Rupert Shorrt: To be a Christian is a dangerous thing in too much of the world

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Massacre: Somali al Shabaab militants killed at least 36 non-Muslim workers at a quarry in Kenya on Tuesday (Reuters)
Persecution and discrimination are rife against Christians in Muslim areas. Let them heed the Koran’s gospel of love
For church-goers in too many parts of the world, Christmas is the season to be wary.
Three years ago, worshippers emerging from Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at St Theresa’s Catholic Church in Madalla, central Nigeria, were pelted with bombs by Islamist extremists. Thirty-five died and far more were injured. When I visited the church a few months later, St Theresa’s was no more than a shell. Yet priest and people were continuing to minister unbowed in a slum community.

Elsewhere in Nigeria, Christians face even greater horrors. Boko Haram militants in Borno, Yobe and other northern states have murdered thousands of Christian men — as well as large numbers of their fellow Muslims — and forced Christian women to convert before accepting lives of sexual slavery. The 300 girls kidnapped from their school in Borno earlier this year were Christian girls (Muslim girls would not have been at school in the first place), yet I have still to hear their faith allegiance mentioned a single time on the BBC or in much of the print media.

The omission reflects a major blind spot. Whether because young Christians don’t become “radicalised” and launch terrorist campaigns in Muslim-majority countries, or because there is a hierarchy of victimhood that rates Christianity low in the pecking order by comparison with accusations of Islamophobia (both real and imagined), a major human rights issue remains chronically under-reported.

Consider the broader picture. There is not a single country from Morocco to Pakistan in which Christians can worship without harassment; some of the oppression suffered by church members in this vast area is as horrific as anything witnessed in Nigeria. Last month in the Pakistani province of Punjab, for example, a Christian couple were tortured and burned alive in a kiln by a mob who falsely accused them of desecrating the Koran.

Elsewhere, the problem lies with discrimination as much as with persecution. In Turkey, a large body of law ensures that Christians and other minority groups are second-class citizens. Much of the Muslim world has great trouble accepting freedom of religious belief. A convert from Islam to Christianity or another faith is likely to face charges of apostasy, the penalties for which can include the death sentence for a man and life imprisonment for a woman.

Turkey was of course a Christian country long before it became a Muslim one — though this fact, too, comes as news to many. That the churches are now facing a slow death at the hands of fanatics in the Middle East is a particular tragedy given that Christianity is an export from the region, not an import to it.

Iraq, for instance, was a far more important ecclesiastical centre during the first millennium than France or Germany, and the Assyrian Church spread from the Euphrates to eastern China without ever becoming the state religion of any of the territories concerned.

Even under Saddam Hussein, Christians enjoyed a relatively quiet (if not wholly untroubled) life. Before the ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were 1.4 million Christians in the country. Now the figure has fallen below 300,000. Given the rise of so-called Islamic State, human rights monitors judge that the community will dwindle to 50,000 in the foreseeable future. In areas controlled by Islamic State, Christians face a bleak choice: either convert to Islam, pay a special tax (the jizya), leave, or be killed. There are 20,000 Syrian and Iraqi Christians currently languishing in refugee camps in Kurdistan.

Some draw only one major conclusion from all this: that religion as such is the problem, and that we’re therefore better off without it. This view is mistaken for two main reasons. Firstly, because violence is endemic to humanity. Islamist extremism is in any case more a political than a religious phenomenon, just as the Troubles in Northern Ireland had more to do with the legacies of British imperialism and Irish nationalism than with questions of faith.

And secondly, because we need to grasp that secularisation across the world as a whole has gone into reverse. Three-quarters of humanity professes a religious creed; that figure is projected to reach the 80 per cent mark by 2050. The shift belies assumptions that secularism is synonymous with freedom and progress. On the contrary, secular straitjackets once imposed from on high across the Communist world, and in places such as India and Egypt, have now been cast aside by the popular will.

What is more, Islam and, especially, Christianity are huge sources of social capital. On the positive side, faith-based conviction has mobilised millions of people to oppose authoritarian regimes, inaugurate democratic transitions, support human rights, and relieve human suffering. In the 20th century, religious movements helped end colonial rule and ushered in democracy in Latin America, Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

This is certainly not to suggest that religion is blameless. Violent intolerance is hardly unknown in church history: a century ago, Christians were abusing Jews in Russia and elsewhere in eastern Europe in the same way that Muslims are hounding Christians and other minorities in the Middle East today. But Christianity has by and large shed its triumphalist baggage since the Second World War, becoming much more tolerant and self-critical in the process. (George W. Bush foolishly called for a “crusade” against al Qaeda in an unguarded moment but the ensuing Iraq invasion was opposed by the leader of virtually every mainstream church in existence). The UN Declaration of Human Rights was largely written by Protestants. In the process, they rediscovered a layer of gospel teaching long concealed by institutional Christianity.

Though it contains some martial elements not unlike passages in the Old Testament, the Koran, like the Bible when read as a whole, is at bottom saturated in the language of love and forgiveness. This point needs greater emphasis. It is time for Muslims to embark on the same painful but ultimately liberating journey that Christians have undergone in recent generations.

Rupert Shortt’s book Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack is published by Rider.