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What can Christians in the West do to help those in the East?

Christian influence in Parliament is now so weak that we have to find new ways to defend the persecuted faithful

By on Friday, 7 December 2012

Iraq Attack Michigan Rally

Christians should expect to suffer. And, as the Holy Father told Christians on his recent visit to Lebanon, these “sufferings are not in vain”. But this is no excuse for resignation when, with an effort, persecution can be stopped or at least checked.

Our predecessors needed no convincing. In 1876, the revolting cruelties against Bulgarian Christians practised by Ottoman irregulars, the bashi-bazouks, aroused a storm of public indignation. Gladstone used it, but it was the churches that largely generated it. High Churchmen and Low Churchmen, Protestants and Catholics, together made the Government tremble. Disraeli initially dismissed the agitation as “coffee-house babble”, but soon regretted it.

What Balkan Christians suffered then, Middle Eastern Christians increasingly suffer now. But there is, so far at least, no agitation in Britain to support them. For Christians in Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, the approach of Christmas signals not rejoicing, but fear – the great feasts bring the faithful together and so make mass murder convenient. A pattern was established in Iraq. Two years ago Salafist extremists attacked Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation church (pictured) during Sunday Mass, killing or wounding nearly the whole congregation, including three priests. Plenty of carnage, maximum publicity, multiplied fear – these are grist to the mill of terror.

But now Islamist fanatics have renewed encouragement. Since the Arab Spring, which predictably announced a Christian winter, the Salafists’ soul-mates are either in charge of government or sufficiently powerful to protect those committing the atrocities. Constitutions are being re-written to increase the pressure against non-Muslims. Blasphemy laws are being strengthened to magnify the threat to all who don’t conform. This covenant between Islamist rulers and the mob is sealed in Christian blood. In October 2011, Egyptian forces massacred two dozen Copts. The Copts were protesting about the failure of the authorities to protect their religious freedom from attacks. The government’s answer could hardly have been clearer. Naturally, the White House, in its response, called for “restraint on all sides”.

With western – including British – support, the Saudi-funded Salafists are freely moving into Syria. As always, it is the Christians who suffer most. Already 50,000 have been driven out of Homs. Those in Aleppo are on the move. Nor is it just indigenous Christians who are fleeing, but the thousands of Christian refugees who arrived from Iraq, itself overturned and then abandoned by the West. To cap this record, Britain pursues the most hard-hearted policy towards Christians fleeing persecution of any major western country.

Middle Eastern Christians have always struggled to survive. Under Islam, Christians were never equals. The usefulness of individuals could result in privileges. But these brought the curse of envy. Christians enjoyed conditional protection, not rights. The creation of the state of Israel made the lives of the squeezed minorities elsewhere still more difficult. In the late 1940s the Muslim Brotherhood would chant: “Today is Saturday, tomorrow will be Sunday – O Christians!” In other words, Christians would soon follow Jews on the road to exile.

Now they do.

Christians are not collateral damage. They are the target. The West is not stopping it. Western politicians are complicit in it. Martin Luther King observed that “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends”. “The end” is rapidly approaching. What can the “friends” now do?

They have to take stock of reality and change it by the most effective means at hand. Unlike, for example, the well-established Israeli lobby those aiming to lobby on behalf of Christians are lamentably unseasoned. But they have the churches to work through. The Holy Father and increasingly the Catholic bishops are aware of the emergency. Aid to the Church in Need is an inspiration. The Orthodox are involved. Activity is now visible among the Anglicans. Bringing the Evangelicals to the fight is more difficult, though crucial.

As to techniques, the old and the new each have something to offer. The Bulgarian atrocitarian crisis focused famously on the “National Conference on the Eastern Question” held in the old St James’s Hall, where leading Churchmen, intellectuals and public figures denounced and demanded. It changed the political landscape. Public meetings still have value. But so do modern techniques. That is demonstrated by the campaigning of the Coalition for Marriage, which has shaken the complacency of the other Coalition leadership.

