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We can’t ignore the persecution of Christians in the Middle East

23 December 2011

11:14 AM

23 December 2011

11:14 AM

William Hague has transformed the Foreign Office in his 18 months in charge. He
inherited a system hardwired with the dynsfunctionality of the Labour years, and it’s almost fixed. But not quite. It has not yet woken up to the wave of what can only be called
‘religious cleansing’ in the Middle East, which I look at in my Telegraph column today. Here’s a rundown of my main
points.

1) The killing has begun, and could get worse. In Iraq, about two thirds of its 1.4 million Christians have now fled — being firebombed by the jihadis. Last year, gunmen
entered a Baghdad church and killed 58 parishioners. To go to church in Iraq, which Christians have been doing for two millennia, now means risking your life. Baghdad’s Jewish community has
now been almost eliminated — by some estimates, half a dozen remain. Tunisia’s Arab Spring has also let the jihadis loose: a Polish priest was executed recently, and they’re
turning on its ancient Jewish community too. This has spread to Egypt, where Coptic Christians have lived in peace with Muslims for generations — until now, with 25 dead in October.
Syria’s 1.5 Christians have suffered from the Assad regime as much as anyone, but they now pray for its survival, fearing it will be replaced by Islamic fundamentalists who will start
persecution in earnest.

2) The Arab Spring has unleashed the demon. The last few years have seen the toppling of a long list of dictators: with the aid of Western military (Iraq, Libya) or Arab Spring
revolutions (Egypt, Tunisia and maybe Syria). For all their evil, these secular tyrants treated victims equally whether they wore the cross, skullcap or niqab. But there has been no Vaclav Havel
figure, no Walesa, to fill the post-revolutionary void. The situation has developed almost exactly along the lines that John R Bradley predicted in his Spectator cover story in February. Power has gone not to the most popular, but the best-organised. This means the
hardline Salafis, who follow the same mutant strain of Sunni Islam as al-Qaeda.

3) This is a war within Islam. The situation is more complex than the Muslim vs Christian ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative to which we’re accustomed. The
majority of Muslims are appalled at these Christian pogroms. After the Egyptian Copts were attacked last year, Muslim elders sat in the pews when they celebrated their (January) Christmas, acting
as human shields. Egyptians changed their Facebook picture to a new logo — the crescent and the cross — to show unity. But the Facebook crowd have lost power to the Holy book crowd: the
hardline Islamists are filling the void. The Muslim Brotherhood is well on its way to a new constitution which looks terrifyingly similar to that of Iran.


4) And a war Britain still perceives only dimly. The risk is that Foreign Office is so obsessed about the possibility of war between countries that it neglects war within
countries. The Salafists don’t really care about running a government, they want to control society — as the Wahhabis do in Saudi Arabia. They very much want to wage war, but their
enemy doesn’t lie over a border. Their enemy is in a church, synagogue or Shia Muslim mosque. And their formula for war is a pretty time-tested one. After regime change, you assassinate a
leader or blow up a shrine. Then countries head to civil war between communities who had got along fine for generations (Rwanda, the Balkans) and ending in bloody partition (Cyprus and India).

5) Sectarian war often follows regime change. When the Shia Mosque was blown up in Kabul earlier this month, suspicion immediately fell on the Taleban. The best analysis
you’ll read is Ahmed Rashid’s verdict in The Spectator. The Taleban, he said, have buried the hatchet
with the Shia — they’re posing as a national unity government. They have dumped al-Qaeda, which is annoyed and wants back in. For al-Qaeda, promoting a religious civil war in
Afghanistan is the best way of creating the sort of chaos they can exploit, as they did in Iraq.

Religious sectarianism is not part of a wooly equalities agenda. This is the battle line along which most wars of the next couple of decades may well be fought. The Foreign Office failed to take
this seriously enough in the former Yugoslavia, and only worked out what was happening when it was too late. Now, too, there is only dim recognition of the fact that we may see religious cleansing
in the Middle East as we saw ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

6) The Foreign Office is not pulling its weight.
When asked, ministers condemn discrimination and attacks on Christians — especially the ones in Egypt. David Cameron did so in PMQs,
adding that he also deplores attacks on homosexuals. But how committed is Britain to protecting freedom of religion in general? The best primer you’ll read on this is the text of a Lords debate from a fortnight ago, led by Rowan Williams (who has shown exemplary leadership on this,
especially with his visit to Zimbabwe). The most telling anecdote came from John Patten. He wrote to the Foreign Office asking if they’d help Anglicans who found it difficult to worship in
Turkey:

‘Would the Government do anything to help them? The answer was no; they would not approach the Turkish Government to ask, “Please can you ease up a bit? Please can they just
worship in this hall and then go on quietly to worship in some other place?”

Then, however — and I end on this point — a bombshell. My Anglican correspondent, a clergyman in orders who spends half the year helping this necessarily furtive community, said
that the German Roman Catholic community had suffered the same problems but then a much more muscular German Government had intervened directly with the Turks to promote a full-on, properly
recognised German RC priest to worship and to celebrate in at least semi-public places.’

Hague will not want to start another crusade, and you can certainly argue that if Britain piled in behind the Christians it would only add to the idea of them being a Western-backed
foreign contagion. But what he can do is protect all minorities, wherever he can. If religious cleansing is incubated by creeping regulations against religious minorities, then Britain can confront
these illiberal restrictions head-on. Britain can deny foreign aid to any country that does not observe Article 18 of the UN Human Rights charter, the FCO can publish its own yearbook of religious
freedom to show how seriously it takes the subject. And it should do so as a form of conflict prevention.

CoffeeHousers will differ on how seriously we should take this. I’ll sign off with two interventions in the Lords Debate, the first from Lord Popat who fled Idi Amin in 1971:

‘Speaking not just as a Hindu but as someone who has a deep affection for the Christian faith, I can put my hand on my heart and say that this is not just a Christian issue but an issue
for humanity. It is about fighting for and protecting the rights of minorities. It is about the right to preserve freedom of worship. These are essential principles which hold the very meaning of
democracy. Furthermore, these are values that we should seek to uphold as part of our foreign policy.’

And the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks:

’It was Martin Luther King who said “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”. That is why I felt that I could not be
silent today. As a Jew in Christian Britain, I know how much I, my late parents and, indeed, the whole British Jewish community owe to this great Christian nation, which gave us the right and the
freedom to live our faith without fear. Shall we not therefore as Jews stand up for the right of Christians in other parts of the world to live their faith without fear?’

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