Andy Dipper on the persecuted church and the struggle for religious freedom

Andy Dipper is the Chief Executive of Release International, a ministry supporting persecuted Christians worldwide. He speaks to Christian Today about the reality facing Christians in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world where religious freedom remains a dream.

CT: Persecution has grabbed headlines even in the mainstream press recently. Why do you think that is?

Andy: I’m convinced that the issue of religious liberty and human rights is on the agenda more than it’s ever been before, partly because of what we’ve seen in the UK with immigration issues but also with our heavy involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and the massive and obvious human rights abuses being carried out there. Christians have been targeted because they are soft targets. They’re not protected in the same way as others in society and we are pumping so much money into military support for these countries and yet we are seeing these human rights violations against Christians.

CT: Is the government aware of what’s happening in the likes of Iraq and Afghanistan because they don’t seem to have much to say about it?

Andy: It might not be acting upon it but it has to be aware. Organisations like ours have very good contact with the Foreign Office, embassies on the ground, MPs and peers. And we are telling them about it, they’re hearing what we’re saying and there is an interest, particularly among the new wave of MPs post the May election. There is a real hunger for an understanding of what’s happening in places like China, Egypt, Burma and North Korea. These four countries are quite high up on people’s radars.

CT: The US has spoken up about the attacks against Christians in Iraq. Do you think the UK Government should be speaking about these attacks more vocally because there hasn’t been much reaction from them about the situation for Christians in Iraq?

Andy: I don’t think there was a reaction from them. For the UK Government to get involved at least and to be interested - and by that I mean public interest as opposed to only private interest - is paramount. Ok, we’re not losing lives in Iraq militarily anything like we are losing lives in Afghanistan but we have invested and continue to invest significant aid in Iraq and we are complicit therefore in these kinds of attacks by militants on Christians and in the segregation of society.

What we are trying to encourage is a multifunctional, multicultural community that is able to stand on its own feet and embrace all religions and none, and yet also see economic development. I don’t see the British Government really choosing to endorse that line.

CT: What are the options for Christians in Iraq right now?

Andy: The issue with the Iraqi Christians is that they were targeted. When the killings took place in October the attackers intentionally said they were choosing to attack Christians to force them out the country because they are an easy target.

Christians are not protected to anything like the same level as the foreign presence in the country and therefore a way of getting a message very clearly onto the foreign agenda is by attacking Christians and that’s why Christians have been running scared and saying what are we going to do.

In diaspora, like in London the message was ok, maybe Christians should leave Iraq. Then Canon Andrew White in Baghdad said please don’t leave, because what’s that going to say if all Christians leave Iraq?

A third way being discussed right now is a ghetto pulling Christians into a certain area that is predominantly Christian and therefore relatively safe to live in. The danger of ghettos is that they could become a target. It’s easier to get rid of them when they are all in one place.

CT: We’ve seen security stepped up around churches after the October shooting. What kind of provisions are there for Christians on the ground?

Andy: The Iraqi government provides a degree of security in localised areas where they see either high profile targets or a high risk of attack. Then for the time being that particular church has guards around it.

But it’s all a bit of a temporary fix and all it does is move the target elsewhere. And as soon as another target is known of then either protection will come to prevent an attack or an attack will have already taken place and security will come after that attack has already happened. There’s no systematic protection.

I have to give credit to the Iraqi government because they can’t be expected to provide elite security forces all over the place to protect every community. There needs to be a degree of systemic change to allow people of different opinions to co-exist freely in society, so tackling the roots of the arguments that the militants have is more important to stop the attacks in the first place than putting a band aid on the attack once they’ve happened.

CT: How should we go about addressing this though because it is militants who are perpetrating these attacks rather than ordinary Iraqis and these people are difficult to approach and aren’t interested in dialogue? What is the long-term answer?

Andy: The key responsibility lies with the Iraqi government. They need to be the ones who are seeking out dialogue with the militants, not to give them credence or validity but to recognise that the Iraqi government is responsible for the living situation of all its people. The Christians being attacked are a valid and equal part of society and the government needs to take their needs seriously.

The foreign community on the ground really needs to get behind the government in their endeavours to be able to make sure that marginalised groups in society are protected and brought into the mainstream. When we look at attacks on Shiites they need to be protected as much as other minorities.

