Christian Women in the Muslim World
Aid to the Church in Need-Italy
It is hard to predict what will be of Christian women living in the Muslim world. Their fate is linked to the future of both the Christian minority and the status of women therein. Improving education for the whole population can have a crucial role, since in many of those countries state schools contribute greatly to enhance discrimination against religious minority groups. Moreover, new laws which penalize discrimination based on religion and Constitution’s amendments can be very important to halt Christian predicament in many Muslim countries, including that of Christian women.
There are few studies aimed at detailing the condition of Christian women living in Muslim-majority countries. This is mainly due to the lack of statistical information regarding this specific group. In order to understand what it is like to be a Christian woman living in a Muslim-majority country, we must take into account both the overall women's condition and the Christian minority situation therein.
Christian women twice vulnerable
A general look at the trappings of women’s life in Muslim countries reveals a widespread gender inequality. According to the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, published by the World Economic Forum, 19 of the bottom 25 countries spot Muslim-majority populations, and 16 out of 19 of those have a minimum Muslim population of 80%. Impressive stats, especially considering how important Muslim-majority countries such as Somalia, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Tunisia were excluded from the study due to a lack of available data.
Even though Muslim-majority countries vary greatly in terms of culture, history and economic conditions, we can identity several shared patterns with regard to women’s life. Among those patterns: a profound absence of gender equality; honor-based family “protection” of women based mistrust regarding their sexuality; widespread domestic violence, rape and murder. In many regions of the Islamic world, female genital mutilation is also prevalently practiced and so are kidnappings and forced marriages of young women, including prepubescent girls.
Inside the Muslim world several legal systems are implemented. Some countries’ legal system is based solely on Sharia law – i.e. Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia - while other ones – i.e. Egypt, Algeria and Morocco - have a secular legal system, even though Sharia law applies in personal status issues (such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody). This entails that in many countries cases relating to personal status, a woman’s testimony is worth half of a man’s before a court. Although many of the verses in the Quran that discuss witnessing do not make any reference to gender, one specific verse (2:282) describes financial transactions and states that two female witnesses are equal to one male witness. Some scholars oversimplify this passage and apply patriarchal interpretation that directly harms women. Case in point: some early jurists exploit verse 2:282, which refers only to testimony in matters of finance, to exclude women from being witnesses in all other areas, including adultery.
Gender-based violence also remains a significant problem and in several countries law declares that the husband is the head of the family, gives the husband power over his wife’s right to work, and in some instances specifically requires the wife to obey her husband. In Iran, article 1117 of the Civil Code states that the husband may ban his wife from any technical profession that conflicts with family life or her character.
Another plight often beleaguering Islamic nations is child marriage. In several Muslim States the legal minimum age of marriage for girls is lower than for boys and in Saudi Arabia doesn’t even exist.
Women often don’t have equal nationality and citizenship rights. In many countries - including the Islamic Republic of Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates – they cannot pass on citizenship to their children or non-national spouses in the same way as men. These discriminatory citizenship laws prevent women from accessing welfare and educational benefits for their children, alter the inheritance rights of their families, and limit employment opportunities for their husbands.
In some Muslim countries there are also laws that require women to adhere to a specific dress code, mostly to wear a hijab: a headscarf. In Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan the dress code is mandatory and violations can lead to violence and/or legal prosecution.
What we said about gender gap and women discrimination in Muslim countries, obviously regards every woman living in such societies. But a woman belonging to a religious minority group, as Christian women in Islamic countries, has to make with an inequality twice as large.
Christians living in Muslim-majority countries are often discriminated against, mostly because they are considered second-class citizens. In many of those communities citizenship is not as strong a concept as the traditional Islamic tripartite division that divides humanity in three categories: Umma, the collective community of Islamic peoples; in dhimmis (protected), Jews and Christians; and in misbelievers, people belonging to polytheistic religions.
