US teacher killing: How religiously open is Yemen?

Al Qaeda-linked militants say they killed Joel Shrum for proselytizing. The country has seen other attacks on Christians, but also has Catholic sisters working openly.

Anees Mahyoub/AP
A damaged vehicle purported to belong to an American teacher shot by gunmen is towed away in Taiz, Yemen, Sunday. Two gunmen on a motorcycle shot dead early Sunday an American teacher working at a language institute in a central Yemeni city, the region's provincial governor said.

Al Qaeda-linked militants who claimed responsibility for the death of an American teacher in Yemen yesterday said he was targeted for being "one of the biggest American proselytizers" in the Arab nation.

While Joel Shrum was known by Yemenis to be a devout Christian, his employer – the International Training Development Center – denies the claims of proselytizing, saying he was a "very professional employee who highly respected the Islamic religion.”

The controversy highlights the sensitive nature of Christian aid workers in Yemen, an almost entirely Muslim country. While Christians from Catholic sisters to African expatriates have lived and worked for decades here, isolated cases of proselytizing by foreigners have occasionally raised suspicions about the activities of Christian nonprofit organizations and workers.

Some here have come to suspect that church-affiliated groups are fronts for efforts to convert Muslims to Christianity, something that’s a major taboo in deeply conservative Yemen, where the maximum penalty for apostasy is death.

Last week, Saudi Arabia's top cleric underscored the lack of religious tolerance in much of the Arabian peninsula, where Yemen is located, by saying that it was "necessary to destroy all the churches of the region."

Shrum previously did mission work in Latin America

Yemen's constitution does not protect freedom of religion, according to a State Department report, but Christian charity organizations have long been active in the country. The Catholic Missionaries of Charity, along with a handful of Protestant charities, have openly worked in the impoverished country since the 1970s, and habit-bedecked sisters are an occasional sight on the streets of some Yemeni cities.

Members of the sizable African Christian expatriate community in Yemen's capital of Sanaa are mostly able to quietly practice their faith without issue, and colonial-era churches continue to hold services in the southern port of Aden, a British possession until 1963.

Shrum and his wife, who had two small children, arrived in the city of Taiz two years ago. He hailed from a family with strong Christian roots, according to reports from newspapers in his Pennsylvania hometown. He and his brother, as well as other relatives, had previously traveled to Latin America to engage in "church-related" mission work, one report said.

Shrum had worked as an English-language teacher for the International Training Development Center, a Swedish nongovernmental organization that has provided vocational training in the southern city of Taiz since 1969. It is registered with the Swedish Free Mission.

A source with relatives in Taiz said Shrum was known to openly discuss his Christian religion, but said that he was widely seen as a beloved figure who was greatly devoted to his work.

While attacks on foreigners are almost unheard of in Taiz, one of Yemen’s most liberal cities, Sunday was not the first time suspicion against Christian aid workers has turned deadly in Yemen. Most infamously, in 2002, an Islamic militant opened fire in Southern Baptist-founded hospital in the town of Jibla, one province over from Taiz, killing three American aid workers who he claimed were proselytizing.

Escalation of extremist attacks?

But while Shrum was ostensibly targeted due to his religion, most here tend to see his killing more as a product of a continuing security vacuum, rather than a result of anti-Christian sentiments.

The central government's control has dissipated throughout much of Yemen, which has been wracked by a yearlong revolt against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

And while the inauguration of Saleh’s longtime deputy, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, last month cemented the end of the veteran leader's three-decade rule, a return to stability has continued to prove elusive. Amidst the continued volatility, militant groups have been able to take advantage of the security situation, expanding their base of operations. And in that context, analysts say, Shrum’s death represents a potentially worrying sign.

“This could be a one-time thing,” says Abdulgani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst. “However, it could this marks an escalation on the part of the extremists, who have been emboldened by the new governments inability to assert control in much of the country.”

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