"Due to the continued violence and civil unrest in Damascus and Aleppo, our Churches there have been closed down for the unforseeable future. Your prayers for the congregations and the people of Syria are sincerely requested and greatly appreciated. Please pray for peace throughout the Middle East."
So reads the website of All Saints Episcopal Church in Damascus. While Christians here fret over issues of gender identity and sexuality, those across North Africa and the Middle East are confronted by a momentous crisis that is nothing short of existential. It is not merely that churches are shut, pews empty and pulpits silent; their schools are being bombed, homes ransacked and businesses burned down. From Algeria in the west to Iran in the east, Christians are being kidnapped, terrorised, tortured, raped and murdered. They are being systematically ‘cleansed’ from the very lands where Jesus preached of the coming kingdom, and the Apostles first carried the gospel of salvation. They have returned to the first-century era of intolerable persecution, martyrdom and the coming apocalypse.
It has been observed – though not at all widely – that our eager assistance in the ushering in of various ‘Arab Springs’ has had certain unforeseen consequences for Christians across the region. Or perhaps they were all entirely foreseen by the FCO, but simply brushed aside as acceptable collateral damage; a price worth paying for greater geo-political security, enhanced economic cooperation and the propagation of democracy, liberty and human rights – all laudable objectives of an ethical foreign policy.
But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Each time ‘the West’ has intervened ostensibly to prevent a massacre of Muslim minorities or to avert a regional humanitarian crisis, it is the indigenous Christians who have paid the price – often with their lives. After Saddam, Gaddafi, Mubarak and Ben Ali, a plague of Sunni-Salafi-Wahhabi fanatics descended upon the desert sands to force the expulsion of Christian minorities, often on pain of gun-point conversion or death. The medieval zealots may constitute less than one per cent of a population, but multiplied across the region the adherents of this murderous creed number many hundreds of thousands, if not millions. They recognise no national borders and no universal law but their literal interpretation of a particularly malignant school of sharia, which brooks no opposition and tolerates no idols.
We call the extremists ‘Islamists’, often reported to have ‘links to al-Qaeda’, as though the disparate warring factions of ‘rebels’ constitute a coherent religio-military platoon under a rational aegis of command. In Syria it is not simply a straightforward Sunni vs Shia sectarian spat: there are complex historical legacies and political nuances fermenting beneath a religious morass, and the application of Western terms like ‘secular’ and ‘Islamist’ is woefully inadequate if not completely misleading.
Syria is 74 per cent Sunni (divided ethnically into Kurds, Arabs, Circassians, Chechens and Turkmens); 16 per cent Shia-ish (including Alawites, Druze, Ismailis and ‘Twelvers’); and 10 per cent Christian (mainly Melkite Greek Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Anglican and Chaldean Catholic). President Bashar al-Assad is of the Alawite school, which was declared heretical in a series of 14th-century fatawa, though they were recognised as legitimately Muslim by a fatwa of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in 1936. But to the vast majority of contemporary Sunni and Shia Muslims, Alawites are simply heretics.
A house divided against itself does not usually stand, but Islamist theo-political divisions don’t seem to hinder the inexorable progress of Christian ‘cleansing’ and the barbarous assault upon their human dignity. The seventh-century ‘Pact of Omar’ – which guaranteed peace only to subordinate non-Muslims (dhimmis) under Islamic hegemony – is now being aggressively reasserted by groups like Jabat al-Nusra, even while Assad’s regime survives. The super-objective is the establishment of the long-promised pan-Islamic Caliphate under sharia law, though how these disparate factions will ultimately agree on who plays the Caliph is likely to prove more intractable than negotiating the peace of Jerusalem.
Only a century ago, churches in the Middle East were flourishing and Christians accounted for 20 per cent of the population. Now they barely constitute five per cent, and falling. Iraq’s 1.4 million have been reduced to an estimated 300,000. That’s a million displaced refugees from one country alone – a conveniently round figure which masks the stench of human waste flowing through their tatty tent cities, steeped in poverty and appalling tales of suffering.
Why should we expect life for Syria’s two million Christians to be any different after Assad? If ‘the West’ eventually decides to fire in a few Tomahawk and Cruise missiles – with the explicit objective of weakening the regime and so strengthening ‘rebel’ forces – we simply exchange the devil we know for a horde of unknown demons. A new constitution would doubtless emerge to nullify the rights and liberties of Christians, just as Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood tried to impose upon the people of Egypt. Churches will cease to be free; women will cease to be equal. Damascus and Aleppo are sure to go the way of Bethlehem, Benghazi and Cairo. Christians there are already being kidnapped by ‘unknown persons’. Homs has been ‘cleansed’ of its entire 50,000 Christian population. Reports from Maaloula are confused: regime and rebel forces blame each other for the bombing and shelling, but both agree that it is the Christians who are bearing the brunt of the onslaught.
Alistair Burt, the Foreign Office Minister, said a few years ago that the persecution of Christians in the Middle East is of "profound concern" and that religious freedom is "a key issue". Apparently ministers raise these matters via our diplomats and embassies on a regular basis, and they frequently lobby governments for changes to discriminatory practices and laws.
