Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable to see a headline about the genocide of Christians on the BBC website. While the corporation has run excellent reports from the frontlines of persecution – for example, in Iraq – it has largely failed to grasp that violence against Christians is a rising worldwide phenomenon.
But last Friday BBC News posted a report on its website headlined “Christian persecution ‘at near genocide levels’ ”. It described the interim findings of an independent review commissioned by Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt.
The review, led by the Anglican Bishop of Truro, the Rt Rev Philip Mounstephen, estimates that one in three people suffer religious persecution. Christians are by far the most likely to be targeted. It is worth quoting from the review at length:
Evidence shows not only the geographic spread of anti-Christian persecution, but also its increasing severity. In some regions, the level and nature of persecution is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide, according to that adopted by the UN.
The eradication of Christians and other minorities on pain of “the sword” or other violent means was revealed to be the specific and stated objective of extremist groups in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, north-east Nigeria and the Philippines. An intent to erase all evidence of the Christian presence was made plain by the removal of crosses, the destruction of Church buildings and other Church symbols. The killing and abduction of clergy represented a direct attack on the Church’s structure and leadership.
Where these and other incidents meet the tests of genocide, governments will be required to bring perpetrators to justice, aid victims and take preventative measures for the future.
These conclusions might seem self-evident to those who have been reading about anti-Christian persecution for years. But sometimes it takes decades for a political establishment to accept the obvious.
According to Jeremy Hunt – who deserves praise for ordering the report – one reason Britain’s leaders fail to recognise persecution is postcolonial guilt. Members of the establishment mistakenly believe that all Christian churches in the developing world were created by 19th-century Western missionaries. This is simple ignorance.
The communities most at risk were practising the faith centuries before St Gregory the Great sent Augustine of Canterbury to establish Christianity in Britain in 596. The interim report notes that the Christian faith risks disappearing from its ancient heartland in the Middle East: “In Palestine, Christian numbers are below 1.5 per cent; in Syria the Christian population has declined from 1.7 million in 2011 to below 450,000; and in Iraq, Christian numbers have slumped from 1.5 million before 2003 to below 120,000 today.”
Another reason that politicians and media have been slow to recognise persecution is that the perpetrators are overwhelmingly (but not entirely) Muslim. This is awkward as Western governments are struggling to integrate growing Islamic minorities and are wary of offending their sensibilities.
This is understandable, but when taken to extremes can lead to a denial of reality. Small but ultra-violent groups within the Muslim world are attacking religious minorities – not only Christians but also fellow Muslims who deviate even slightly from their interpretation of Islam. We cannot help the victims if we fail to identify the persecutors.
Jeremy Hunt thinks that the West is finally awakening to the scale of anti-Christian persecution. The Foreign Secretary said last week that governments had been “asleep” but that the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka had “woken everyone up with an enormous shock”.
We would like to believe this. But we should increase, rather than decrease, our efforts to make anti-Christian persecution better known. We have a tremendous opportunity to do so when the independent review publishes its final report this summer. We should be ready to write to our elected leaders, asking them to respond to the report’s findings.
If we become complacent, we will lose momentum that has taken years to generate. When as many as 100,000 Christians are being killed for their faith every year, we have no excuse for delay.
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