promotes religious persecution.

Though Jordan is considered to be among the most moderate Middle Eastern countries, Samer, his wife Abeer, and their son, Bahaa, now 4, were in 2004 forced to flee because of their Christian faith. Over the years Samer, a butcher by trade, had occasionally been questioned by the Mukhabarat, Jordan's intelligence agency, but never arrested.

"The Mukhabarat did not care if we were Muslims or Christians or Buddhists, but they did not want us to preach the gospel to other Muslims in Jordan," he said. "They wanted us to be in secret and not to announce our faith. If you change [religions], you must be at home, and not try to convert anyone else."

The Shariah courts, however, take a harder line, Samer said. "They do not want anyone to change their religion from Muslim to Christianity. The only option they have is to change from Christianity to Islam."

In August 2004, the Mukhabarat appeared at Samer's home again. This time, they arrested him and turned him over to the Islamic courts. Each week for three months he was summoned before a panel of judges to explain himself. The judges demanded to know why he would leave Islam. They hurled down threats at each hearing: The government would annul his marriage, take away his authority to sign documents, commit him to an insane asylum. Worst of all, the court would give his son, Bahaa, to a Jordanian Muslim family to raise. Week after week, accompanied by Abeer and a small group of Christian men, Samer refused to recant his faith.

Finally, the chief judge threw up his hands in frustration. "We don't know what to do with you! You must return to Islam. We may not have the power to order your death, but we know who to tell to make sure it happens. Your blood is on your own hands!"

Samer faced conviction for apostasy and he knew what that meant: In the eyes of his country and his family, he would not be a person who had converted to a different religion. He would be a person with no religion. Jordanian authorities make this a matter of official record, requiring each citizen to declare his religion on his national identity card. There are only two choices: "Islam" or "No Religion." It is the government's way of making clear its position on religious pluralism-there is no such thing-and encouraging populist discrimination.

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