The groups outside the country shouldn’t ask naïve questions but try and find positive solutions and say, well, let’s get behind the good stuff that’s happening. As churches let’s get on our knees and pray that peace will not only be evident in 2011 but that it will be lasting peace.

It is such a key area in the world to promote Iraqi family values that go beyond religion and religious divides and ethnic divides and sees a strong, peaceful nation at the heart of that part of the world that will have a massive positive impact on Syria, Jordan and further afield.

CT: There is much debate about whether Christians should leave or nor leave. Do you get the impression that Iraqi Christians want to leave?

Andy: I think Iraqi Christians are scared. They’re frightened for their own lives because they see there have been targeted attacks and the militants continue to say they are going to get the Christians. Quite naturally Iraqi Christians want to preserve their lives and care for their families. I am strongly convinced that if at all possible they want to stay there. It’s their country, they belong there, they work within civil society, they have a valid role to play in the nation-building efforts.

It’s like anybody being displaced forcibly. It’s not the ideal choice at all. It might be a lifesaving choice if necessary for a short period of time but it’s only meant to be a temporary thing.

CT: You mention that the militants are specifically targeting Christians. What can we do about that because in their minds Christianity is a western religion and so attacking Christians is synonymous with attacking the west? How can we change that perception?

Andy: Yes, how ironic is that when the origins of Christianity are from that part of the world so to say that Christianity is a western religion is quite farcical really.

In Iraq, there needs to be a way of fostering the fact that Christianity is entirely Iraqi, just as when you go to other parts of the world and the Christianity there is local.

Christianity has a global expression but it also has a local expression and when you look beyond a national worldview you see a biblical worldview. Christianity has a tremendous amount to offer and all aspects of society, whether they come from a particular country or different economic background, it’s all about trying to promote a lifestyle, a way of existence that is truly trying to value the other.

Christianity at its very heart is about that and there are organisations in Iraq promoting that and working quietly behind the scenes. We need to encourage these organisations to keep going.

It would be great if the Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, would say to the world to see Christianity as being local to where you are and not just a foreign export of a certain part of the world.

That’s one of the dilemmas of course. That has always been in the rhetoric of the American Christian right, that Christianity is a western or American way of thinking. That’s a negative influence on what the main thing should be.

CT: So western Christians have to be careful about what they say?

Andy: We have to be very wise because we can very easily fall into the trap of saying that to be Christian is to be American or western.

CT: Looking at the situation in Pakistan right now, one of the big differences between Iraq and Pakistan is that the government in Iraq is not endorsing the persecution whereas in Pakistan you’ve got a constitutionally enshrined blasphemy law and courts and parliamentarians who aren’t very sympathetic to Christians.

Andy: It’s a complex situation there and very different from Iraq because in Pakistan you’ve got a coalition government and members of that coalition who are very extreme in their Islamic ideology and they want an Islamic state. Then there are people who are more moderate and want a more secular state. Trying to find a parting line is very difficult and that’s the nature of coalition.

President Zardari wanted to pardon Asia Bibi [a Christian woman sentenced to death in November for blasphemy] and was then told by the very pro-Islamic elements in parliament that he wasn’t allowed to do that. Asia Bibi remains in prison in a very vulnerable position. She has been convicted and is living if you like on death row.

It has been a long, long time since anyone was given a death sentence and actually executed. Rather what it tends to be is life imprisonment in the pits – and I mean real pits of a prison, the worst possible prisons that exist in Pakistan.

It’s a very inhumane existence for anybody, not least of which a mother-of-five. For her family, her husband and children, they are really terrified for their own lives because their lives are very much on the line and it is this threat of extra-judicial killing which is more serious than whether the court overturns this case or not because people will take the law into their own hands if she’s freed, and if things are out in the open that she’s been acquitted that will be very difficult.

One strategy might be that whilst this is all going a bit quiet a resolution could be found and this could be dealt with, because in that part of the world the shame culture is a very significant part of life. What the Asia case highlights is that there are still people being accused under the 295 B and 295 C laws and even an accusation of blasphemy, whether you are proved guilty or innocent, is like a death warrant. People take the laws into their own hands.

