Defending Christians

afpcopticpol5951.jpgGavin Hewitt
For Coptic Christians this is Christmas Day. In Egypt it is being celebrated behind cordons of police and Christians are wearing black. 

This sombre mood has its roots in an attack last week on the al-Qiddissin (All Saints) Church in Alexandria. Twenty-one people were killed and 100 wounded by a suicide bomber.

Militant websites have posted a list of churches to be targeted. There are “how-to” manuals with tips on “destroying the cross”.

One site offered a reward to anyone who assassinated “a leading Church figure”.

These incidents follow a recent trend of attacks on churches and Christians across the Middle East. In October in Baghdad nearly 60 people were killed when gunmen attacked the Syriac Catholic Cathedral. Only last week bombs were placed near the homes of 14 Christian families in the Iraqi capital.

Concern has been raised, but there has been an absence of international outrage. France is trying to change that. Its Foreign Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, wants a European response. She has written to the EU’s foreign affairs czar, Catherine Ashton, asking for the union to draw up a plan of action in response to what is happening to Christians in the Middle East. She is putting the defence of Christians on the agenda and specifically wants Europe’s foreign ministers to respond. She said we had moved beyond the situation of being “simply sad and disturbed”.

Her intervention has been followed up by President Sarkozy. He said Christian minorities are victims of “religious cleansing” in the Middle East. “We cannot accept,” said the French president, “and thereby facilitate, what looks more and more like a particularly wicked programme of cleansing in the Middle East – religious cleansing”.

Even in Europe churches are having to be protected. In France, 19 were cordoned off by police during this period. Similar measures were taken in Germany. There were threats against St Mark’s Church in Frankfurt.

Now I have received e-mails from Muslim groups appalled at what is happening. Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya in Egypt – an outlawed militant group – were among those who spoke out. “There is no justification for such a crime… because it contradicts the teachings of Islam,” they said.

There are reports from Egypt of Muslims forming human shields to prevent further attacks on Christians. In one church prominent Muslims occupied the front pews to express their solidarity with those of another faith.

And yet many feel the outrage has been muted. Last May, after Israeli commandos intercepted a Turkish ferry carrying aid to Gaza and nine people died, there was international fury led by Turkey. My purpose is not to invite comparisons between events; it is rather to signal that pressure is growing for the international community to also make its voice heard over Christians being squeezed out of the Middle East.

And many are looking to the European Union to play a leading role. Yesterday the leader of the Copts in the UK, Dr Ibrahim Habib, was interviewed by the BBC and said “the EU has a duty to protect Coptic Christians”. Others are calling on the EU to “defend religious freedom”.

So what will happen? France, as I said, is putting the defence of Christian rights on the agenda. Ms Alliot-Marie said 20,000 Christians had fled to Kurdish areas since 2003.

After the attack in October a further 1,000 Christian families left Baghdad. Christian towns on the West Bank are seeing their numbers decline. The French want Christians to continue to live in these countries.

But there are limits to what can be done – particularly in Iraq. Others want pressure to be put on countries to lift restrictions on the building of churches, to allow the opening of seminaries, to insist that each religion has equal rights.

We shall see how far this gets, but in the weeks ahead Europe will be asked to act in defence of the rights of Christians.

A concluding thought in relation to my previous blog. In discussing Hungary’s new media laws someone pointed out that the BBC restricted comments on my blog. Yes, true. There are house rules. What we are trying to do is not stifle debate but to ensure, with some flexibility, that it is allied to the subject of the blog. We think that is fair and what most people want.