Communities throughout the world are torn by religious divides. Persecution of Christians, concentrated in but not unique to the Middle East, is commanding relatively little attention.
‘It is clear that the persecution of Christians is worse than at any time in history’.
This startling claim was made in a report by the Catholic British charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). ‘Not only are Christians more persecuted than any other faith group, adds the report, ‘but ever increasing numbers are experiencing the very worst forms of persecution’. Last year some 90,000 Christians across the globe were killed for their beliefs, according to the Turin-based Centre for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR).
The rise of Islamic ultra-fundamentalism is what CESNUR calls ‘the number one agent of persecution’. The marauding Boko Haram in northern Nigeria have displaced 1.8 million people. Islamic State has terrorised Christian and other non-Moslem communities in the Middle East, displacing tens of thousands more.
Islamic fanatics are not entirely to blame. Attacks on Christians are on the rise in India since the advent of the Hindu nationalist BJP government in 2015. China’s estimated 120 million Christians are feeling the pressure as well. President Xi Jinping regards Christianity as ‘foreign infiltration’. He wants to ‘sinicise’ it and have it adapt it to a different faith, namely his own 21st century Communist doctrine.
It is in the birthplace of Christianity – the Middle East – where the pain is felt the most. Alon Ben-Meir of New York University says that 100 years ago Christians constituted 20% of the population and today it is down to no more than 4%. What concerns church leaders there is that they feel abandoned and betrayed by the international community. They see political leaders as being totally indifferent to their plight and the future of Christianity in its very cradle.
‘We don’t have the interest regarding our faith among politicians who govern the Western countries’, says the Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius Younan. ‘We don’t have the numbers , we don’t have the oil, we don’t pose any terrorist threat to the civilised world and therefore we have been put aside and neglected’.
Charles Moore, a conservative British columnist and a practising Catholic, wondered whether today’s politicians have become too sensitive. ‘Post-Christian, multicultural societies are frightened of seeming to favour Christians and so they ignore them,’ he writes in the Spectator. That suggests shorthand for not wanting to upset the imams.
Open Doors, a not-for-profit group which monitors the oppression of Christians, has a ‘WorldWatchList’, ranking the top 50 countries ‘where Christians face the most severe persecution for their faith’. Eight of the top nine have an Islamic majority. The worst are Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Top of the list, though, is North Korea, which regards Christians as spies. The Middle East country where Christians are the safest is the most persecuted one, Israel.
It should not be forgotten that much of the blame for today’s state of affairs was due to the actions of two practising Christians, George W. Bush and Tony Blair. They launched the Iraq war in 2003 which not only forced thousands of Mideast Christians to flee, but also in the power vacuum gave rise to hostile anti-Christian mobs led by Islamic State (IS). What’s more, it unlocked Shia/Sunni hatreds, resulting in acts of suicide and other bombings on an unprecedented scale.
Nor should it be forgotten that Christians have a wretched record of persecuting other faiths. The Crusades nearly a thousand years ago were in the name of the papacy and aimed at anyone who threatened Catholic unity. God help any Moslem or heretic during the Spanish Inquisition.
Two years ago Christianity Today reported what it headlined ‘the biggest apology for Christian persecution by other Christians ever’. The Global Christian Forum, claiming to represent two billion adherents, met to discuss the crisis of international Christians being persecuted. But delegates were taken aback when the Catholic Church representatives said they should first pay attention to ‘that also Christians in history have persecuted other religions and other churches’.
This was prompted by Pope Francis apologising the Catholic abuse of the early evangelicals as well as calling for Catholics and Lutherans to seek forgiveness of each other for atrocities committed in ‘the scandal of division’ following Martin Luther’s declaration. It led to a flurry of repentance and apology by other church groups for their persecution of others.
However, today’s religious divisions are far deeper and probably will be never healed when too many pulpits are occupied by fanatics with immovable beliefs. A reminder of the Crusades still features today in many tracts by Islamic extremists in justifying their actions. Christianity is splintered among so many different churches, including evangelical zealots, that ecumenicalism remains a distant ideal.
But there is hope. Christians and other non-Moslem groups are starting to trickle back to the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq following the liberation of Mosul from IS control. This is where mass has been said for 1700 years, according to the Catholic News Agency. The most important thing now, says the Syriac Patriarch, is for Christians in the Middle East to have the right to be able to live in freedom as equal citizens rather than second class ones who face harsh discrimination which frequently goes unpunished.
FOOTNOTE. Many Australian Christians have experienced subtle or understated religious persecution. The original British and Irish immigrants brought with them their sectarian prejudices, mainly Irish Catholicism and British Protestantism. They seeped through generations. This often led to blatant discrimination in the work place, schools, social activity and even, it has been claimed, the Test teams of the 1930s. Thankfully, that appears to be extant today. If there is a religious divide in Australia, it is one of the Christian-based society and the unspoken distrust of Islam and its violent 21st century reputation.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news. He is the former Head, International Operations at the ABC.