In the Greater Middle East lie most of the countries where life for Christians is the most difficult. Christians continue to flee the Middle East, where in addition to economic disadvantage and cultural changes, the mass migration of Christians is also directly linked to individual acts, such as bombings of churches, physical attacks on Christians’ homes and shops, kidnappings (especially of women), as well as derogatory public statements made by regular politicians and militant groups specifically aimed at Christians. The spread of radical Islam also affects many parts of Africa. The most significant case of all being Nigeria, where the militant group Boko Haram declared what they described as “a war on Christians” . In this brief overview, Pakistan is not to be forgotten. Here the most effective tool employed to persecute Christians are the Blasphemy Laws which affect the entire Christian community. The most famous victim of the so called “black law” has been a woman, Asia Bibi, sentenced to death in 2010 on a false charge of blasphemy.
As Minority Rights Group International stated in its 2011 State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples report, minority women are subjected to intersectional discrimination because of both their sex and their minority status. And this is why minority and indigenous status are recognized by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (UN Women) as compounding factors in cases of violence against women.
Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, recently presented a research estimating that one in five Christians, 500 million people, currently live in countries where Christians are likely to be persecuted, and that Muslim-majority countries’ persecution of Christians makes up only 25% of all such oppression. Considering that the total amount of Christians in Muslim-majority states in 2010 was roughly 121 million, we can assume that there are at least 60 million Christian women facing several impediments in these countries.
The reasons behind discrimination and violence against Christian women are many. Among them: religious hatred; the yearning to conquest humiliate, intimidate and dishonor “infidels” and their community; and the intention to lure Christian women away from their faith.
Several times harassment and sexual abuses are also triggered or fueled by fanatic Islamic leaders’ speeches that incite and/or condone violence against infidels. On October 28 2011, the jihadi forum Minbar Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad published a fatwa, an Islamic religious verdict, by Sheikh Abu Humam Al-Athari, allowing mujahedeen to abduct the infidels' women - whether they are from AhlAl-Kitab [“People of the Book” as Christians and Jews are called in the Quran] or pagans - and have sexual intercourse with them, even with those who are married, on the claim that their marriage bonds to infidels are dissolved as soon as they are taken captive. Unfortunately this is not an isolated case. During a 2011 TV interview, Egyptian Sheikh Ishaq Huwaini said that Islam justifies plundering, enslaving, and raping the infidel. He said that after Muslims invade and conquer a non-Muslim nation, the “spoils of war,” such as infidel women, are to be distributed among the jihadists and taken to “the slave market, where slave-girls and concubines are sold.” “In other words,” Huwaini concluded, “when I want a sex-slave, I go to the market and pick whichever female I desire and buy her.” Recently another fatwa was issued by a Salafi Sheikh, Yasir al-‘Ajlawni, allowing the Muslims fighting to topple secular president Bashar Assad to “capture and have sex with” all non-Sunni women. This verdict would justify what has happened shortly after to Mariam, a 15-year-old Christian from Qusair, a Syrian town seized by jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra. The commander of the Jabhat al-Nusra battalion took Mariam, married and raped her and then repudiated her. The next day the young woman was forced to marry another extremist, who also raped her and then repudiated her. The same trend was repeated by 15 different men in 15 days. Mariam became mentally unstable and was eventually killed. A few months earlier, Saudi preacher Muhammad al-Arifi also issued a fatwa allowing jihadi fighters to engage in “intercourse marriage” with captive Syrian women that lasts for a few hours “in order to give each fighter a turn”. In other words this verdict allowed gang-rapes.
There are also fanatic Islamic leaders’ statements related to dress code which directly affect Christian women in Muslim countries. An Egyptian Muslim preacher Hisham el-Ashry recently appeared on primetime television to say women must cover up. "I was once asked: If I came to power, would I let Christian women remain unveiled? And I said: If they want to get raped on the streets, then they can," Ashry told Nahar TV in January 2013.