Fine. But it clearly isn’t working. Priests are being kidnapped and beheaded or having their eyes gouged out; parishioners are being massacred as they worship in their pews; children are beaten and raped on their way to Sunday school. Merely carrying a Bible has become a matter of life and death in some of those countries we helped to liberate from tyrannical dictatorship. Foreign Office concern about these horrors is not "profound" enough; religious freedom is evidently not sufficiently "key". A strategy of foreign intervention which is blind to its socio-religious consequences is a policy which is devoid of Christian morality, ideological integrity and psychological coherence.
Fraser Nelson proposed a few years ago that Britain ought to deny foreign aid to any country that does not observe Article 18 of the UN Human Rights Charter. He further suggested that the Government should publish its own yearbook of global religious freedom “to show how seriously it takes the subject”. Nothing happened. No, sorry, that’s not quite true: in an answer to a parliamentary question, the Prime Minister condemned all attacks on Christians. What he did not say is that “Christians in the Middle East are an essential and indispensable element of society”, as popes, cardinals, archbishops, bishops and patriarchs declared in an unprecedented joint statement last week.
It is not enough to churn out a carefully-crafted condemnation at PMQs. The Government needs to assert that Christians are not guests or second class citizens in these countries, but equal human beings with a distinct identity and a legitimate claim to historic rights. Instead of permitting their plight to be absorbed into generic Foreign Office “support for all minorities”, and in preference to urging foreign governments to have respect for the rights of “all groups in society”, there needs to be a categorical and compelling focus on oppressed Christians in these lands, and it needs to be an explicit matter of Government policy to support them.
We’ve done it for the Iraqi Kurds, Albanian Muslims, Afghanistan’s moderate mujahedin and Libya’s "rebels". We’ve even made Overseas Aid contingent on respect for gay rights. It is a bizarre "secular" foreign policy which uniquely refuses to come to the aid of Christians in order “to avoid risks of further targeting”, as Alistair Burt said, when they are already being ruthlessly and systematically targeted without any specific Western support at all. “From the minarets they told the Christians to leave, otherwise they would be slaughtered one by one,” writes one Christian pastor in Maaloula. Things could hardly get any worse for them, yet there hasn’t been so much as a tweet about any of this from the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary. Our inaction and indifference send a clear message to the massed Middle-Eastern anti-Christian forces: extinguish with impunity; we couldn’t give a damn.
As a matter of urgent priority, the Government needs to acknowledge publicly that innocent Christians are suffering at the hands of radical Muslims. If that manifest truth cannot be acknowledged for fear of crass allegations of ‘Islamophobia’ – or without some rhetorical counterbalancing appeal to the mistakes of Iraq or the ahistorical evils of the Crusades – then our foreign policy is a dismal failure, constrained by superficial psephological obsessions and paralysed by political correctness. The removal of Christians from the Middle East represents a serious threat to our own national security, and we can only confront the retrograde mentality of a destructive ideology with robust action.
The message we send out must not only be serious, but credible. If we insist on the cessation of Christian persecution, we must be prepared to act to enforce it, preferably with a co-operative adversary. If that adversary insists on becoming our enemy, we must find more creative ways to end the atrocities, including putting “boots on the ground”. Freedom of religion must be guaranteed, and this ought to be a foundational precept of British foreign policy. Political influence and societal transformation demand tenacious inculturation over years and decades; not a few days or weeks of blitzing or ‘pinpoint’ bombing. It needs dedicated military manpower, guarding the Christian enclaves and protecting their schools, hospitals, homes and businesses. A speech doesn’t stop a priest being beheaded. A drone can’t prevent kidnap, torture or rape. We created and defended "safe havens" for Muslim minorities, so why can’t we do it for the Coptic or Assyrian churches?
At a conference held in Amman last week, the subject was "The Challenges of Arab Christians". It was convened by King Abdullah II of Jordan, who said he was determined to offer “a concrete contribution to the solution of the problems regarding the plight of so many indigenous Christian communities in the Middle East”. The King told a conference: “Arab Christians have had a key role in building the Arab society and in the defence of our nation”, and that their protection was “not a matter of courtesy, but a duty”. Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad hit the nail squarely on the head: “Arab Christians are suffering not only because of the blind and deaf sedition that everyone has suffered from in certain Arab countries since the beginning of what is incorrectly called the Arab Spring, but also merely because they are Christians.”
They dare to say what our own political leaders will not.
The gassing of children – or, indeed, of any human being – is without doubt a great evil, as President Obama has said. But let us not pretend that a million pounds of sarin would be put to better use by the "rebels", or that virtue ethics may suddenly guide those who stand against our notions of liberty, order and justice. After Assad, who or what is to prevent these deadly stockpiles falling into the hands of Hezbollah, Hamas, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade or any other group of fanatical Jihadis? If the gassing of 1,400 innocent Syrian civilians, including 400 children, constitutes a "great evil" which we cannot ignore, then it is a fortiori a great evil to turn a blind eye to the systematic slaughter of innocent Christians, including many hundreds of their children.
While we are surveying the wondrous cross and singing of sheep safely grazing, the oppressed Middle-Eastern church clings to the hope of future salvation, promised to them after they overcome the present time of trial and suffering. Our inaction is complicity. If we must not abandon the moderate Muslim majority in their hour of need, we should feel guilt, shame and disgust that we have abandoned the Christians now for an entire decade.