The persecution of Christians, the greatest story never told in the Western media, is finally building momentum as a story, after a year which has seen villagers massacred in Syria, dozens of churches burned down in Egypt’s worst religious violence for centuries, and the Peshawar atrocity in which the suicide-bombing of a church killed more than 80 people.
Earlier this week several MPs discussed the issue in Parliament, Fiona Bruce saying that ‘We should be crying out with the same abhorrence and horror that we feel about the atrocities towards Jews on Kristallnacht.’ And Baroness Warsi will say in a speech in Washington today that: ‘A mass exodus is taking place, on a Biblical scale. In some places, there is a real danger that Christianity will become extinct.’
Warsi made the same point on the Today programme this morning, and I applaud her, but an aspect rather missing from the coverage was the fact that the vast majority of serious anti-Christian violence is carried out in the name of Islam. It would be like discussing anti-Semitic pogroms of the medieval period without mentioning Christianity, its theology, history and practice.
That is telling, since one of the reasons for the media’s voluntary blackout on this issue is our fear of appearing to be inciting hatred against Muslim. This allows the persecutors to get away with it, which is ironic since most violence carried out against Muslims is also done in the name of Islam.
The simple fact is that Islamic law as it is applied in Egypt (where apostasy is extremely difficult and dangerous, and family law was based on Sharia even before the revolution), Iraq and the Gulf States is incompatible with religious liberty. There is no way around that. In Iraq, most bizarrely, the US government presided over a constitution that introduced elements of Sharia.
The issue therefore is not just that Christians are being punished because of anger at the West. It is the specific application of Islamic law, and most centrally its ideas about freedom of religion. It includes freedom of un-religion and the freedom to deviate from the rulers’ particular interpretation.
I met Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali last week, a fearless man who has documented his whole life the suffering of Pakistani Christians, but even he gasped with sadness at the horror inflicted on the unorthodox Ahmadiyya Muslims there.
This happens because the most authoritarian strains of the religion (as with all religions) presume to state that only theirs is authentic Islam, and unfortunately we tend to take them at their word, even though we would never agree for the leaders of the Catholic or Anglican churches to decide who is a Christian.
Much of the intolerance in Pakistan stems from the influence of the Saudis, who are trying to reshape Islam in their image, and are helped by Westerners because of their vast reserves of money. Shamefully the British Museum put on an exhibition on Mecca funded by the Saudis, even while those iconoclasts were vandalising the city; I can’t think of anything so contrary to the spirit of that fine institution.
But they’re not the only ones – universities and organisations all over the West take Saudi money, and they should be publicly shamed, just as tax dodgers are. Likewise countries that do not allow freedom of religion should be made pariahs; in Qatar apostasy is still technically a capital crime, although it has never been enacted and one gets the impression the rulers only keep it there to appease the head-bangers. But why isn’t the world boycotting the 2022 World Cup until this law is changed? Why isn’t David Cameron going for a drink to discuss that?
At the heart of the problem is that we’re too scared of even admitting that the problem is within Islam, perfectly illustrated by the BBC’s coverage of events.
This is perverse, because our belief in equal rights before the law stems from the liberal tradition, yet while the Saudis spend millions promoting their beliefs abroad, we don’t. According to human-rights lawyer and advocate for Christian religious freedom Nina Shea, many of the classical liberal western works, such as John Locke, have no modern Arabic translations. Why isn’t one of the west’s many liberal billionaires paying for translations, to be made available free on Kindle?
Time may be running out, for one of the many tragic results of Christian persecution is that a vital bridge between the Middle East and Europe is being wrecked.
Of the 60 scholars who translated the ancient Greek classics into Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age, according to scholar Dr Suha Rassam, 58 were Syriac Christians (and of the others, one was Jewish and the other a Sabian), since generally only Syriacs could speak both Arabic and Greek. Without these 60 men the Renaissance would never have happened, and the very ideas that gave us liberalism would never have emerged.