In the end, lay Christians acting in the public square have to change the politicians’ minds. The number of practising Christians in the upper reaches of British politics is now so small, and the number of visceral anti-Christians so large, that changing minds involves threatening interests, not appealing to conscience. The politicians, therefore, need to know that their lives will be made much more difficult if they do not publicly take into account the fate of Christians in danger.

Nor are the key demands difficult to formulate. First, the British Government must explicitly and unconditionally denounce attacks on Christians in the Middle East. Second, Britain should make all assistance, whether humanitarian, developmental or military, conditional on Middle Eastern countries formally and practically recognising the equal rights of Christians. Third, Britain must recognise the special danger which Christians in much of the Middle East face, because of their faith, and accept them far more readily as refugees.

The resistance to even such a modest programme will be great. But, in the end, the best insight into today’s politician is provided by the judge in St Luke’s Gospel, who “neither feared God nor regarded man”, but who was worn down by a widow persistently demanding justice. We must be persistent widows.

Robin Harris is a former member of Margaret Thatcher’s Downing Street Policy Unit. He is the author of The Conservatives: A History

  • Guest

    If it wasn’t for the belief in an afterlife, the perpetrators of such atrocities would not exist.

  • kentgeordie

    Thank you for this article. We should be ashamed of our indifference to the suffering of our fellow Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere.

  • la catholic state

    The terrible thing is that we Christians are responsible for putting in place our secular politicians with their secular indifference to the fate of Christians worldwide.  It is we who opted for secularism over Christendom.  And still do.  The priests in the pulpit should make people aware of their duty not to vote for anti-Christian politicians.  For too long the Church has kept out of politics….with disasterous consequences.

    On another note I totally agree with this article.  Cameron and Hague are biting at the bit to aid the enemies of Christians in Syria…..and only Mother Russia is stopping them.

  • Peter

    The totalitarian perpetrators of 20th century atrocities against Christians did not believe in an afterlife.

  • Peter

    Essentially Syria is a proxy war fought between the age-old division of Islam.  

    Iran-backed Shiite groups and their allies, in support of the Alawite ruling class, are battling Saudi-backed Sunni groups like the Salafis.  Both sides are perpetrating atrocities, and Muslim residents themselves are among the worst of the victims.

    This conflict could go on forever, since both sides have immense resources.  It looks like the only way out for Christians is to go to Lebanon, sad as that may seem.

  • Ludovicus

    Other than praying, and supporting Aid to the Church in Need, what CAN an ordinary, elderly Catholic do? Stand for Parliament?!

  • Kevin

    The common problem is not belief in an afterlife, it is denial of the divinity of Jesus Christ.

  • Kevin

    Hungary is a Catholic country and an EU member state.

    If the Hungarian government gave passports to all Christian refugees, the latter should then have freedom of movement anywhere in the EU.

  • la catholic state

    Great suggestion Kevin.  Former Communist Block nations have a greater appreciation of Christianity and a natural fear of secular/atheist regimes.  Maybe the Church could petition Hungary about this…..with support from all European Christians. .

  • la catholic state

    Islam is rapidly growing and becoming the dominant religion in the once Christian Lebanon.  This is due to Christian emigration….and a low Christian birthrate, which is a tragedy. The Church should do all it can to ensure not only peace in Lebanon…..but that it becomes a safe haven and stronghold for Middle Eastern Christianity again. 

    The Church needs to find some of her early ambition, cunning and confidence again.

  • Jeannine

    Except for maybe Poland & Ukraine, Eastern Europe is still largely atheistic even though the Christian Churches are allowed to pubically exist. Like the West there are pockets of strong Christian believers in Eastern Europe.

  • Jeannine

    Individually, we do not have to be indifferent to our fellow Middle Eastern Christians. We can pray for them. We can also donate money to charitable organizations that directly & efficiently help these poor Christians. Look into CNEWA & Aid to the Church in Need, both pontifical charities.

  • Jeannine

    IMHO a pious older person’s prayers esp praying the rosary, are very efficacious. Offer your sufferings to these Christians. Don’t stop praying! And pray with others if possible.

