The first thing I did when I heard of the slaughter at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris was to call my daughter and her boyfriend. They live close by and, while Paris is an enormous city, I was not at rest until I had spoken to them. That, I suppose, is the essence of terrorism: it not only murders the people it targets but also strikes fear and anxiety into the entire population. Islamist terrorism, in particular, knows this, which is why it is so morbidly successful. The newspaper and kosher supermarket murders changed all of us, and while the resistance – especially the French resistance – has been inspiring, we are also a deeply concerned people. Imagine, then, how Christians in Muslim-majority nations feel: they have lived through campaigns of mass killings and persecution for decades.
Almost two years ago on The Arena, my television show in Canada, I interviewed an Evangelical minister and activist who had just returned from Iraq and witnessed myriad examples of anti-Christian violence. The Arena is a nightly current affairs programme and, while I discuss religion more than most news hosts, I try to avoid being labelled a Christian apologist. I am far from embarrassed about my faith, but objectivity – or at least its appearance – is vital.
On this occasion, however, my guest asked me if he could put a Bible on the desk. I explained that, while I appreciated his dedication, I’d prefer that he didn’t. He replied that he understood, but that this particular copy of the Scriptures might be of interest.
It was, he explained, rescued from Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad, which had been attacked during evening Mass on October 31 2010 by a Sunni terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq (which later evolved into ISIS). Fifty-eight people were murdered that ugly night and more than 75 gravely injured.
The book handed to me was heavy and thick, the pages glued together in crimsons and purples by the blood of the martyrs who were slaughtered merely for being followers of Christ. This was not a book to be preached from, but a book that preached.
I felt embarrassed and inadequate for doubting my guest. The book remained on the desk, and if I could I would leave it there for every interview, every night.
As I write this article, I am holding in my hand some spent bullets and shrapnel used in that same attack, picked up from the floor of the devastated church. I use them as relics, trying by holding and feeling them to experience just a shadow, a glimpse, of the suffering of my brothers and sisters in Christ that night so far away. It is the least I can do.
Christians are the most persecuted people on earth. That’s the view of the United Nations, and other neutral and seldom especially pro-Christian international bodies. By persecution, I do not mean a lawsuit when an Evangelical baker refuses to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding or the increasingly annoying complaint of “the war on Christmas”. No, I mean the systematic ethnic cleansing, mass murder, persecution, rape, forced conversion and exile of millions of Christians, overwhelmingly in the Islamic world.
While Christians face persecution in China and North Korea, this is more about control than ideology and, anyway, they are moribund regimes. There have been some terrifying massacres in India, too. But this is contrary to the spirit of the country, and generally the government at both federal and provincial levels deals with any anti-Christian violence quickly and successfully.
That is certainly not the case in neighbouring Pakistan. There, the combination of a blasphemy law and societal attitudes that have become increasingly anti-Christian have resulted in a hellish existence for the country’s small community of faithful.
Two incidents at the end of 2014 epitomised the situation. In one, a young couple – 24-year-old Shama Bibi and 27-year-old Sajjad Maseeh – were murdered for alleged blasphemy. First, their legs were broken so that they could not escape. Then they were beaten to death. Then their bodies were burned beyond recognition.
In the other case, 50-year-old Asia Bibi, a mother of five, lost her appeal against a death sentence for blasphemy under the country’s draconian sharia law. She may be hanged or – as has happened in the past in such cases – released to the mob, who would lynch her.
Part of the horror about modern Pakistan is that such persecution is a relatively recent development in a nation founded by sophisticated leaders less as a Muslim state than as a state for Muslims. Christians were once well treated and even respected.
But Muslim fundamentalism and the politicisation of Islam have transformed Pakistan – and the situation is only getting worse. As Canadian-Pakistani author Raheel Raza says: “The Pakistani Islam of the past, of prayer and piety and charity, has been replaced by the Muslim Pakistani as the anti-Western warrior and a country where there is simply no place for the non-Muslim and, especially, for the Christian.”
The Christian experience varies from country to country. But nations with Muslim majorities are never comfortable – and, indeed, are often intolerable – for followers of Christ, with the possible exceptions of Jordan and parts of North Africa.
In Iran, while those born into Christian families do not face violent persecution, for converts there is every chance of oppression and the likelihood of violence and even death. Converts to Pentecostal Christianity have been executed by the state, as well as murdered in “mysterious circumstances”.
In Indonesia, a country founded on secular and progressive principles, Islamist terror is common. In one especially grotesque attack in 2005, three teenaged Christian schoolgirls were beheaded and their heads displayed as “a warning” to others. There have been many bombings, killings and church arson attacks in the country.
