Written by Ken Starr
Iraqi Christians light candles outside the Virgin Mary Chaldean church (Church of Our Lady of Sacred Heart) after attending a mass Sunday in Baghdad. / AFP/Getty Images
In a recent speech at Georgetown University, a British cabinet minister said some startling things about Christians in the Middle East:
“Across the world, people are being singled out and hounded out simply for the faith they hold…. (Middle Eastern Christians) are rooted in their societies, adopting and even shaping local customs. Yet … (a) mass exodus is taking place, on a Biblical scale. In some places, there is real danger that Christianity will become extinct.”
Such a public expression of concern about Christians is unusual for a Western government official. This speech was particularly striking because it was delivered by a Muslim – Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a Brit born of Pakistani parents. Warsi understands better than most the costs to the Middle East if Christians flee.
The silence of Western governments about this phenomenon and its primary cause – the rise of Islamist extremism – is at best short sighted. The Christian exodus represents not only a humanitarian crisis, but a looming national security problem for the West.
As Baroness Warsi notes, Christians have helped shape the cultures they are now fleeing. In Iraq, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, Christian communities have lived and worked for almost two millennia. If they continue to exit the region, or if they continue to be persecuted and repressed, the increasingly thin chances that Middle Eastern countries will develop into stable, peaceful societies, free of violent religious extremism, will virtually disappear.
The very concept of freedom, including religious freedom, has ancient Christian roots. Contrary to popular perceptions, the precursors for modern ideas of liberty are rooted in Jewish scripture and the writings of early Christians such as St. Paul, Tertullian and Lactantius. Notions of universal human dignity and freedom were developed by Medieval scholastics and Protestant reformers, and were first codified in the American founding. In the late second and early third centuries, Tertullian became the first thinker in history to use the phrase “religious liberty,” and, furthermore, to argue that religious liberty is a human right belonging to all people regardless of class or creed. A hundred years after Tertullian’s invention of the concept, it formed the basis of the Edict of Milan of 313, which granted religious freedom to all sects throughout the Roman Empire.
Early Christians, such as the fourth-century Greek theologian Gregory of Nyssa, developed radical critiques of slavery and sexual coercion. In fact, according to Oklahoma historian Kyle Harpe, Gregory was the first person ever to have argued for the basic injustice of slavery. The same high view of human nature and freedom that inspired Gregory leads Coptic Christians in Egypt today to fight for the rights of all people in the current constitutional drafting process, including the rights of atheists. And it leads Christians in India – often joining with non-Christians – to battle against untouchability and the sexual enslavement of women and children.
Even the often-decried missionary activity of Christians in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America has encouraged economic growth, female literacy – a key sign of a successful society – and, in some cases, democracy itself. National University of Singapore political scientist Robert Woodberry argues that Protestant missionaries catalyzed the global spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations and colonial reforms, thereby creating the conditions that made stable democracy more likely. In fact, Woodberry draws on historical evidence and sophisticated statistical methods to prove that the presence of Protestant missionaries explains about half the progress toward democracy in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania.
Of course, Christianity’s long story has been mixed. And other minorities also are subject to religious persecution around the world, including Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. But the persecution and flight of Christians deserves far more attention than it is getting by Western governments. Baroness Warsi should be applauded for her courage in speaking out.
The United States in particular should mount an aggressive diplomatic initiative to convince Middle Eastern societies that they must protect their Christian communities, and ensure that they become equal citizens in both law and culture. If those societies fail in this critical task, the results could be catastrophic – for the Christians themselves, and for the great causes of global peace, freedom and justice for all people.