That Christians in many areas of the world including the Middle East have suffered persecution and discrimination is very true and worrying. Most recently one thinks of the dreadful attacks on churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Day that killed over 250 people. Many Christians have for varying reasons left their ancestral homelands, in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and other countries creating a situation in which the Christian population in the Middle East is under significant and continued threat, this is the area of the world from which Christianity originated. At the start of the 20th century, Christians formed around 20% of the region’s population but now it is closer to 5%.
Last December, the British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt commissioned a three-month inquiry into Christian persecution headed by the Anglican Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen.
Hunt wanted to be advised how the British government could best help these threatened Christian communities abroad. He claimed that: “Christians are believed to be targets of about 80% of all acts of religious discrimination or persecution.”
How did he arrive at such an incredibly high figure? Apparently, it came from one source, a report from way back in 2009 that is no longer online produced by a little-known outfit, the International Council of the International Society for Human Rights. Whilst that sounds neutral, its President, Thomas Schirrmacher, also chairs a number of groups involved in highlighting Christian persecution and is part of the World Evangelical Alliance, in other words, a campaigner on the issue. The report is therefore citing a source over ten years old from an institution that might not be neutral. Moreover, given the scale of persecution of other religious communities, the figure of 80% just does not stack up and there is no data that can be assessed and analysed. No other body has produced research that even comes close to backing up these figures and the report cannot cite one. It reminds me of the debunked claim even backed by the Vatican that 100,000 Christians are killed every year because of their faith, a figure beefed up because about 90% of those who lost their lives in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, were largely Christians killed by other Christians.
Bishop Mountstephen’s report also states that “Christian persecution, like no other, is a global phenomenon.” Yet even a 2016 Pew Research Center study cited in the report highlights a similar number of countries where Christians and Muslims are persecuted and states that “harassment of members of the world’s two largest groups – Christians and Muslims – by governments and social groups continued to be widespread around the world.” Yet in the FCO’s commissioned report from the Bishop, Muslims are omitted and it is only Christians who suffer at such a level.
Alarm bells ring loudly when the report consistently cites western Christian groups dedicated to fighting persecution of Christians, rather than more impartial bodies. Local Christian sources in the report are scarce. Are the sources all bona fide and independent? Many fear that there is an anti-Islamic element to some of these groups, that this whole debate is politicised, which is decidedly counter-productive.
And was it really necessary to describe the United Kingdom as a Christian country? How does that look and feel to those of other faiths and no faith? In a 2017 survey, 53% of British citizens described themselves as having no religious affiliation.
But throughout the report persecution of other religious communities was underplayed, with occasional lip service paid to them. The report mentions briefly the Iranian treatment of Bahais (possibly the largest non-Muslim community in Iran) and the Isis treatment of Yazidis but the reader could come away with the sense that this was nothing in comparison to the treatment of Christians. Yet again a brief mention of the Rohingya that suffered ethnic cleansing and genocide, 700,000 of whom were forced to flee Burma and remain refugees. How about the massive ‘re-education camps’ that host up to one million Chinese Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang according to the UN. The same with India where the report mentioned the BJP’s attitudes to India’s 65 million Christians but does not mention the far larger issue of its treatment of India’s 172 million Muslims and the staggering rise of hate crimes against Muslims there. It might also have been relevant in terms of Freedom of Religious belief to have cited the call of the current President of the United States to impose a full ban on Muslim entry into his country, and his anti-Muslim attitudes, or even the rise of anti-Muslim forces within Europe let alone the continued worrying spread of anti-Semitism. If European countries cannot treat non-Christian communities decently, then how can we lecture others?
In terms of Palestinian Christians, the report completely dodges the Israeli role in fomenting the conditions which encouraged Palestinians including Christians to leave, namely the harsh 52-year old Israeli military occupation. Yes, Islamist elements have played a significant role too but ignoring the occupation is absurd.
Moreover, Christian exodus from the region is not all as a consequence of persecution. Many leave for the same reasons so many young Arabs have left. These include the high levels of youth unemployment, human rights, the lack of advanced education and research opportunities, the desire to live away from conflict and strife. It is not as this report frames things always because of their religious identity.
Aside from the dubious quality and motivations behind this report, the underlying assumptions are also dangerous. Why should the British government give priority to one faith group under persecution over others? Should we only protect Christians? In most countries, it is frequently more than one faith group under threat. In Iraq, Christians were under threat from Isis but more so were the Yazidis and others. The report even recommends passing a UN Security Council Resolution “urging all governments in the Middle East and North Africa to protect Christians and allow UN observers to monitor the necessary security measures.” Does this mean the Security Council would view anti-Christian attitudes as more important than anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim? It proposes a specific fund to help Christian survivors of persecution, yet once again, does this mean more aid deliberately going to Christians?
Then who remains under the greatest threat from Isis in Syria and Iraq? Well as even President Trump said in Riyadh in May 2017: “in sheer numbers, the deadliest toll has been exacted on the innocent people of Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern nations. They have borne the brunt of the killings and the worst of the destruction in this wave of fanatical violence.” Bookmark this quote, because on this occasion the President was spot on and factually correct.
But the report, produced in the end over six months, still views things largely from Western Christian perspectives. Christian communities in the region frequently state they do not like to be termed minorities, as if somehow they were not fully Egyptian or Syrian. They also are worried about being seen to have western patrons, to be useful political pawns of western evangelical groups. They shy away from any notion that they wish the British government with all its historical and recent baggage to be their protectors.
So whilst it is laudable to fight persecution, including that of Christians, it must be done regardless of faith but based solely on need. Many of those affected are Christians, many are Muslim, but in the end, we should not pre-determine or prioritise which faith group we aid. We should work to end persecution wherever it exists and whoever the perpetrator is. You cannot end discrimination based on religion if your starting point is to discriminate who you help.
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