To be accused of blasphemy is very dangerous. A First Information Report is filed and there have been successful acquittals of these court cases by the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement. They’ve done a tremendous job over many years. There are some who don’t get cleared. But whether you get cleared or not you really are in a very vulnerable position and your family is in a very vulnerable position. There are people who want to kill them and you never hear about them again. There are many people who don’t even reach the media - the media in Pakistan, never mind the international media.

CT: What can be done about the situation?

Andy: The main thing to do is a constitutional review that looks at the laws to protect minorities that were put in place in 1947 when partition happened. These were designed to protect all minorities – Hindus and Christians, and in India to protect Muslims and Christians. They have sadly been contorted over these last 60 years so that they are now used against minorities and that is why these laws now need to be updated in order to protect minorities and give them the benefit of the doubt.

It can’t be that someone disgruntled, who maybe lost their house to someone else, can allege that someone has spoken badly against the prophet. Can you imagine a case against someone who spoke badly about Jesus?! To be able to say in Pakistan that I don’t agree with the mainstream view that should be allowed. That might be a dream world I’m sitting in here but it would be great to get to that point eventually where people are allowed to express opinions without fear of being dragged into courts and prison.

CT: There seems to be strong support for Asia Bibi’s execution or is that too much of a generalisation?

Andy: It’s hard to define. There are elements of society that are very sympathetic to Asia’s case and there are also those who are sympathetic to the protagonists who say she should be killed. There are large numbers of people who buy into the mujahedeen way of thinking that we’ve got to fight for our rights to be Muslims and there is an aggressive energy in a lot of Pakistanis, especially in Balujistan. But you’ve got large proportions of the country that would be neutral or mildly against it i.e. they would like her to be freed or stay in prison but not be executed and they just wouldn’t express it because they don’t have the voice.

Asia Bibi is just a regular woman with her own opinions. She’s not a dangerous person in society who is going to commit a heinous crime. Why should she be a scapegoat to this group of very bad people? It is a bully tactic of the hardliners because they want to crush all other voices.

CT: Presumably you want her to be freed?

Andy: I would like her to be freed and protected and if that has to mean getting her out of the country because she is such a high profile case then so be it. But ideally she should be freed and protected and allowed to live her life to the full in her own country because Pakistan is her country.

I would like it if the President were allowed to pardon her and set the precedent that the death penalty is unfair and that it is unreasonable and inhumane to give it to people who allegedly spoke their mind and spoke against the prophet. I don’t think anyone should be treated in that way because people should be allowed to express their opinions.

CT: You were recently in Afghanistan. Can you share something of what you were doing there and what you saw?

Andy: Yes I was there because of the case of Said Musa. He is in prison and although the court hasn’t sat to bring charges yet, the allegation is apostasy. There was a television broadcast in May with video footage of Christians being baptised and he was identified on the programme and put in prison. He is still under arrest without trial. He has been moved to a new prison where conditions are fairly good but he said that before that he had been sexually violated and appallingly tortured in prison.

The reason I was there with a collection of interested parties was to see what we could do to help him and to get the appropriate message out. This is a really awkward case for the Afghan government because within the Afghan constitutional law there is no provision for dealing with apostates. It’s only under Sharia that the death penalty is doled out.

If the courts acquit him you could have extra judicial killings and if the courts convict him, then under what article of law because that’s not part of the Afghan constitution. Then the government could be accused of human rights violations because what crime did he actually commit? Is it right for a government that has received millions of dollars of aid and the military support of foreign nations to allow that to happen and endorse it? He is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

But the government needs to be held to account and treat its people fairly under international law and the international obligations it has signed up to. If he is in prison he should at least be charged with whatever crime he is in prison for or he should be released. You can’t hold someone in prison for six months without charge. But this case is particularly worrying because whatever happens will have ramifications for other Christians in Afghanistan.

CT: The reality facing persecuted Christians is that they are facing trial purely for their faith.

Andy: Yes, they are not on trial because they have committed a crime. They are on trial for their faith. Whether you look at Burma, North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan or wherever it might be. That’s the issue. People want to keep their national identity and also say that they are Christian and what is so bad about that?

CT: We know of the countries that are of serious concern like Pakistan, Afghanistan and North Korea. Is there a country that we might be surprised about if we heard that Christians were being persecuted there?

Andy: Well, Egypt is a good one to mention because it is a place where a lot of people like to go for their holidays and take a cruise up the Nile. But what they don’t realise is that Christians and especially Coptic Christians are heavily persecuted in Egypt and a relatively moderate government is not protecting the rights of all its citizens and they are allowing this persecution to take place.

