Human Rights and the Persecution of Christians in Islam

by Dr. Christine Schirrmacher

Copyright © 1997 Christine Schirrmacher

When Christians are persecuted for their faith in Moslem countries, or when Moslems converted to Christianity are threatened with the death penalty, the Western press accuses the State of human rights violations. At the same time, most Islamic states have ratified declarations such as the United Nations l948 General Declaration of Human Rights.[1] How can they justify this contradiction?

In the last decades, various Islamic organisations have themselves formulated declarations of human rights. They have one basic difference to those of Western statements, however, in that they give priority to the Koran and to the Sharîa (Islamic law). Therefore, human rights can only be guaranteed in these countries under the conditions imposed by these two authorities and their regulations. Article 24 of the l990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights, for example, states that "All rights and freedoms mentioned in this statement are subject to the Islamic Sharîa", and Article 25 adds, "The Islamic Sharîa is the only source for the interpretation or explanation of each individual article of this statement". This emphasizes the "historic role of the Islamic Umma[2], which was created by God as the best nation, which has brought humanity a univeral and well-balanced civilisation, in which harmony between life here on earth and the hereafter exists, and in which knowledge accompanies faith."[3]

What is the signficance of the priority of the Koran and the Sharîa? It means, that in the Islamic states, human rights only exist within the limits of the religious values of Islamic revelation. They are guaranteed, however, within the framework determined by the Koran and Islamic law. The secularized Westerner, molded by the Enlightenment and accustomed to separation of Church and State, has difficulties understanding that a country's political and social goals are determined by the standards of religion.

Civil Rights for Moslems and Non-Moslems

From the very beginning, Islam knew no separation of religion and state, or of politics and religion, while, in the Old Testament, a certain division of authority between the king and the high priest did exist. In Islam, Mohammed had unified both aspects in his own person, being simultaneously religious and political leader of the first Islamic community. His immediate successors, the Caliphs, also carried out both offices.

In the Islamic states, Islam is the state religion, to which all citizens are assumed to belong, and which is considered to be the "stabilizing principle. The State is bearer of a religous idea and is, therefore, itself a religious institution. It is responsible for the worship of God, for religious training and for the spreading of the faith."[4] For this reason, the law must distinguish between the civil rights of Moslems, who, proving their loyalty to the state by their adherence to its religion, can fully enjoy legal protection, and the rights of non-Moslems, whose 'unbelief' makes them traitors who can not therefore automatically expect the state's protection. In these countries, Moslems always have more rights than non-Moslems. A non-Moslem can usually not inherit from a Moslem, for example.

To be a Moslem means to be a citizen imbued with all legal rights, whereas to become an unbeliever is to commit high treason, for Islam is an "essential element of the basic order of the State."[5] When a Moslem repudiates his faith, he rebels against that order and endangers the security and the "stability of the society to which he belongs."[6] Martin Forstner concludes, "Only he who believes in God and the divinely revealed Koran, and who obeys the Sharîa, is able to become a competent citizen, whereas the ungodly are enemies of society. The repeated duty to confess the faith-by fulfilling the five daily prayers, by fasting during Ramadan. . . is the medium by which the citizen's morale is conveyed, so that the Islamic State links full civil rights to the confession of the true faith."[7]

Because of this 'watchman' funcion of the State over its citizens' religion, human rights can not be given priority over Islamic law when a Moslem gives up his faith, in spite of human rights declarations. When a Moslem commits high treason-according to the Moslem' point of view-religious law must be obeyed, and that requires the punishment of the renegade. On the other hand, a non-Moslem can only enjoy those rights given him by the Koran and the Sharîa.

To what extent does the non-Moslem have rights under an Islamic state?

Although many Islamic countries include freedom of religion in their constitutions, non-Moslems almost always have great difficulties in exercising their faith. Moslems who have become Christians may even lose their lives. How can Islamic countries claim to guarantee freedom of religion?

In spite of the fact that freedom of religion is part of the law in most Islamic countries, their constitutions declare Islam to be the state religion. A few other faiths, such as Judaism and Christianity, are allowed a certain right to exist, so that their members are not required to convert to Islam, even if they live in an predominantly Islamic area, but they are never equal to Moslems before the law. They remain 'second-class citizens' with reduced legal rights and are subject to the Islamic State, which defines the limits of their religious freedoms very strictly (which includes the building of churches or matters of dress, for example.) In most cases the Jewish or Christian faith must be lived quietly, for "a Moslem citizen can not be expected to endure and continually resist the missionary activity of other religions."[8] Non-Moslem faiths are only tolerated and supervised, They may exist only under the conditions imposed by the law, otherwise not at all.

It is forbidden for non-Moslems to insult or disparage Islam, the Koran or the prophet Mohammed, which automatically occurs in Christian evangelisation, according to Moslem opinion. Moroccan law, for example, requires a prison sentence of six months to three years, as well as a fine of 200 to 500 dirham, for proselytizing a Moslem to another religion.[9] Repudiation of Islam is still considered to be a crime worthy of death, whereas the Moslem has the right to proselytize others.


Islamic human rights declarations of all kinds continually insist on the authority of the Islamic faith, and can therefore only guarantee civil rights which respect Islam and its principles. This automatically restricts the rights of non-Moslems, so that under Islamic law, only the Moslem can enjoy all rights, for only he is considered to be a loyal citizen. Non-Moslems have reduced rights, but are allowed to exist. The Moslem who repudiates his faith loses all his rights, for he is considered a traitor to his country and to the State and may be subject to the death sentence either under the legal system or by his neighbors. This is emphasised in the "Draft for an Islamic Declaration of Human Rights", which was composed by the Islamic Conference in Jidda in l979. This statement forbids the Moslem to ever change his faith. Not to condemn the renegade to death would be an offence against the Sharîa, and can thus not be guaranteed, not even within the framework of a human rights declaration.

[1] Saudi Arabia is an exception, as it did not ratify the Declaration.

[2] 'Umma' (Arabic) is the community, the congregation. It indicates the universal fellowship of all Moslems.

[3] The Cairo Declaration of Human Rights was published, for example in: Gewissen und Freiheit, Nr. 36, (l991),, pp. 93-98. See also: Osman El Hajje. "Die islamischen Länder und die internationalen Menschenrechtsdokomente," Gewissen und Freiheit, 36, (1991), pp. 74-79, and the critical analysis by Martin Forstner. "Das Menschenrecht der Reiligionsfreiheit und des Religionwechsels als Problem der islamischen Staaten", Kanon, Kirche und Staat im christlichen Osten. Jahrbuch der Gesellschaft für das Recht der Ostkirchen, (Wien, l991), pp. 105-186. See also the publication of the "General Islamic Human Rights Declaration" of the Islamic Council for Europe in Paris, September 19, l981 in Cibedo, (Documentation ) Nr. 15/16, (Frankfurt, l982)

[4] O. Spiess and E. Pritsch. "Klassisches Islamisches Recht. 1. Wesen des Islamischen Rechts." Handbuch der Orientalistik, E. J. Brill, (Leiden, l964), p. 220.

[5] Forstner. op. cit., p. 116

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., pp, 116 & 138.

[8] Ibid., p. 114.

[9] Ibid.

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