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08 January 2014

Attacks on Christians over Christmas

Attacks on Christians over Christmas

While many Christians in the UK were enjoying the Christmas break, believers in other parts of the world were experiencing persecution and violence. 

Two bomb attacks took place in Baghdad on Christmas Day and on 23 and 24 December Christians in China's Henan Province were beaten and detained.

The bombs exploded in the Dora area of Baghdad, one outside a Catholic church while worshipers were leaving a Christmas service, killing 24 people, and the other at an outdoor market in the mainly Christian al-Athorien district, killing 11.

Commenting in his Christmas Day message on the attacks, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby said: "Christians in that region are massacred and attacked, driven into exile from an area in which their presence has always been central, undoubted, essential, richly contributing and faithful". They also find themselves in the cross-fire of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslim extremists.

According to the BBC, Christians have been targeted across the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, such as an attack by gunmen in 2010 on the Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad which left more than 50 people dead. Members of extremist Muslim groups such as Al-Qaeda see Christians as legitimate targets and believers are persecuted and intimidated by Shia Muslim militias.

In these recent incidents Christian leaders have denied the attacks were targeted specifically at Christians, however, sustained hostility has caused the numbers of Christians in Iraq to halve in recent years due to many of them leaving the country.

The incident in China was reported by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) who said that Christians and lawyers visiting the family of detained Protestant Pastor Zhang Shaoiien were beaten, harassed and detained by 'hired thugs', police and government agencies.

Pastor Zhang and over 20 members of Nanle County Christian Church, Henan, were detained without formal documentation on 16 November 2013. Since Pastor Zhang's detention, lawyers representing the detainees have repeatedly been prevented from meeting their clients and foreign journalists covering the case have also been intimidated and harassed.

It is reported that on 23 December, Pastor Cao Nan of Shenzhen, who had travelled to Nanle in Henan province to conduct a service to pray for and rally support for Pastor Zhang's case, was dragged from his car by local police, who beat him. He was then taken to a police station where he had pepper spray sprayed into his eyes, according to an interview with Radio Free Asia and reports by Chinese Human Rights defenders.

Then on 24 December, lawyers representing the Nanle church detainees, along with some Christians, were prevented from leaving Pastor Zhang Shaojie's home. When one of the lawyers tried to leave the next day, a group of 'hired thugs' surrounded the house and forcibly took away his legal documents, mobile phone and identification papers. Others were physically attacked when they tried to leave.

According to further reports from China Aid, Pastor Zhang's family and the church itself are under constant surveillance, and government agencies have blocked church members and visiting Christians from entering the church building.

In addition, China Aid reported several cases of harassment and restrictions against unregistered churchesin other provinces. 

CSW's chief executive Mervyn Thomas said: "The harassment, intimidation and physical attacks against lawyers and church members in Nanle is a clear violation of their human rights and further undermines the rule of law. Rather than responding swiftly to the lawyers' requests to meet with their clients, local officials have used violence, threats and intimidation to attempt to silence them. We urge the relevant authorities to immediately cease all attacks on the Nanle church members' lawyers, relatives and visiting Christians, to grant lawyers access to their clients, and to allow the church to meet together freely."