Comment Comment and Features

Only cutting off aid will end persecution of Christians

A Pakistani Christian girl leaves St John's Catholic Church (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

The Coalition government once suggested that it would take into account a state’s record on persecuting homosexuals when deciding the distribution of the aid budget. Christians should be so lucky.

Currently Pakistan receives some £400 million in aid from the UK but routinely persecutes Christians. The United Nations, which pronounces on Britain’s stop-and-search procedures as an infringement of human rights, is strangely reticent when it comes to condemning the plight of Christians who are fleeing Pakistan in their thousands.

As for those who raise their voices in Pakistan, retribution is as swift as it is predictable. Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minorities, and Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, were both murdered after speaking out against the systematic persecution. It does not take a genius to work out that if even the most senior in the land are unprotected then the lowliest certainly will be.

Arson, murder, intimidation and violence are everyday fare for Pakistani Christians, and those who complain face reprisals. One witness has told how his brothers broke his legs after he converted to Christianity. When he refused to deny Christ, they hired men to kill him. So he took shelter with his sister, whose home they then burnt and who died in the inferno. At this point his wife caved in, but he fled to Bangkok with his traumatised 12-year-old son. Even there the threats have followed him.

Nor is it just wild elements of the population that persecute Christians. The state, too, pursues them through its blasphemy laws, as the notorious case of Asia Bibi demonstrates. Insulting the Prophet appears to be a catch-all indictment for almost any Christian action, Asia’s case beginning just because she drank the same water as some Muslim women.

In 2008 the Christian population of Pakistan was estimated at 2.5 million out of a population of 164 million.

After Hindus, Christians make up the second largest minority group.

Those who escape the state can face years in refugee camps and get little help from the UN refugee agency, whose procedures seem slow and cumbersome. There is therefore little pressure from anywhere being applied on behalf of this openly persecuted group. The British government could, had it the will, redress this balance, because although no amount of appealing or reasoning is likely to change the minds of Pakistan’s government, cutting the purse strings might.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is far from the only place in the world where these atrocities are commonplace and ignored by authority. Whatever one may say of Assad’s regime in Syria, faith groups were left alone. When Aid to the Church in Need produced its survey of persecution in 2008, Syria did not feature. Now Christians blessed to escape the beheadings and crucifixions of ISIS are fleeing in their thousands to fill the refugee camps on their country’s borders, while the West dithers and our government focuses on Assad’s future, instead of on that of the millions in danger from ISIS.

The look-the-other-way attitude of the wider world is a curious business given that so much of that world is Christian or has large Christian populations. But the psychology is perhaps better understood if we look at what is happening here in Britain.

As I recently wrote elsewhere, we seem bent on giving away our heritage as fast as we can, from removing crosses in crematoria to a suggestion from a professor at a respected university that workers should not heat up sausage rolls in the office microwave in case it upsets those whose faith forbids pork. Christians can be forbidden to wear a cross at work, to say something as innocent as “God bless” or to uphold traditional marriage even on their personal social media sites if their colleagues object. When Christians themselves object the reaction is surprise or incredulity – surely we cannot be serious? It is time to show them that we are.

We have become hopelessly confused between respecting the faiths and customs of others and surrendering our own beliefs and heritage and therefore, by extension, we are less willing than we should be to stand up for our fellow Christians in other countries. The result is not to build greater understanding but to produce bafflement and disdain among other religions. Indeed, the Government often refuses even to call the sufferers “Christians”, but instead talks about “minorities” as if somehow that might make intervention more palatable.

Whatever we call them, they need our help and must be praying for it every hour of every day. The UN needs more courage and compassion, and so does Britain. The likes of Asia Bibi and every poor unknown soul suffering in obscurity will not be helped by pious words. We need to give our disapproval teeth through the age-old medium of filthy lucre.

Ann Widdecombe is a novelist, broadcaster and former prisons minister

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (16/10/15)

Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!