The “indecent” dress
This last case introduces us to another cause behind violence against Christian women. Even though wearing specific garments - such hijab, niqab or abaya – or follow dress rules it’s not compulsory in most of the Muslim countries, in several cases non-Muslim women are insulted, assaulted, abused or even killed for being dressed in a “provocative way”. Women without a veil are also identified as Christians and they can also be harassed for that. This is the reason why several Christian women decided to cover their heads. In Iraq a lot of Christian women started to wear a headscarf to feel safer on the streets right after the US intervention in 2003. Following Mubarak’s regime fall in early 2011, many Egyptian women also decided to cover up complaining an increased lack of safeness in the country.
In some countries even non-Muslim women are forced to wear headscarves and other garments. Article 102 of Iran’s Constitution indicates: "Women who appear on streets and in public without the prescribed ‘Hejab’ will be condemned to 74 strokes of the lash.” In Saudi Arabia women not wearing an abaya (a black garment covering the entire body) and covering their faces and hair are often harassed by the Mutawwa'in (religious police) and can suffer corporal punishment. In Sudan article 152 Criminal Act of 1991 stipulates that: “Whoever commits, in a public place, an act, or conducts himself in an indecent manner […]or wears an indecent, or immoral dress, […] shall be punished, with whipping, not exceeding forty lashes, or with fine, or with both. Often the police use this article as a retaliation instrument. Each year hundreds of women and girls are lashed for “indecent or immoral dress”, and many of them are Christians. In November 2009, 16-year-old Sudanese Christian girl, Silva Kashif, has been lashed 50 times for wearing what a judge considered an "indecent" knee-length skirt in a South Khartoum neighborhood. Latest reports coming from Syria also show that in territories controlled by jihadists groups, as the Orontes valley, Christian women are forced to cover their heads.
Rapes and abductions. Violence against women as a tool for Islamization
If worldwide sexual violence, and rape in particular, is the most under-reported violent crime, this rings true especially in Muslim-majority countries. Women who have been raped are afraid of being disowned by their families, or subjected to violence, including honor killings, and in countries where extramarital and/or premarital sex are punished by law, victims of rape can face prosecution if there isn't sufficient evidence to prove a rape before the court. Classical Islamic law defines “rape” as a coercive form of fornication or adultery (zināʾ).This basic definition of rape as “coercive adultery” (Zina Bil-Jabr) means that all the normal legal principles that pertain to zināʾ– its definition, punishment, and establishment through evidence – are applicable to rape as well. Therefore for a rape to be proved the confession of the culprit or the testimony of four male witnesses are needed. Many victims decide to remain in silence also because they are afraid of being accused of adultery - proved by her own complaint – and face arrest, flogging or even stoning to death: a penal measure still employed in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and in the 12 Muslim-majority states of northern Nigeria. If many victims belonging to the majority religious group decide to remain silent, the number is even higher among religious minority women who usually have a lower status in Muslim societies. This makes them a soft target since rapists believe they won’t be persecuted. In Pakistan many peasant workers suffer sexual abuses from their employers and the same applies to housemaids, many of whom are Christian and Hindu. The violence can also cause the victim’s death, as it happened to Shazia Masih, a 12-year-old Christian maid, who died after been raped and tortured by her employer. Under the Offence of Zina Ordinances, which criminalize extramarital sex, rape victims risk being charged with adultery, for which death by stoning remains a possible sentence. In 2003 the National Commission on the Status of Women in Pakistan reported that as many as 88% of the women in prison, many of them reported rape victims, were serving time for allegedly violating these decrees. The Hudood laws apply to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In 2012 the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a human rights body set up by the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference in 1985, published a report, “Life on the Margins”, based on interviews to more than 1000 Hindu and Christian women (76% of whom work on a regular basis). 30% of the respondents claimed to have been sexually harassed at the workplace; while 27% answered “no” and 43% preferred not to answer. The rapists often force the victims – mostly those who are Christian - to stay silent by threating to accuse them of blasphemy, a charge that could entails a death sentence.
