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