Allan Massie: Let us pray that come it may

Christians are being murdered or subjected to a religious cleansing in many countries. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Christians are being murdered or subjected to a religious cleansing in many countries. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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The persecution of Christians is a significant hurdle to peace and prosperity, in the world writes Allan Massie

There was a debate in the Commons last week about the persecution and killing of Christians in countries where they are a minority – often a long-established minority. Jim Shannon of the Democratic Unionist Party, founded by the Rev Ian Paisley, declared that “one hundred thousand Christians will be massacred this year because of their beliefs”.

This startling, indeed horrifying, figure is almost certainly wrong. It’s based on an extrapolation of statistics relating to the killing of Christians over a number of years, and some 90 per cent of these recorded deaths occurred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the course of its long-running civil war during which Christians were killed by other Christians as well as by Muslims.

Nevertheless Christians are indeed being murdered or subjected to a religious (rather than ethnic) cleansing in many countries – for example, in Nigeria where the northern provinces are now under the control of Muslims implementing sharia law, and in the Middle East. It is an important, as well as horrifying, issue, and it was deplorable that the Commons debate was thinly attended,.

This evidence of indifference is in sharp contrast to the tone and content of a speech made last month by Baroness Warsi at Georgetown University in Washington DC. “All sorts of groups are suffering when they find themselves in a minority,” she said. But, she also wanted to focus on Christianity, “a religion which is suffering particularly in the wake of changes to the Middle East. These communities (of Christians) have lived in these regions for centuries, in places where their faith was born. Yet some are portrayed as newcomers… increasingly treated as outsiders. Minority populations have co-existed with the majority for generations. Yet, a mass exodus is taking place, on a Biblical scale. In some places there is a real danger that Christianity will become extinct. And one of the most disheartening visits for me was to churches in the Holy Land and see a deserted Bethlehem.”

The whole speech is worth reading – you can find it on the internet – and not only because Baroness Warsi, a former chairwoman of the Conservative Party, now minister of state at the foreign and Commonwealth office, is herself a Muslim. It is worth reading because her warning is important, and because the speech draws attention, not only to one of the saddest developments in the world today, but to a sharp division between two cultures: that of the western democracies, all rooted in Christianity, and the Middle East, Pakistan and parts of Africa where Islam is the dominant religion.

The Western democracies have been transformed over the last 60 or 70 years. Immigration from what used to be called the “Third World” has made them multicultural societies. Tensions have resulted, but, happily, only feebly. There has been a general acceptance of change, even if in many cases that acceptance may be only grudgingly given. Though demands to restrict immigration may, in many countries, be more numerous and strident than they were 20 years ago, almost nobody suggests that the transformation can, or should, be reversed. Countries like Britain, France and Germany now have a sizeable minority of Muslim citizens; and there are mosques in towns and cities where there were none a hundred years ago.

The opposite has happened, or is happening, in the Middle East. The old Ottoman Empire one of the casualties of the First World war, was a multicultural state. Muslims (both Sunni and Shia) co-habited with Christians (including the Copts of Egypt) , Jews, Alawites and Druzes. Further east, Pakistan, though established as a Muslim state, tolerated its minorities, among them the Christian one. All was never precisely sweetness and light. Nevertheless any time-traveller going back 200 years would have found a greater tolerance of difference, in the Middle East than in Europe.

The picture today is changed in another way too. The western democracies are more secular. Religion – that is, the Christian religion – plays a much smaller part in both public and private life than it used to. In contrast, in the Middle East and elsewhere, Islam is more militant and less tolerant; in its narrowest and most extreme form it has become a persecuting faith: hence the attacks on Christians, hence, the exodus of Christians, deprived of their property and afraid for their lives.

Islam is, however, itself a house divided. Sunni wars with Shia. The terrible civil war in Syria has become a struggle for supremacy with the rebels backed by Sunni Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, the Assad regime by Shia Iran. So bitter is this war that the various al-Qa’ida franchises now direct their attacks at Shia Muslims rather than at the West. In its vicious intensity the conflict between Sunni and Shia resembles the religious wars of Catholic against Protestant in 16th and 17th century Europe. And Christian communities settled in the Middle East since Biblical times are victims caught in the middle.

In that admirable speech at Georgetown University, Baroness Warsi, whose own family origins are in Pakistan, recalled that Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the westernized whisky-drinking lawyer who was the founding father of Pakistan, represented minorities in the new nation’s flag “with a strip of white alongside the green”. Tolerance of others and laws requiring toleration of minorities, are , she said, not only right, but beneficial, socially and economically. “In the time of the Raj, Britain knew that tolerance fostered peace and productivity.” So indeed it does. She insisted that freedom of religion and belief should be a universal concern.

But how to convince zealots of this? How to persuade them that another faith does not threaten theirs? How to make them see that hatred of others is also self-destructive? How to promote the great idea that “Man to Man, the warld o’er/ Should brothers be for a’ that” ? These surely are among the most urgent questions of our time, in this divided and bitter world.