Another worrying phenomenon is the abduction of women belonging to religious minorities to convert them to Islam through a Muslim marriage, most of the times to their attacker. In 2011 several Catholic NGOs estimated that at least 700 Christian girls were kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam every year and the Human Rights Council of Pakistan has reported that those crimes are on the rise, so much so that many organizations believe the number to have doubled. One of the most recent cases was the abduction of Saba Waris, a 13-year-old Christian girl from Jameelabad forced to marry Syed Munawar Hussain, a Muslim of 32 years of age. She was kidnapped from her home in June 2013 and two days later she called her mother to tell her she had been kidnapped by Hussain who was forcing her to convert to Islam. In 2011 another Christian girl, named Mariah Manisha, pay with her life for defying enforced conversion and Islamic marriage. The 18-year old girl was murdered by the gunshots of the rejected assailant on November 27 and the Christian media called her the “Martyr Maria Goretti of Pakistan”, comparing her to that Italian saint who died at age 12 in 1902 after an attempted rape by a neighbor .
Unfortunately Pakistan is not the only Muslim-majority country where Christian girls are abducted to be converted to Islam. In Northern Nigeria kidnappings of Christian girls are worryingly increasing. Professor Daniel Babayi, secretary of the Northern Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), reported that those girls, mostly below the age of 18, are abducted and then kept in the houses of emirs or imams. The kidnappers belong to the Boko Haram Islamist sect, whose spokespersons made public the very intention to kidnap Christian women as part of “new efforts to strike fear into the Christians of the power of Islam” and forcing them to leave the North.
Egypt, which according to a recent poll is the worst country for women in the Arab world, is another country of particular concern. The violent abuse of Coptic women and girls in connection with forced marriage is not new - cases occurring during Sadat’s presidency can be easily found - but after Mubarak’s fall there has been an incredible increase. According to the Association for the Victims of Abductions and Enforced Disappearances (AVAED), at least 550 Coptic girls, ranging between 14 and 40 years, disappeared since the beginning of the 2011 revolution. AVAED’s founder, Ebram Louis, claimed that while before the revolution the monthly average of Coptic girls disappearing was 4 or 5, after then is at least 15. According to a report commissioned by Christian Solidarity International Coptic women are vulnerable because: they are members of a religious minority; they come from closed, insular communities; their minority status is the basis for legal and social discrimination. Moreover, all the people interviewed for the report - attorneys, social workers and members of the clergy - attested that disappearances of missing Coptic women are organized and planned.
According to AVAED when families go to the police to report that their daughters’ are missing they often find resistance. In many cases police refuses to search for or give any information on the missing girls, telling their families that their daughters left on their will. Sometimes girls are found, only to be taken to the police station with their new Muslim family and without allowing their parents to talk to them, because the abducted girls now claim – allegedly under threat – to have freely decided to convert to Islam. In October 2011 a 14-year-old Christian girl named Nadia, disappeared from her house in one of Cairo’s slums. Nadia’s family accused 48-year-old Ahmed Hammad Ibrahim of kidnapping, they filed an official report at the police station, the public prosecutors started an investigation on the matter and then issued a warrant for the arrest of the man. Only in February 2012 Nadia’s parents knew that their daughter have been forcedly converted to Islam, married Ahmed and was now about to give birth to a baby. In November 2012, even though Nadia was only 15 and Egyptian law forbids girls to marry or convert until they are 18, the investigation authority decided to close the case file after Ahmed’s lawyer provided them with a customary marriage certificate for his client and his minor wife.
Future perspectives: a bet on education
It is hard to predict what will be of Christian women living in the Muslim world. Their fate is linked to the future of both the Christian minority and the status of women in those countries. Furthermore, even though we just sketched an overall picture, their situation is hardly the same in every Muslim-majority country, and thus perspectives and possibilities are different for each case. In Egypt, for instance, to verify Christian women’s actual will to convert and prevent forced conversions, several studies recommend the Egyptian Government to reinstate counseling sessions, which were mandatory until 2004 for those contemplating conversion to Islam, so that they will have the chance to speak with both a member of the clergy from their original faith and a Muslim cleric.
