Gillian Gibbons ran into trouble when she allowed her students to name a teddy bear after the Prophet Mohammed, reported the Independent newspaper on Nov. 27.
Gibbons taught at Unity High School, located in Sudan's capital of Khartoum. According to the school's director, Robert Boulos, the incident was "a completely innocent mistake," reported the Independent. It came during a class exercise in which Gibbons asked her primary school students to name a stuffed toy. The students themselves chose the name of Mohammed.
After her arrest Gibbons was charged on counts of insulting religion, and sentenced to 15 days in jail, reported the BBC on Nov. 29. Subsequently, crowds in the capital gathered to call for even tougher punishment. After a few days Gibbons was allowed to leave Sudan and return to Britain, reported the BBC on Dec. 3.
Persecution of Christians is receiving more attention in the media in past months. On May 27 the Sunday Times published a lengthy article on the theme. One of those quoted in the report, Eddie Lyle, head of the British arm of Open Doors, a charity that works with afflicted churches and individuals, said that he estimated around 200 million Christians in more than 60 countries face brutal retribution because of their faith.
Christians run into problems in many countries, not just those under Islamic law. Hindu extremists in India continue to create problems for Christians and totalitarian regimes such as North Korea also actively persecute believers.
Kidnappings and Killings
Nevertheless, it is Islamic countries that are often in the headlines for the restrictions placed on Christians. Several months ago Afghanistan was the scene of a kidnapping of a group of Christian volunteers from South Korea, the Times reported Aug. 1.
Two of the volunteers, one of them a Christian pastor, were killed by the kidnappers. The group was affiliated with the Saemmul Church, located in Seoul.
The group was released after being held hostage for 6 weeks, the Washington Post reported Sept. 2. The article explained that the experience did, however, prompt the mainstream Protestant Churches in South Korea to refrain from any further missionary activities in Afghanistan.
According to a BBC reported dated Sept. 12, the hostages were threatened with death in an attempt to make them convert to Islam.
Those who wish to convert to Christianity also face serious dangers. The Anglican bishop of Rochester in England, Michael Nazir-Ali, spoke out on the persecution of Christian converts during a BBC television program, reported the British newspaper the Observer on Sept. 16.
The Anglican prelate is originally from Pakistan and his father was a convert from Islam to Christianity.
"It is very common in the world today, including in this country, for people who have changed their faith, particularly from being Muslim to being Christian, to be ostracized, to lose their job, for their marriages to be dissolved, for children to be taken away," he said.
On June 3 Bishop Ali wrote an opinion article for the British newspaper the Telegraph in which he spoke of the difficulties faced by Christians in Pakistan. Numerous Christians, he said, have been victimized by country's blasphemy law, which has been widely used to silence opposition, prevent free speech and to settle scores.
In recent days a report published Dec. 5 on the Times newspaper Web site revealed that a British imam's daughter who converted to Christianity 15 years ago is still living under the threat of violent reprisals.
The woman, who uses the pseudonym of Hannah, has moved 45 times to escape detection by her family since she became a Christian. She accepted police protection last month after she received new threats. Hannah left home at 16 to escape an arranged marriage.
Her experience is far from being an isolated case. In Egypt, Mohammed Hegazy was forced to go into hiding following his conversion to Christianity, reported the Associated Press on Aug. 11.
According to the article, an Islamist cleric vowed Hegazy's execution as an apostate, and he also received death threats over the phone before seeking refuge. His case became a public issue after Hegazy took court action to officially change his religion on his national ID card, which according to the Associated Press is probably the first time this has been done by a Muslim-born convert.
In general, Christians in the Middle East face many problems. One of the most dangerous places for them at the moment is Iraq. The Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad, Emmanuel III Delly, was recently made a cardinal by Benedict XVI.
The patriarch was interviewed by the Associated Press in an article published Oct. 30. He lamented the continual bombings and assassinations. According to the report the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has promised to give greater protection to the country's Christian community.
Call for Moderation
The actions by groups of Islamic extremists have provoked some calls for greater action by more moderate elements within the community. A Dec. 2 opinion article published in the British newspaper the Observer by Ed Husain called for Muslims to speak out against the violent Islamic radicals
Husain is the pen-name of Mohammed Mahbub Hussain, who authored the book "The Islamist" on his conversion from Islamic extremism. "We must have the courage to stand and reclaim our faith," he said in the newspaper article.
Husain also argued that Islam is not a monolithic entity and that within it are elements that can lead to a type of Muslim renaissance. Nevertheless, he noted that many are afraid to speak out because of the fear of violent action by extreme groups.
An article published the same day, by Shiraz Maher in the pages of the Sunday Times, also reflected on the problem of Islam following the teddy bear crisis. We are in the midst of a battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims, a battle which has to be fought by Muslims themselves, he argued.
Maher appealed against the tendency to demonize Islam, but also acknowledged the need for more Muslims, especially the young, to speak out against the radical Islamists.
Respecting Human Rights
Tawfik Hamid, a former member of an Islamist terrorist group, also called for a reform of Islam, in order to ensure it respects human rights. His call came in an article published May 25 in the Wall Street Journal. He called for changes in doctrine, such as outlawing the killing of converts who leave Islam, and better treatment for women.
"We Muslims should publicly show our strong disapproval for the growing number of attacks by Muslims against other faiths and against other Muslims," said Hamid.
Benedict XVI has also spoken out on the need to ensure greater religious freedom in Islamic countries. It is essential, he told the new ambassador to the Holy See from Pakistan on June 1, "to safeguard citizens who belong to religious minorities from acts of violence."
"Such protection not only accords with human dignity but also contributes to the common good," the Pontiff explained. He also reminded the ambassador of the important role played by the Catholic Church in Pakistan in the area of education, health care and charitable services.
In words directed to the Indonesian ambassador to the Holy See on Nov. 12 the Pope rejected the use of violence in the name of religion and called for greater dialogue and collaboration in the service of peace. A peace not easy to achieve given the circumstances in many countries today.