I recently heard a talk in a church on behalf of a charity that helps persecuted Christians abroad. The speaker cited three types of oppression. The first example was Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe. It struck me as not being a very good one, because Mugabe doesn’t suppress Christians because of their faith: raised as a Catholic himself in church schools, he does so because some oppose his regime. The second case was North Korea. This was a much better example, because although the horror of the regime is exercised on a unique scale, other Communist countries, such as China, Vietnam and Laos, also oppress Christians on ideological grounds.
The third example was Pakistan. Jinnah, the founder of the country, said after it came into being that religion “has nothing to do with the business of the State.” His vision has not been realised. As Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reports: “the last few years have seen an increase in religiously-motivated violence in Pakistan, targeting both non-Muslim and Muslim minorities. Perpetrators are rarely brought to justice and, as a result, religious minorities are viewed as ‘easy targets’. Other concerns include threats to human rights activists, lawyers and judges, and the abduction, forced marriage and forcible conversion of non-Muslim women and girls.”
Pakistan is only one of a great arc of Muslim-majority countries, running from east Asia all the way to the Magreb, in which Christians are discriminated against at best and tyrannised at worst. All three middle eastern countries on CSW’s “countries of concern” list are Muslim-majority (Algeria, Egypt, Iran). So are two of its three African ones (Sudan and Nigeria, at least in some parts). So is one of its European ones (Turkey). An exodus of Christians from the middle east itself is happening on an unprecedented scale. Ancient churches are threatened with extinction in the region where Christianity itself was born, and where Christians lived before the religion took root in most of Europe.
There are some wrenching stories. Earlier this year, in Pakistan itself, an illiterate Christian couple were sentenced to death for blasphemous texts – an obvious trumped-up charge. In Sudan a month later, a woman was also condemned to die for converting to Christianity from Islam. But the most horrific accounts are coming from ISIS-ravaged Syria and Iraq – the destruction of churches or their transformation into mosques, ethnic cleansing, massacres, beheadings, crucifixions. They are feeding the rising concern within the churches themselves and a subdued anger among many people who never go near a church, but are part of Britain’s nominally Christian majority.
Their exasperation is fed by events here: 7/7 and its successor plots, the murder of Lee Rigby, Muslims who march against Israel’s actions in Gaza, but organise no protests about the injustices wreaked by Muslim-majority countries that Britain also supports – Pakistan among them. One of the reasons for public sympathy for the Yazidis is surely the sense that they are also victims of Islamist extremism. The progress in the talk that I heard from Zimbabwe through North Korea to Pakistan might have been designed to illustrate how this disquiet expresses itself in Britain – through a strange mixture of plain speaking and back-covering, lest those who point to the problem are accused of Islamophobia.
The Foreign Office’s defence against the charge of political correctness (eloquently expressed on this site recently by Luke de Pulford) (falls into two main parts. The first is that speaking out may make some of us feel better, but will only harm churches and Christians abroad. They are already seen, the argument goes, as stool pigeons of America and its allies – as a foreign growth in Muslim lands – and church leaders in the middle east regularly urge western governments not to denounce Islamic ones, for fear of making their plight worse. The second is that much religious persecution worldwide is not carried out by Muslims, and that Muslims themselves are also victims of it.
This second case carries weight. Out of Index on Censorship’s worst countries for religious freedom, only three of the eight are Muslim-majority. The remainder – Eriteria, Uzbekistan, Burma, China, Burma and (inevitably) North Korea – are secular. In Burma, Muslims (the Rohingya people) are among those abused, just as they are in parts of India. In the Middle East, the perception among many Muslims is that the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns were nothing less than religious action by Christians against Muslims. The charge was fed by some of the rhetoric of American military leaders at the time of the Iraq war.
It is, of course, risible: conspiracy theory fed by fanatics in a region that has dumped its own failures at the door of imperialism for far too long – as a radical report, itself written by Arabs, pointed out in 2002. Muslims are free to propagate their faith in the liberal west; the reverse does not apply to Christians in the Muslim-majority east. The first of the foreign office’s argument carries less force than the first. If western leaders were always silent in the face of tyranny, Reagan and Thatcher would not have spoken out during the Cold War and, in doing so, helped light a torch of freedom that could be seen behind the Iron Curtain – and which eventually helped to consume it.
Furthermore, Sayeeda Warsi was licensed to denounce the treatment of Christians in Muslim-majority countries. Is it the Government’s view that only Muslims should stand up for churchgoers abroad? That way lies the road to identity politics. As Benedict Rogers of CSW urged last week on this site, Philip Hammond should now take up where the Baroness left off. And Benedict, a frequent contributor to this site, has shown how this should be done: by focusing on the abuse of all people of faith, not just of Christians – though the Government should certainly take on their maltreatment (by cutting off government-to-government funding where appropriate: for example, to madrassas abroad).
There is much more that Ministers could so. The Government could, as the Canadian Government has done, publish an index of religious freedom. It should certainly hold a summit on the subject: if William Hague can co-chair a global summit on rape as a weapon of war, why shouldn’t his successor chair one on the persecution of religious believers – no less serious a matter? Finally, David Cameron should appoint an Ambassador for Religious Freedom. He has already created a mass of special envoys, and the absence of this one is notable. But since there are already too many swelling the payroll vote, he should look elsewhere. My nomination? Lord Alton – who is not formally a Tory at all.