Nonetheless we can single out some general key-factors. Education is undoubtedly one of them, and efforts are needed to guarantee a larger access to education for girls - widely seen as a tool for overcoming women’s poverty and for improving health - and also to increase access to secondary education. This is especially important for girls who belong to a minority group and often to lower classes. In Pakistan – likewise in other Muslim states - the majority of Christian girls are living in rural areas where nearly half of females have never been to school. Moreover to give them better future opportunities, education bestows on Christian girls and women greater self-awareness, self-reliance and dignity. Unfortunately in many countries girls from religious minority groups often have less access to education – due to multiple disadvantages: such as discrimination, poverty, cultural attitudes and social norms - and experience more marginalization and even abuse at school. Among the reasons for dropping out of school are early marriages and to fight such a plight raising the legal age to marriage could prove very helpful.
Improving education for the whole population can have a crucial role, since in many of those countries state schools contribute greatly to enhance discrimination against religious minority groups. In 2011 a study commissioned by USCIRF found that an alarming number of Pakistan’s public schools and privately-run madrassas teach their pupils to despise religious minority groups, especially Hindus and Christians. In Pakistani public schools, all children, regardless of their faith, had to use textbooks that often had a strong Islamic orientation and frequently omitted mention of religious minorities or made derogatory references to them. In other countries educational materials often promote intolerance or even violence toward people of other faiths. And it’s no mistake that for many years now the USCIRF annual reports have been recommending Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to revise textbooks which promote hatred toward other religions or religious groups. Finally, ameliorating Christian women’s conditions largely depends on the future of their Christian community. New laws which penalize discrimination based on religion and Constitution’s amendments can be very important to halt Christian predicament in many Muslim countries.
 World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report 2013. Available at: http://www.weforum.org/reports/global-gender-gap-report-2013
 Population percentages of Muslim-majority countries are taken from Aid to the Church in Need’s 2012 Religious Freedom in the World Report.
Lela Gilbert, Gender-based Violence as an Expression of Christian Persecution in Muslim Lands, 2013. Available at: http://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/research/2533678
 Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE), Testimony in Courts, available at: http://www.wisemuslimwomen.org/currentissues/testimonyincourts/
 Sanja Kelly and Julia Breslin, Saudi Arabia Report -Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress Amid Resistance, ed. New York City, NY: Freedom House; Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.
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 Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, 111 Questions on Islam, Ignatius Press, 2008, p.177
 John Pontifex, John Newton, Persecuted and Forgotten? A Report on Christians oppressed for their Faith 2011-2013, Aid to the Church in Need, 2013.
 Under 295 B&C of the Penal Code, part of the so called Blasphemy Laws, dishonoring the Prophet is punishable by death and disrespect to the Quran can incur in life sentences.
 Rob Crilly and Aoun Sahi, Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan 'for blasphemy', The Telegraph, November 9, 2010.
 Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011. Available at: http://www.minorityrights.org/10848/state-of-the-worlds-minorities/state-of-the-worlds-minorities-and-indigenous-peoples-2011.html
 Kevin J. Jones, Amid persecution, Christianity growing in 'Global South', Catholic News Agency, December 5, 2013.
 Todd M. Johnson and Brian J. Grim, eds., World Religion Database, Leiden/Boston: Brill, October 2013.
 Lela Gilbert, Gender-based Violence as an Expression of Christian Persecution in Muslim Lands, Op. cit.
 Fatwa Permits Mujahideen to Kidnap, Imprison, and Have Sexual Intercourse with Infidel Women, The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), November 30, 2011.
 Raymond Ibrahim, Raped and Ransacked in the Muslim World, May 31, Frontpagemag.com, May 31, 2011.
 Raymond Ibrahim, New Fatwa permits rape of non-Sunni women in Syria, Humanevents.com, April 2, 2013.
 Rape and atrocities on a young Christian in Qusair, Fides Agency, July 2, 2013.
