Constantine's cross

Istanbul - Today is the date when many Christians commemorate Emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helen, central figures in the late Roman empire's conversion to Christianity. Historians still argue about the significance of this change. Sceptical thinkers like Edward Gibbon and Friedrich Nietzsche deplored it as a way-station in imperial decline. But in the collective memory of Christians, there is enduring gratitude for the Edict of Milan, issued by Constantine 1,700 years ago, when persecution gave way to religious tolerance. This early version of secularism did not last long; by the end of that century, Christianity had become an official credo, with the emperor enforcing its doctrines.

I spent the final part of last week at a gathering in Istanbul which commemorated the Edict of Milan as a landmark in the history of religious freedom. It was organised by a Catholic body—the Council of European Episcopal Conferences—and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which by tradition enjoys "primacy of honour" in the Orthodox Christian world. Participants included some lay historians and social scientists, including a Muslim Turkish scholar, Semiha Topal; but the majority were clergy or church-affiliated people from Europe and the Middle East.

A good chance, then, for comfortable Christians from western Europe to give heart to their co-religionists in tougher places further east? Well, some such messages of solidarity were conveyed, and prayers were offered for the two Syrian bishops kidnapped on April 22nd. But my strongest impression was different; I was struck by the resilience and practicality of the Middle Eastern clergy, and the sense of grievance and frustration articulated by Christian speakers from Europe.

Islam's resurgence as a force in the Middle East was something "that Christians must face with realism and creativity," declared Jordan's Bishop Maroun Elias Lahham, on a stoical note. By contrast, many Catholic speakers from western Europe were in a state of shock over the endless hard knocks which from their point of view, Christianity has been suffering in its old-world heartlands.

In this spirit, participants in the gathering were given a booklet prepared by the "Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians" based in Vienna. It was a compilation of news reports from across Europe which suggested that Christianity was on the defensive. The incidents listed included acts of vandalism or desecration against Christian churches; the failure of Christian health workers (doctors, nurses, pharmacists) to obtain opt-outs of conscience when asked to participate in abortions or sell abortifacients; and the similar fate of Christian marriage registrars, relationship counsellors or hoteliers who baulked at same-sex unions. Also mentioned were exhibitions, broadcasts and cultural events which mocked Christian symbols; and the fact that it was impossible in some countries for Christian parents to home-school their children or withdraw them from sex-education classes.

I certainly don't make light of any of these matters or underestimate the dilemmas facing the individuals involved. Many of these issues could be topics for future postings. But as I take in the bitterly aggrieved tone of the observatory's list of complaints, I can't help thinking that Christian churches and their advocates are sometimes short on self-awareness. They cannot easily imagine how European Christianity looks to people outside its ranks. It demands satisfaction in the name of freedom, but it fails to see that some people have difficulty associating Christianity with freedom.

Indeed, when people in Europe think about Christianity, what first comes to mind is a religion which has enjoyed huge privileges: formal political influence, control over schools and universities, magnificent monuments, a central role in national ceremonies. For many citizens, it is hard to conceive how a religion can enjoy so many historical advantages and yet consider itself ill-used. That reaction may often be unjustified. A lot of Christianity's formal power survives precisely because it is hardly exercised. In that sense, Christianity's role in Europe resembles that of the constitutional monarchies which it underpins in several countries. But as a matter of presentation, it is hard for European Christianity to cast itself in the role of victim, when it seems to the casual observer to enjoy so much ancient authority.

Rightly or wrongly, the State Department did not have very much to say to western Europe in its annual report, released yesterday, on global religious freedom. It pronounced that 2012 was a year of "negative trends" including the harassment and jailing of religious believers in China, from Uighur Muslims to Catholic clergy; deportations from Saudi Arabia of expatriates who challenged Islam's monopoly; the abuse of laws against "extremism" in Russia; the razing of churches in Sudan; and the ill-treatment of religious prisoners in Uzbekistan. The State Department never hesitates to scold European governments; it has often deplored the treatment of Scientologists in Germany. But in this year's report the main worries about Europe were prejudice, sometimes leading to violence, against Muslims and Jews.

There is no easy answer to European Christianity's presentational problem. Even if, for example, the Church of England were to disestablish itself or the Catholic church in Italy were to sell half its property, it would not automatically become easier for either institution to portray itself as a hard-pressed victim. But for ancient churches in historically Christian countries, a hard trade-off exists. Do they retain a foothold in the emperor's palace? Or do they reinvent themselves as a smaller (and, to the social mainstream, mildly idiosyncratic) category of people who seek a respectful hearing but do not expect, by virtue of history, to impose their views on others? In the Middle East and indeed Turkey, Christians have no such dilemma, because they face a struggle to survive.

Back to Roman history for a moment. In Christian discourse, Constantine and Helen are remembered as the people who established the Cross as a primordial symbol. (Constantine saw it in a vision; his mother rediscovered the original one in Jerusalem.) A symbol of what, exactly? In some contexts, military victory. In others, of the redemptive power of suffering and endurance. For the Middle Eastern Christians, it is the second symbolism that resonates most. From the Crusades to the Gulf war, they feel they have had to endure the consequences of the gung-ho spirit of their cross-wielding Western brethren.