  • la catholic state

    True….but at a political level, former Communist Block nations have a greater appreciation of the historical role of Christianity in the formation of Western Civilisation….that is completely lacking in Western political elites of Britain France Germany Spain and Italy etc.

    Hungary mentions its Christian roots in its pro-life constitution…..much to the consternation of the EU (even though they still have legalised abortion).

  • la catholic state

    Is the US secretly supporting Morsi and the Islamic Brotherhood?!  The post-Christian West is supporting the enemies of Christians in the Middle East.

  • Kingslake

    Uh, Mr Harris, if you are going to talk about 1876 it should be remembered firstly that the issue was not religion but nationalism (though of course national lines coincided with religious ones) and secondly that the Bashi Bozuks were Circassian Muslims recently expelled from their own homeland on the north of the Black Sea by Christian Russia as it advanced south. Gladstone, who denounced the Turks in what is surely racist language e.g. “a unique specimen of an anti-human human being”, endorsed the political goals of the nationalisms in the Ottoman Empire. Though he sidestepped contemporary allegations of racism (e.g. by Burnaby) saying that he had called for the expulsion of Ottoman officials from the Balkans and not of Muslim Turks as such, Gladstone never condemned the ethnic cleansing which followed the end of Ottoman rule and which cost hundreds of thousands of Muslim lives.  
          You might try reading   “Death and Exile” by Professor Justin McCarthy (a practicing Catholic.)

    The biggest and simplest way for the West to have helped Christians in the Middle East would have have been for the US and its allies,especially Britain, to have refrained from invading Iraq in 2003  and  bringing down Assad today. The Christians of Iraq enjoyed greater rights and  freedoms under  Saddam’s brutal despotism than they do today when they live  under overtly Islamic sectarian rule and 
    many  have died and many others have fled. Less than a  decade later with its pro-Sunni Islam alliance the US is achieving a similar effect in Syria.

    By and large Mr Harris’s ‘key demands” are good ones, but no British government has ever followed that sort of line since 1918. More typical is its attitude in 1930-32 when Britain stood aside as the Assyrians of Northern Iraq were decimated by the Baghdad government–and only allowed the Assyrian patriarch to visit Britain on condition he did not publicize the sufferings of his people. Politicians who erode religious freedom at home in the name of sexual equality are not going to sacrifice the practical advantages that come from keeping silent over Middle Eastern Christians.

    Catholics should publicize  the plight of Christians when they are ill-treated, as indeed now happens with the Copts in Egypt, but they should be very careful not to become embroiled in political or nationalist movements and they should recognize that there are sometimes occasions when the boot is on the other foot.

  • Kingslake

    Yes it is of course, and it isn’t a secret. The trouble is that in backing the Muslim Brotherhood, Hilllary and William may be letting al-Qaeda get a strong foothold in Syria. What a brilliant and democratic thing to do!

  • la catholic state

    They probably don’t dislike al-Qaeda all that much either. 

  • Ocasomedia

    Good article Robin-lets all email this to friends and confront clerics and those enamored of ecumenism to demand a stop to the brutal persecution of Christians. Please suggest a good Christian aid agency.

  • Old Duffer

    To judge by the paucity of comments, and ‘likes’, it seems sadly as if this topic is not very important even to Catholic Herald readers.

  • MikeK

    If you want to help the Christians in the Middle East – then consider the Franciscans and donate money to them directly. Its the Franciscans who also look after the Holy Places in the Holy Land.

    If you want details, we can let you know howMichael

  • Janb33

    Mike, thank you for the Information I would like some further Information regarding the Franciscans in the Holy Land, I am guessing that your e-mail address is 

  • Old Duffer

    Well perhaps at the macro level you are right. The war is Saudi Arabia playing global chess against Iran. But much more is going on.

    The USA is not a Sunni nation and the revolt against al Assad would not have got under way if it had not given the uprising a green light quite early on.

    Look at the map and imagine Syria “our territoriy” with no Hizbollah, no Russian base, and no Bekaa valley (eventually). And being managed by its big brother Turkey. It must look in Washington like a real foreign policy triumph.