CT: It’s easy to have this perception that if Christians are being persecuted it must be a really mean government that’s behind it.

Andy: Yes and it’s not at all. You’ve got three kinds of persecution. There are places where it is state-sponsored, like in Eritrea and North Korea, where they are trying to eradicate any Christianity. Then you’ve got indifferent governments that just want a quiet life and Egypt would fall into that category.

In places like this, you can have persecution at the community level where local people will listen to what their local leaders says and then do whatever their local leaders say. That’s why there are a lot of problems in northern Nigeria.

Then there is the third kind of persecution which could even include places like Britain and Europe, where legislation is clearly in place to treat people fairly but the fairness is taken to the extreme of political correctness and there are things like honour killings and converts living in Bradford or Leeds who face enormous pressure from their families and they might not be killed but their lives are made miserable.

CT: And that persecution might be more hidden?

Andy: Yes, very much so. There has been a real rise in the UK of people needing help who have converted from Islam to Christianity. There is a great need for people and the churches to reach out and look after these people. There is a huge need for that and I would say it is growing.

CT: Looking at the global picture, is it possible to say whether persecution has got better or worse?

Andy: Our understanding of the different intricacies of each country is increasing and we understand more about where persecution is taking place. I don’t think overall it’s rising but that’s because it’s hard to identify any starting point.

In some ways it feels like it’s getting worse but that’s more because our minds are opening up more to the realities of the world around us. It’s an area that people are interested in and the church has an opportunity to educate the whole of society from our prime minister right down to communities to say this is the reality and where there is unfairness and injustice these need to be addressed.

CT: When you engage with persecuted Christians do they feel the solidarity of Christians living in countries that enjoy religious freedom?

Andy: I met one Indonesian man in Java. He opened the car door and grabbed me and I thought ‘what is going to happen?’, yet he had his arms around my neck and he was crying down my cheeks and said ‘thank you so much for being my brother’. He knew for a fact that Christians around the world were praying for him, writing to him, supporting him and trying to provide legal aid for him, and being family with him while he was going through enormous difficulties in prison and also when he got out and was trying to rebuild his life. He absolutely knew that.

An Eritrean lady, Helen Berhane, received thousands of letters to her in prison and one of the prison guards said to her ‘are you Princess Diana or something?’ because there were so many people writing to her.

For a few people they absolutely know that they are part of a big global family and are loved and supported. Sadly there are still so many more who never get to know that. They’ve fallen through the cracks or word hasn’t got out about their situation. Many people today will be stuck in prisons or treated appallingly by their families and they don’t know that they are being prayed for.

Whenever you meet people like this and tell them of the support that’s going on there are so many tears but we can always do more. The exciting thing is that when the pressure’s on and people are persecuted for their faith, 99 out of a 100 people are not in a pool of despondency, like ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’ and ‘I just want to get out of this situation’! They say ‘pray with me in this situation, equip me to survive and indeed thrive in this situation, let me be myself, let me be church within this context and within my community’.

I was speaking to a group of young Burmese people and I asked them how they felt about what the Bible says about being persecuted for our faith in Jesus and living a godly life, because going out as an evangelist in the communities of Burma you might face prison or be killed. There was a bit of a pause in the meeting and someone put their hand up and said ‘sorry is there another way? Because isn’t that what the Bible says, that we will put our lives on the line for Jesus.’

Where does it say in the Bible that we will live a comfortable life and everything will be fine? There is a hard reality that comes. You are either hot or cold when you are in the midst of persecution, you’re not lukewarm, and that’s the challenge for all of us in the free world.

Let’s not be hoodwinked into thinking we should live a comfortable life and that everything’s ok and the pressure is something to avoid at all costs. Because sometimes when the pressure is on it forces you to decide whether you are for God or against God.

There was one North Korean Christian who escaped into China and said he had been out of North Korea for a few months and eaten good food. Now he wants to go back to North Korea so he can carry on his work and tell people about Jesus, and I think wow, would I be like that if I were in his situation?

Christians in North Korea, in China, in Pakistan still want to share the Gospel in spite of everything. What an amazing message of hope they have for us today. It’s far from hopeless and depressing. It’s actually hopeful.

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