An Iraqi Christian militiaman lights a candle in a church destroyed by ISIS / Holly Pickett
A major new report warns that persecution of Christians worldwide is spreading, increasing in severity, and has now reached levels approaching genocide – raising the risk of Christians being wiped out in the Middle East.
Christians are not the only people persecuted for their beliefs. Muslims are as well, as attested by news about the million Uyghurs interned by the Chinese government and the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar. But the plight of Christians deserves to be broadcast far and wide.
In January the British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, commissioned an independent review of the global persecution of Christians, headed by an Anglican bishop, Philip Mounstephen.
Below he summarises its message.
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You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know’
(William Wilberforce MP, to the House of Commons, on the slave trade, 1791)
At the launch of this Independent Review in January I outlined six reasons why I felt that the Review, in focussing specifically on the plight of Christians, was justified. I list these below – but will follow them with an explanation of why the Review’s recommendations are couched much more in terms of guaranteeing Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) for all rather than focusing on the needs of one community exclusively.
First, to understand why this Review is justified we have to appreciate that today the Christian faith is primarily a phenomenon of the global south – and it is therefore primarily a phenomenon of the global poor. Despite the impression those in the West might sometimes have to the contrary, the Christian faith is not primarily an expression of white Western privilege. If it were we could afford to ignore it – perhaps. But unless we understand that it is primarily a phenomenon of the global south and of the global poor we will never give this issue the attention it deserves. That is not to patronise, but it is to be realistic. Western voices that are quick to speak up for the world’s poor cannot afford to be blind to this issue.
Secondly, this particular focus is justified because Christian persecution, like no other, is a global phenomenon. And it is so precisely because the Christian faith is a truly global phenomenon. Thus Christian persecution is not limited to one context or challenge. It is a single global phenomenon with multiple drivers and as such it deserves special attention. More specifically it is certainly not limited to Islamic-majority contexts. So this review is not a stalking horse for the Islamophobic far-right, and nor does it give the Islamophobic right a stick to beat Islam with. To focus on one causative factor alone is to be wilfully blind to many others.
Thirdly, Christian persecution is a human rights issue and should be seen as such. Freedom of Religion or Belief is perhaps the most fundamental human right because so many others depend upon it. As this report argues, in the West we tend to set one right against another. But in much of the world this right is not in opposition to others but rather is the linchpin upon which others depend. And we in the West need to be awake to such dependencies and not dismiss FoRB as irrelevant to other rights. If freedom of religion or belief is removed so many other rights are put in jeopardy too.
Fourthly, this is not about special pleading for Christians, but making up a significant deficit. There is a sense that for a number of reasons we have been blind to this issue – and those reasons would certainly include post-colonial guilt: a sense that we have interfered uninvited in certain contexts in the past so we should not do so again. But this is not about special pleading for Christians: rather it’s about ensuring that Christians in the global south have a fair deal, and a fair share of the UK’s attention and concern. So in that sense it is an equality issue. If one minority is on the receiving end of 80 percent of religiously motivated discrimination2 it is simply not just that they should receive so little attention.
Fifthly however, this is also about being sensitive to discrimination and persecution of all minorities. Because the Christian faith is perhaps the one truly global faith it has become a bellwether for repression more generally. If Christians are being discriminated against in one context or another you can be confident other minorities are too. So renewing a focus on Christian persecution is actually a way of expressing our concern for all minorities who find themselves under pressure. And ignoring Christian persecution might well mean we’re ignoring other forms of repression as well.
And finally to look at this both historically and theologically the Christian faith has always been subversive: 'Jesus is Lord' is the earliest Christian Creed. Those were not empty words. Rather, they explain why from the earliest days the Christian faith attracted persecution. To say that Jesus is Lord was to say that Caesar was not Lord, as he claimed to be. So from its earliest days the Christian faith presented a radical challenge to any power that made absolute claims for itself. Christian faith should make no absolutist political claims for itself – but it will always challenge those who do, which is precisely why the persecution of Christians is a global phenomenon and not a local or regional one.
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The Christian faith will always present a radical challenge to any power that makes absolute claims for itself, and there are plenty of those in the world today. And I suggest that confronting absolute power is certainly a legitimate concern and policy objective of any democratic government. Indeed the Christian faith’s inherent challenge to absolutist claims explains why it has been such a key foundation stone of Western democratic government – and explains too why we should continue to support it vigorously wherever it is under threat.
Nonetheless the focus of the Review’s recommendations is clearly on guaranteeing freedom of religion or belief for all, irrespective of faith tradition or belief system, taking full account of the scale, scope and severity of its abuse in various contexts (which in itself has justified the Foreign Secretary asking for a particular focus on Christian persecution at this present time). To argue for special pleading for one group over another would be antithetical to the Christian tradition. It would also, ironically, expose that group to greater risk. We must seek FoRB for all, without fear or favour.
Similarly the very first recommendation calls for the protection of freedom of religion or belief to be set within a broader human rights framework, whilst nonetheless emphasising that this is a right upon which so many others depend. There is, for instance, a critical interconnectedness between this right and freedom of expression, so whilst I want to give it particular prominence an exclusive focus on it would not only be counterproductive, it would be nonsensical. Properly understood, rights are interdependent and inseparable. And so much depends upon them – as this Report argues, key issues such as trade and security amongst them. So paying proper attention to FoRB within a broader human rights framework will simply enable the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to do its job better.
I am concerned therefore to uphold the rights of all minorities and it is only right in this Introduction to acknowledge the very significant persecution other communities have suffered. The Rohingya community in Myanmar have suffered grievously, as have the Yazidis in Iraq. The Ahmadis have been persecuted since their inception. Whilst it is right to recognise the suffering of Christians in India and China, it would be quite wrong to ignore the persecution of Muslim communities in those countries, including the Uighur Muslims, who have suffered appallingly. In many places in the world it is certainly not safe to admit that you are an atheist. Jehovah’s Witnesses have experienced severe persecution historically, and are certainly not free of it today.
It is also vital to acknowledge that those who profess Christian faith have also, historically, been the persecutors of others. One thinks with shame of the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Pogroms. But this is not simply a historical phenomenon. Some of the violence in the Central African Republic has very likely been initiated by Christian militia. And responsibility for the dreadful massacre of 8,373 Bosniaks in Srebrenica in July 1995 must be laid squarely at the feet of those who professed Christian faith.
It seems to me that we currently face two existential threats to human flourishing and harmonious communities: climate change and the systematic denial of FoRB. We are beginning to pay proper attention to the former. It is high time we paid proper attention to the latter. This Report both outlines the seriousness of the challenge and also suggests how the [Foreign Office] might better address it.
Philip Mounstephen is the Anglican bishop of Truro, in Cornwall and Devon. For the full text of the report, visit the website of the Independent Review for the UK Foreign Secretary of Foreign and Commonwealth Office Support for Persecuted Christians.