In Turkey, there is no concept of a Turkish Christian. While the Christian community is now small, various seminaries have been closed, clergy have been attacked and even murdered, the state still denies the genocide of 1.5 million Armenian Christians and there was a pogrom of Greek Christians as recently as 1955.
Any public profession of Christianity is illegal in Saudi Arabia. And there is persecution even in the idyllic holiday destination of the Maldives.
But in some countries it is worse – far, far worse. Iraq and Syria are examples of where secular regimes may have been dictatorial and often violent, but because of their Baathist nature they did not target Christians and even gave them protection. It is not hyperbole to say that the Iraq War was the worst disaster to befall Arab Christians in the past 50 years. From enjoying effective equality, the Christians of Iraq became a besieged people. Two thirds of the 1.5 million population have disappeared, through death or exile. The numbers are similar for Syria.
Canon Andrew White, known as “the vicar of Baghdad”, told me with tears in his eyes that “virtually every Christian in the region, if honest, would tell you they would rather leave”.
He said: “I used to walk the streets of Baghdad in freedom and safety, but after the war I went on parish visits with a tank in front of me and an armoured personal carrier behind me.”
He paused, trying to collect his thoughts and steady his speech. “Four little children were murdered in front of their parents just recently merely for saying they loved Jesus and would not convert to Islam.”
In Egypt, the situation has been difficult – and often impossible – for decades. While matters deteriorated under the brief Muslim Brotherhood regime, it was almost as grim when Hosni Mubarak was in power. In October 2013, on the edge of Cairo, Islamist gunmen attacked a Christian wedding, killing two adults and two girls. The children, aged eight and 12, were wearing dresses made for them by their mothers especially for the occasion. Many more people were wounded.
While the horror of the incident shocked some Egyptians, it didn’t particularly surprise them. Hundreds of churches have been attacked in the past three years, and there have been countless beatings and killings of Christians.
The Rev Majed el-Shafie is a human rights advocate. A Muslim born in Egypt, he converted to Christianity. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death. He now lives in exile in North America. “There are degrees of persecution,” he explained. “It starts with the basic fact that Christians are treated as second-class citizens. There is official and unofficial discrimination on many levels, from not being able to build churches to the police turning a blind eye to minor and even major crimes against Christians.
“Then there is the inability of converts to register as Christians. It seems like an unimportant matter to us in the West, but when your religion is required on government-issued identity documents and determines everything – officially or unofficially – from whom you can and cannot marry to inheritance matters, it is a matter of critical importance to people’s daily lives.
“But this is an inconvenience compared to the death threats and physical attacks converts receive, often from their own family members, which frequently force them into hiding. Christians by family history, on the other hand, can live their second-class existence in relative peace, but with the constant fear that they or their family members might be targeted for physical attacks. They may also face attempts at forced conversion, or rape, as punishment in response to the smallest indiscretion or for no reason at all other than their faith.”
In the northern states of Nigeria, where sharia law has been imposed, the massacres of Christians have been so extensive that precise numbers are almost impossible to determine. Boko Haram and other Islamist groups have ethnically cleansed entire villages and towns, murdered dozens of people at a time and committed the most horrendous kidnappings, beheadings and acts of torture. Indeed, when writing my new book on Christian persecution I had to limit the coverage of the Nigerian situation to a single period because there was simply insufficient space to tell the entire story of the past decade.
These are just a handful of examples from a handful of countries. The perennial theme is the rise of Muslim fanaticism. So the fundamental question is whether this is some sort of geopolitical spasm and a bizarre misinterpretation of Islam and the Koran, or whether there is something intrinsic within the Muslim faith that leads to religious inequalities and the persecution of Christians. That’s a question I prefer to ask rather than answer. Partly that’s because I am not fully qualified to pronounce on Muslim theology, but also because I genuinely believe that in such a delicate area a question often produces greater results than an answer.
That many Muslims do feel empowered to commit acts of gross violence by their faith is undeniable. But then again, many of their victims are fellow Muslims. Christians have seldom been treated with equality under Islamic regimes and have generally faced various degrees of persecution. But there are no simple, facile conclusions or solutions here.
What can be said is that the relativism and denial evinced by many in the West is grotesque, and that the situation is becoming worse rather than better. Unless we act quickly and firmly, much of the Arab world, as well as parts of Africa and Asia, will be Christian-free within a generation. The blood of the martyrs cries out – and very few people seem to be listening.
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (16/01/15)