A new report, published this week by that brave and indispensable body, Aid to the Church in Need, reveals – in the words of the report’s author, the excellent John Pontifex – that “75 per cent of all religious persecution around the world is now directed against Christians. The … report also reveals that 100 million Christians around the world are now facing persecution, while the Christian population in some countries is collapsing. In the past 25 years the Christian population of Iraq has gone from an estimated 1.4 million to as low as 150,000 now.”
But of course, this isn’t the story that has attracted public attention: we have got so used to the fact of anti-Christian persecution, nearly all of which is in Muslim countries (notably Pakistan), that the report might well have sunk without trace if it had not been given a most remarkable public profile by the kind of declaration we are definitely not used to from our smooth-tongued prelates.
I allude to a public declaration by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who not for the first time has said what needs to be said, in his admirable north British way (why is it always Scottish archbishops – like Cardinal Winning of blessed memory – who get rough when something striking and, if necessary, political needs to be said? Why are English bishops always so low key and diplomatic, when diplomacy is emphatically not what is required, but plain speaking?) The headline in the BBC story is striking all right; this is the kind of story that journalists love to write: “Cardinal brands UK aid foreign policy ‘anti-Christian’.” For once, this is no exaggeration; as the BBC story makes clear:
Cardinal O’Brien said: “I urge William Hague to obtain guarantees from foreign governments before they are given aid. To increase aid to the Pakistan government when religious freedom is not upheld and those who speak up for religious freedom are gunned down is tantamount to an anti-Christian foreign policy. Pressure should now be put on the government of Pakistan – and the governments of the Arab world as well – to ensure that religious freedom is upheld, the provision of aid must require a commitment to human rights.”
He said the [Aid to the Church in Need] report’s estimate of persecution against Christians was “intolerable and unacceptable”.
“We ask that the religious freedoms we enjoy to practise our faith, will soon be extended to every part of the world and that the tolerance we show to other faiths in our midst will be reciprocated everywhere,” he added.
I have long thought that to make Pakistan our principal recipient of foreign aid – as that benighted country soon will be, it seems – in the face of its deplorable record on the human rights of non-Muslims (it isn’t just Christians to whom some very brutal treatment is being meted out) shows on the part of the British government (and Labour were no better) a remarkable indifference to the very dubious moral character of many of those who receive that aid. Of course, I know the answer: that this has to do with our national interests, that we need Pakistan to fight the Taliban because of our exposure in Afghanistan, bla-de-bla-de-bla. But if indeed it is in our military interests to prevail in Afghanistan, and if that’s why we’re giving Pakistan so much “development” aid, let it come from the military budget rather than sneaking it in under the cloak of a hypocritical claim that we’re doing it our of our moral concern for the poor.
There is, of course, no d—-d morality about it. If there were, we would transfer the millions earmarked for Pakistan to the Southern Sudan, a brand new, grindingly poor and predominantly Christian country (it will become independent on July 11), which has just voted for its independence from the brutish tyranny of the Muslim north.
We have a responsibility to these people. Just as much as Pakistan, they are formerly part of our Empire (that’s why so many of them are Christians). And they have had a very rough deal, partly because during our hasty retreat from Empire, we allowed them to be parcelled up with the more powerful north rather than establishing a separate country. During the civil wars of the last half century, more than 2.5 million people have died, and more than five million have become refugees. So they need any support we can give them. Will they get it? Certainly not to the extent they need it. The brave new Republic of Southern Sudan has no strategic importance to us. It relies largely on subsistence farming. It has potentially some mineral wealth and exports large quantities of timber. It also has the river Nile. But its prospects do not look good. According to one account, the under-five infant mortality rate is 112 per 1,000, and maternal mortality is the highest in the world at 2,053.9 per 100,000 live births. In 2004, there were only three surgeons serving southern Sudan, with three proper hospitals, and in some areas there was just one doctor for every 500,000 people.
So, will we give them the help they need? The government says it will be providing North and Southern Sudan together (insultingly, not treating the new country as an independent nation at all) with a development assistance programme in total worth £560 million over the next four years. That’s quite a lot of money, but a drop in the ocean compared with what the new country will actually need, even if it were getting the lot. But how much of that will the South actually get? DfID isn’t saying: but they’re almost going out of their way to say, don’t suppose we’ve anything against the North for being Islamic butchers, or in favour of the South because they were Christian victims of the North’s brutality. And don’t suppose, either, that we’re going to treat the new republic like the independent sovereign nation it is: it’s still, so far as we are concerned, part of Muslim-dominated Sudan. And why is the government behaving in this way? Cardinal O’Brien has given us a key to the understanding of these things: it’s because we have an “anti-Christian foreign policy”. It’s all quite simple, really. But is this unfair? Well, if it is, it’s now up to DfID to prove that it is. Cardinal O’Brien has put the ball in the government’s court: and it can begin with Pakistan.