It is five years now since Pope Benedict gave his celebrated address at Regensburg on faith and reason. Deeply thought and beautifully expressed, it is largely remembered for neither of these things. Rather, it is remembered for a single line in which Pope Benedict quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor making a disobliging remark about the way in which Islam is spread by violence.
Benedict XVI did not say that he agreed with the line. Indeed, he went out of his way before quoting it to distance himself from it, remarking, among other things, on its “brusqueness”. But this was to no avail.
Around the world, political and religious leaders in Muslim majority countries demanded apologies and threatened repercussions. More striking was the impact on the ground. Across what President Obama calls “the Muslim world”, there were protests and attacks against Christians and Christian sites. In the Palestinian areas and elsewhere churches were attacked and Christians targeted. In the Somali capital, Mogadishu, an Italian nun was shot and killed in an Islamist ambush at a hospital.
Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups promised to respond to a quotation mentioning Islam’s connection with violence by waging a campaign of violence. “Say our religion is peaceful or we’ll kill you” was once again the order of the day.
By 2006, so soon after the Danish cartoons controversy, the world had got used to this. And it expected the inevitable stand-down. Within days the Pope was effectively forced to issue an unprecedented apology.
Culturally and civilisationally, the aftermath of Regensburg was a far greater disaster than the mass-murder in New York and Washington 10 years ago this same month. Such successful intimidation of the head of the Catholic Church by elements of the Islamic faith has had a palpable effect, all but silencing the rightful concern of Christians for their co-religionists.
I am not a Catholic – indeed, I am not even a believer– but I have great respect for the current Pope and for many activities of the Catholic Church worldwide. But in recent years it has become increasingly difficult not to notice a failing at the heart of the Catholic – indeed the whole Christian – world’s outlook. Years of intimidation, thuggery and violence have succeeded in silencing criticism not only of Islam but of violence committed in the name of Islam against Christians. This now amounts to one of the great moral failings of our time.
Not a week, in fact not a day, goes by when Christians are not somewhere in the world the victims of Islamist violence. You can pluck a week, any week, and the story is the same: burnings, lootings, rapes, murders. Every one of the most degrading and terrifying things that one group of people can perform on another is performed by Islamists against Christians.
At the very start of this year, in the once-wonderful city of Alexandria, the Egyptian Coptic Christian community were the target of a massive car bomb placed outside their church as they left New Year’s Eve Mass. Twenty-three worshippers were killed and almost 100 injured.
At Easter this year it was once again Christians in Iraq who were targeted. This time it was a bomb at the Catholic church of the Sacred Heart in Baghdad. Every day the same, or similar, stories occur. Persecution of Christians is so routine that in much of the western press it rarely even appears as “News in Brief” material.
Just this month so far, the Iranian authorities finally released a Christian they have had in detention for 359 days. His “crime”? He was accused of spreading Christianity and of having ties with Christian organisations. As Muslim leaders around the world continue to campaign at the United Nations and elsewhere to try to make illegal – and punishable – any criticism of Islam, restrictions of the rights of Christians continue unnoticed. The government of Kazakhstan is this month preparing to introduce a new law further limiting the rights of Christians.
In other countries often described as “allies” of this one, the rights of Christians are already formally and informally deemed of no significance. Just a few days ago two Pakistani Christians were beaten with iron rods and left for dead by a group of young Muslim men because they refused to convert to Islam. As in many other countries, Christians in Pakistan are regularly threatened with death for so-called “apostasy” or “blasphemy”. Last month a Christian girl was reportedly tortured and sexually abused after refusing to convert, while a 38-year-old Christian was shot dead in a Christian suburb.
Across the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and much of Africa, wherever Christians are in a minority and Muslims in a majority, Christians are subjected to oppression, murder and violence. In Somalia the terrorist group al-Shabaab is attempting to carry out a genocide against the Christians of Somalia. Similar efforts are ongoing in Nigeria and elsewhere. In other places the effort to “religiously cleanse” whole areas of Christians is more subtle. In Bethlehem the local Christian community has been decimated. Not by the Israelis, but by Palestinian Muslims. Since the Palestinian Authority took control of Bethlehem 16 years ago the local Christians have gone from a majority to a minority community. It is a familiar pattern. Around the region I have spoken to many of these victims. I have heard their stories and seen their tears. And the same question always occurs. The world is often unconcerned. But why are their fellow Christians not doing anything?
There are of course some Christian organisations – notably the wonderful Barnabas Fund – which persist in trying to raise awareness and assist persecuted Christians. But the cause is one of the most unpopular and unacknowledged of our day.
After the bombing in Alexandria at New Year, tenuously, carefully, the Pope expressed concern not only for the Copts of Egypt, but also for the Muslims of Egypt. From the leading imam of Egypt this drew a swift response. The Pope was accused of “bias” and “unacceptable interference in the affairs of Egypt”.
This has become one of the librettos of our time. And it is high time that it changed.
Douglas Murray is an author and associate director of the Henry Jackson Society think tank