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To stop persecution, put conditions on aid

Islamists in Karachi protest against the acquittal of Asia Bibi (Getty)

While the civilised world looks on in horror the Sultan of Brunei proclaims that homosexuals can be stoned. The cries of outrage and calls for a boycott resound. I share the outrage, but why just Brunei and why just homosexuals? Other countries have such terrible punishments and other countries persecute other minorities, yet we carry on trading and shelling out aid regardless.

Specifically, we direct bucketloads of aid towards countries which persecute Christians and indeed other religious minorities, without making any attempt to attach conditions. We did not exactly rush forward to offer a safe haven to Asia Bibi, but I suppose a country which is sufficiently lacking in conscience that it abandons Afghan interpreters is never going to worry about what is happening to helpless Christians, whose cries of agony are too far away to trouble the ears of MPs in the bars and eateries of the House of Commons.

Let us for a moment lay aside the attacks by ISIS, Boko Haram and similar extreme groups and instead just look at the daily reality in functioning states such as China where there are an estimated 127 million Christians. More than 2,000 churches and crosses have been demolished in the province of Zhejiang alone and clergy are routinely detained.

In North Korea atrocities against Christians include enforced starvation, forced abortion and hanging over fires. In Nigeria one diocese alone reports 988 people dead, 71 Christian-majority villages destroyed as well as 2,712 homes and 20 churches. In India, where people have been dragged out of church and thrown into prison, there has been an increase in persecution since the rise to power of the Hindu nationalist BJP, according to both Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and the Indian Evangelical Network. Pakistan’s history of judicial persecution needs little more explanation than the case of the aforementioned Asia Bibi, who is but one of many. Yet the response from the Western world is a deafening silence.

Depressingly, the latest report from ACN states that since 2015 there has been a rise in oppression of and violence against Christians in all the countries it studied with the exception of Saudi Arabia, where it notes the situation was already so bad that it could not get any worse.

As I say, that is all happening even before we take into account the effects of the genocide in Iraq and Syria, about which the West in general did little and where, according to ACN, it was Christian organisations which have guaranteed at least some continued Christian presence.

There is, of course, a difference between persecution directed at one group by another in defiance of law and persecution which is sanctioned by the state itself. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, extremists on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide persecuted each other but the law itself operated for the protection of both. It is when law itself overtly or covertly encourages such persecution that citizens have nowhere to look except to the international community, and when that is silent the persecuted feel abandoned.

The fact that some luvvy has given up spending a shedload of dollars on a room in a grand hotel owned by the Sultan of Brunei is not going to be of any use or comfort to the next homosexual lying in a pit waiting for the first stone to fall and praying that his ordeal will be over quickly. Shockingly, a bishop shouting the odds about persecution in far-off places is likely to be no more effective, bringing no aid or comfort to the Christian being strung up over a fire. It needs states to respond to produce any effect and such response needs to be concerted and consistent.

Rich countries can start by attaching a few conditions to trade and aid. Christian tourists to places such as India, Pakistan and China can make a point not merely of finding a church to go to Mass but also of talking to the priest about the situation in his parish, bringing back the information and sharing it, not least with his or her MP.

A gradual build-up of pressure can work wonders over time. Asia Bibi would not have been acquitted but for the international outcry. Political leaders are nearly always sensitive to international opinion even if they pretend otherwise but a bit of action such as conditions attached to agreements can augment that.

In the words of the old adage, all that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing. That is as true of countries’ dealings with each other as it is of individuals. Meanwhile quo usque tandem? For how much longer?

Ann Widdecombe is a novelist, broadcaster and former prisons minister