Christians are being thrown to the lions again

Archbishop Justin Welby’s choice of the word “martyrs” to describe the 81 Pakistani Christians killed when their church in Peshawar was targeted by suicide bombers has raised eyebrows. It is the sort of language avoided nowadays in the secular, sceptical West, with its taken-for-granted religious freedoms, in case it makes people feel uncomfortable.

Yet in terms of Christian history the Archbishop of Canterbury’s description is surely accurate. These 81 worshippers at All Saints Anglican church, a 19th‑century colonial legacy in the Kohati Gate district of the city, died because they insisted last Sunday on practising their faith, as martyrs in all religions have done through the centuries.

In contrast to some of the more high-profile Christian martyrs, though, they were going about their religious practice quietly and without fuss, as befits a minority community of just 2.5 million (or 1.5 per cent) in a nation of 175 million that is overwhelmingly Muslim. They weren’t evangelising. They weren’t discussing missions to convert Muslims. And they weren’t falling foul of Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws. They were simply, in the archbishop’s words, “testifying to their faith in Jesus Christ by going to church”.

The strength of Archbishop Welby’s language reflects a wider frustration: that in the West the present appalling suffering of small, though long-established Christian communities in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and beyond has hardly made it on to the agenda. Perhaps it requires the use of a word like martyr to make people sit up and take notice.

There is, of course, a terrible irony in this apparent Western indifference and hand-wringing, as the Catholic Archbishop of Karachi, Joseph Coutts, has pointed out. He recalls the reaction he faced in Pakistan from otherwise well-disposed Muslim colleagues and friends at the time of America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. “Why can’t you have a word with your fellow Christian, George Bush,” he was repeatedly asked, “and tell him to stop.”

In Peshawar this week, the Islamist extremist group Tehrik-e-Taliban Jundullah claimed responsibility for the attack on All Saints, saying it was their way of responding to US drone strikes. Christian churches are seen by these fundamentalists as outposts of Western influence.

Yet in the West itself, where Christianity may be nominally the state religion but is in reality on the wane, politicians are extremely reluctant to be seen to be taking the “Christian side”. “We don’t do God,” as Alastair Campbell infamously remarked of his closet Christian boss, Tony Blair.

So next month, when Patriarch Gregorios III, the Damascus-based leader of Syria’s besieged Catholic community, comes to London, he has been granted an interview with a junior Foreign Office minister. Though he has been so publicly engaged with tackling the Syrian crisis on the international stage, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, is apparently happy to delegate the opportunity to hear at first hand why perhaps a third of Syria’s more than 2 million-strong Christian community has now fled the country as a result of being caught in the crossfire of the civil war.

“We have been talking for a long time about the persecution of Christian communities around the world,” says Neville Kyrke-Smith, director of the charity Aid to the Church in Need, “but no one has wanted to listen. Some thought we were exaggerating. Others said we were mad. The problem seemed to be that it was seen as politically incorrect to take too much notice of Christians suffering in case it was interpreted as casting a slur on the whole of Islam.”

Such tender consciences are a Western luxury and obscure the facts. In 2010, for example, before the current crisis was sparked by the Arab Spring, the Committee of Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, an EU‑wide body, produced a report that spoke of 100 million Christians around the globe facing persecution because of their beliefs. It estimated that three quarters of all religious persecution worldwide was faced by Christians.

The word “bishops” in the name of the body issuing the warning may have caused some to suspect special pleading. But the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has lent her support. In November of last year, she told a gathering of the Lutheran Church that Christianity was “the most persecuted religion in the world”.

When challenged on their failure to speak up sufficiently loudly for religious liberty, Western statesmen tend to fall back on the excuse that the problem is more to do with geopolitics than human rights. And politics has certainly played a part. In Egypt, for example, the Coptic Christian minority, resident since Biblical times, and making up 10 per cent of the population, enjoyed a generally benign relationship with the military dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak (though Pope Shenouda III, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church for 40 years until his death in 2012, spent a decade under house arrest during the rule of Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat).

While there had been a long history of low-level violence against Copts in some areas by extremist Muslim groups, determined to drive them out and so “purify” their country, the Arab Spring saw Egypt’s Christians put on the front line. They were accused by protesters of sheltering in the shadow of the deposed oppressor, and even of prospering economically thanks to his support. (In many Middle Eastern countries, the Christian minority is disproportionately middle-class, which may be another rod for their detractors to beat them with.)

A wave of disorder saw 80 Coptic churches, schools and hospitals – the latter facilities used by all, regardless of belief – attacked. Minya province in Upper Egypt has seen the worst of the violence most recently, with supporters of the ousted President Mohammed Morsi accusing Christians of backing the army’s removal of the elected government.

“The Muslim Brotherhood thinks that the Christians were the cause of Morsi being ousted,” says Bishop Kyrillos William of Assiut, scene of some of the worst violence. “But the Christians were not alone. There were 35 million who went on the streets against Morsi. Christians are being punished. We have been scapegoated.”

And that same scapegoating has been experienced by Syria’s Christians – who, too, make up around 10 per cent of the population. They had enjoyed a measure of protection in their dealings with the regime of Bashar‑al‑Assad, and before that his father Hafez. But as the civil war has intensified, they have found themselves caught between the two sides in the conflict.

Earlier this month the predominantly Christian town of Maaloula, one of the few remaining places in the world where Aramaic, the language used by Jesus, is still spoken, became a battleground between fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group and Syrian government troops. Where once 5,000 Christians had lived at peace with 2,000 Muslim neighbours, murder and sectarianism stalked the streets, with echoes of an earlier conflict in Bosnia.

“Traditionally, Christians in Egypt and Syria have seen themselves as a bridge and a buffer between other communities that are often at odds,” says Neville Kyrke‑Smith. “They are often the ones who work hardest for peace and reconciliation – in Syria, between the Alawite minority who support President Assad and the Sunni Muslims of the opposition. Now it is civil war, and they refuse to take sides, everyone else sees them as their enemies.”

So bad is the situation in Syria for Christians right now that those Iraqi Christians who had fled there after the American invasion of their country saw them targeted by militias are now choosing to return home.

In one notorious attack by Sunni militants on the Catholic cathedral in Baghdad in 2010, 58 worshippers were murdered. And even though attacks are continuing against an Iraqi Christian population that has dropped from 1.4 million to 200,000 in just a decade, they are now at a lower level than in Syria and so exiles are returning.

That is the appalling choice facing Christians in the Middle East. In the same lands where Christianity first blossomed, it now faces extinction, many warn. In Saudi Arabia, with an estimated one million Christian migrant workers, there is not a single Christian church allowed.

In Pakistan, by contrast, there is at last official tolerance, though the country’s strict blasphemy laws leave the Christian minority prey to constant attack. In March of this year 178 Christian homes and two churches were torched when a 3,000-strong mob attacked Joseph Colony, near Badami Bah, Lahore, following an accusation that a 26‑year-old Christian had defamed the Prophet Mohammed.

There have been efforts to reform the blasphemy laws, especially where they are used to target Christians, but the two politicians who proposed this course of action have both been murdered by Muslim fanatics – the governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, in March 2011, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in the cabinet, soon afterwards.

“All the indications we are receiving from our partners in the field,” says Neville Kyrke-Smith, “are that the Western policy of silence is allowing the situation to get worse rather than better.”