It is becoming apparent that far from dwelling at the ‘end of history’, as was naively envisaged at the fall of Communism, we are, in fact, living in perplexing, turbulent and dangerous days. One of the most troubling, if overlooked, features of our times is the appalling extent and depth of the persecution of Christians. Thirty years ago when we Christians talked of martyrs, we used the past tense; not any more. Whether in North Korea, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Egypt, Syria, China, Pakistan or Columbia, Christians are being persecuted and killed for no other reason than their faith. A Pew Research Center report in 2012 noted that between 2006 and 2010 Christians were harassed in 139 countries. The exact number of Christians who are killed each year is impossible to determine (martyrdom does not lend itself to statistics), but it is widely acknowledged that it runs to tens of thousands. Of course, death is not the only outcome: over half a million Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes in the last few years and well over 100,000 are now refugees. A once-vibrant Iraqi church, that had existed for nearly two millennia, is now on the verge of extinction.
There are many reasons why Christians are being picked on today. We in the Christian (or more properly, post-Christian) West need to remind ourselves that, worldwide, most followers of Christ are poor, marginalised and from ethnic or linguistic minorities. It is also easy for them to be associated with a Western culture that is widely and intensely disliked. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that, in a crowded world full of angry people, Christians make excellent and accessible scapegoats. It is notable that the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks told the House of Lords recently that the suffering of middle east Christians is ‘one of the crimes against humanity of our time’ and compared it with Jewish programme in Europe. The parallels are indeed striking and solemn.
Why is the West largely silent? The problem is that the liberal intelligentsia that govern so much of our thinking have been so conditioned to see Christianity as ‘the enemy’ that they cannot now bring themselves to perform the mental shift of recognising Christians as victims. The result is that defending Christians in far-off countries is not fashionable. At that stylish dinner party with your valued friends, it’s just not cool to say that you want to stick up for illiterate peasants in Pakistan or fundamentalist famers in Colombia. There is also, and I choose my words carefully, very little value for a politician in sticking up for Christians on the other side of the world. With some cultural minorities an action in favour of their kith and kin overseas may gain you a block vote that may help you win some marginal constituency. There is no such electoral bonus in dealing with the far less homogeneous and much more independently minded Christian communities.
Now there is a long and honourable tradition in Christianity of meekly suffering in silence, of not appealing to the wider public. (Another reason, incidentally, why Christians make excellent scapegoats.) After all, we believers know that this world is not our home, that the kingdom of heaven is not to be found on earth, and that, as our founder suffered martyrdom, we should be prepared for a similar fate. Yet the global attack on Christians has now reached such a scale that justice and wisdom require an appeal for action and support to be made to the widest possible audience.
Why should the sufferings of Christians concern anybody who is not a subscriber to our belief system? Let me make four appeals for all of us to be deeply concerned. Before I do, let me reject one possible reason. Quite simply, I am not concerned about the ultimate fate of the Church. That is in safe hands and we have an explicit promise that even the gates of hell will not triumph against it. Indeed, as this time of persecution unfolds there is enormous Church growth in many parts of the world. So, for example, reliable figures from China suggest that the Church there is growing at the rate of a million every two months. My reasons for concern lie elsewhere.
My first appeal is to the principle of common decency.
I believe that in every one of us there is an inbuilt sense of right and wrong. What is happening to Christians is, quite simply, a moral outrage. There is almost no evidence that any of the Christians who are persecuted have done anything wrong other than hold fast to their own beliefs. What we are seeing is quite simply bullying of the worst sort. There is, it seems, a global mood that the followers of Jesus are fair game. It’s not right and I believe that we all know it. To ignore the bullied is to ally ourselves with the bully.
The second appeal I make is to a shared obligation.
Western civilisation is unquestionably Christian. It is a slight embarrassment to the adherents of atheism or agnosticism that the very values that they uphold are Christian. To say that is not, of course, to deny that the roots of Christian ethics lie in the Jewish faith or to ignore the fact that some of our values are affirmed by other faiths. Yet much that is prized in Western culture – the right to free speech, the value of every individual, the recognition of love as the highest virtue, the commitment to charity and many other values – all come from the Christian faith. True, Christians have not always lived up to these values, but many have and their expression of the faith has shaped the world that we are happy to live in. The very fact that this article can be freely published and that you can read it without fear is itself a testimony to the enduring power of the Christian faith. There is a naive view that all human beings are fundamentally nice people and that any external morality is utterly unnecessary. Recent events have demonstrated that there are very different codes and belief systems in operation and some of them are really not very nice at all.
My third appeal is quite simply to self-interest.
Those values that I mentioned were not simply fought for by Christians in the past, they are defended by them in the present. Jesus told his followers that they would be salt and light in the world, preventing rot and bringing illumination. Well, we have probably not been as good at either task as we might have been, but Christians do stand firm against the inbuilt tendency of things to go from bad to worse. Yes, you may find Christians to be dull, boring people who have beliefs that you find ridiculous and a morality that you find oppressive, but such people act as the glue and the framework in society. For instance, history recounts that expulsion of the Bible-believing Huguenots from France at the end of the seventeenth century removed a solid, moral, middle-class element from society and that this loss was a major factor in the revolution and terror that descended a century later. This pattern has been repeated endlessly. In the Armenian Genocide, one and a half million Christians were killed between 1915 and 1923. Despite opposition from the international community, there was no strong action taken or sanctions against the brutal policies of the Turks, or any rescue plan for the Armenian people. Twenty years later, the memory of the failure of the international community to protect the Armenians emboldened Hitler to move against the Jews and other ‘undesirables’. ‘Who, today, speaks of the extermination of the Armenians?’ Hitler is alleged to have said in 1939. Our failure to act, today, in protection of minorities sends out a dangerous signal for the future. Amel Nona, the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, now exiled in Erbil, recently made a troubling prediction: ‘Our sufferings today are the prelude of those you, Europeans and Western Christians, will also suffer in the near future.’ To put it bluntly, if they attack Christians today do you think you will be safe tomorrow? The new atheists live in hope of what the end of Christianity will bring. Wiser observers live in fear.
Finally, let me make what you might consider to be a spiritual appeal.
All the Gospels mention that, at the crucifixion of Jesus, there were bystanders, presumably with nothing better to do, who stood by watching, blithely unconcerned about what they were seeing. For them, the crucifixion was no doubt just ‘one of those things’ that you acknowledge with a shrug. Yet Christ said that in some way he lives in the lives of his followers and that the Church is his body today. To accept that is to recognise that what we are seeing today, in the onslaught on the Church, is, in effect, a re-crucifixion of Christ. To stand idly by as people are massacred for their faith and to do nothing is to merge with that first-century crowd of callous bystanders. History has not judged them kindly and if we do the same, it will not judge us kindly either. Neither I’m afraid, will God.