 Raymond Ibrahim, New Fatwa permits rape of non-Sunni women in Syria, Op. cit.
 Yasmine Saleh and Shaimaa Fayed, Preacher alarms many in Egypt with calls for Islamist vice police, Reuters, January 9, 2013.
 Jackie Spinner, Head Scarves Now a Protective Accessory in Iraq, Washington Post, December 30, 2004.
 Video interviews by Aid to the Church in Need-Italy, Egitto: le speranze disilluse. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fcoR3rYNBc
 Women's Forum Against Fundamentalism in Iran, Official Laws against Women in Iran, Op. cit.
 Sanja Kelly and Julia Breslin, Saudi Arabia Report -Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress Amid Resistance, Op. cit.
 Amin Mekki Medani, The Draft Social Control Act, 2011, for Khartoum State: Flogging into Submission for the Public Order, Project for Criminal Law Reform in Sudan, November 2011.
 Robert P. George, Sharia in Sudan v. women and religious freedom, Washington Post, November 24, 2013.
 Fifty lashes for the teenage girl who wore an 'indecent' knee length skirt in Sudan, Daily Mail, November 28, 2009.
 Kassam Zayn, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Law, Oxford Islamic Studies Online, May 2013.
 Paul Handley, Islamic countries under pressure over stoning, Agence France-Presse (AFP), September 10, 2010.
 Murdered Teenage Christian housemaid Shazia Masih Cries for Justice in Pakistan, Pakistan Christian Post, November 23, 2010.
 The Zina Ordinance is part of the Hudood Ordinances, promulgated in 1979 by the then President of Pakistan General Zia-ul-Haq, and describes the offences of Zina(fornication and adultery)and Zina Bil jabbar (rape)
 United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Report 2012. Available at: http://www.uscirf.gov/images/Annual%20Report%20of%20USCIRF%202012%282%29.pdf
 Jennifer Jag Jivan, Peter Jacob, Life on the Margins. A study on the minority women in Pakistan, National Commission for Justice and Peace of Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, 2012. Available at: http://www.ncjp-pk.org/media/publications/lifeenglish.pdf
 Aid to the Church in Need Italy, Qui è sempre colpa delle donne, Press release, January 17, 2012.
 United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Report 2012, Op. cit.
 Mobeen Shahid, Interview by Debora Donnini, Pakistan: aumentano le conversioni forzate di ragazze all'Islam, Vatican Radio, December 27, 2012.
 Shafique Khokhar, Pakistan: Christian girl of 13 abducted, converted to Islam and forced to marry, AsiaNews Agency, November 23, 2011.
 Mauro Pianta, Pakistan, The Martyrdom of Mariah, VaticanInsider.com, December 17, 2011.
 Christian girls abducted, forced to renounce faith in Northern Nigeria, Barnabasfund.org, July 22, 2013.
 Thomson Reuters Foundation, Women's rights in the Arab world, November 2013. Available at: http://www.trust.org/spotlight/poll-womens-rights-in-the-arab-world/
 Michele Clark, Nadia Ghaly, Tell My Mother I Miss Her. The Disappearance, Forced Conversions and Forced Marriages of Coptic Christian Women in Egypt, Christian Solidarity International, July 2012. Available at: http://csi-usa.org/TellMyMotherIMissHer.pdf
 Association of Victims of Abductions and Enforced Disappearances (AVAED), 2011 Report. Available at: http://minorityvoices.org/force_download.php?file=data/files/final/news_1368/AVAEDReport2011.pdf
 Association of Victims of Abductions and Enforced Disappearances (AVAED), Case report, July 20, 2013.
 Michele Clark, Nadia Ghaly, Tell My Mother I Miss Her, Op. cit.
 UNESCO, Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2012: Youth and Skills – Putting education to work, Paris, 2012.
 Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011, Op. cit.
 United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Report 2013. Available at: http://www.uscirf.gov/images/2013%20USCIRF%20Annual%20Report%20%282%29.pdf