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Persecution of Christians, Then and Now
Murders, church bombings, and pogroms: Today’s record does not compare well with antiquity’s.

An Egyptian Copt protests outside the Saints Church in Alexandria, Egypt.

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John O’Sullivan

That brings me to the second item that crossed my desk, namely an article in Standpoint magazine by Robin Harris (again, full disclosure: an old friend) on the failure of Western governments to protect Christians in the Middle East against an Islamist persecution that is threatening to drive Christians from countries where they have lived since the early days of Christianity. Millions of people and atrocious crimes are involved in these pogroms. Iraqi Christians, for instance, have fallen in number from about 1.2 million to 400,000 people since the Iraq War. Syrian Christians are flooding into Turkey and Lebanon to escape not only the civil war but also the Islamist repression already beginning in areas controlled by anti-Assad forces. As the fate of Mariam Fekry illustrates, the Copts in Egypt are under attack both from freelance Islamist groups and from authorities unwilling to protect the Copts.

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Such anti-Christian attacks are not confined to the Middle East, however. A Christian cabinet minister was murdered in Pakistan because he was seeking to repeal a blasphemy law being used as an instrument to repress Christians. Converts to Christianity there and in Afghanistan have suffered official sanctions, including the death penalty, as well as fatal attacks by mobs drunk on religious extremism (if not alcohol). Churches have been bombed and hundreds of worshippers murdered in Nigeria by Islamist terrorists, sometimes on the most fatuous of pretexts (e.g., a non-Christian tabloid article suggesting that Mohammed might have found a suitable bride among the Miss World contestants). Nor are religious attacks directed only at Christians. The Bali bombings of nine years ago by local allies of al-Qaeda were directed at what the bombers called Hindu “idolators.” Nor, indeed, are ordinary non-fanatical Muslims spared violence at the hands of Islamists. Muslims have been attacked, beaten, and killed for coming to the help of their Christian neighbors or for defending Christians in the courts. That said, the main impetus behind such brutalities is clearly an animus against Christians and Christianity, probably from a sense that Christianity is the main religious competitor to Islam in the developing world and, moreover, is winning the contest.

That brings me back to my original question: Are more Christians suffering from persecution today than in the past, particularly in late antiquity? My sense after reading The Myth of Persecution – in fact, I’m still reading it, so this is not a final judgment and therefore not a review — is that the answer to that question is yes. But that answer raises two further questions: Why? And what should be done about it?

Robin Harris argues convincingly that one of the main reasons for this spread of persecution is that Western governments have signaled by their inaction that they are not prepared to make a fuss about it with governments in Arab and Muslim countries. Sectarian blasphemy laws and violent attacks on Christians and members of other minority religions in Muslim countries continue unabated either because Muslim governments sympathize with them (arguably the Egyptian case) or because they are reluctant to spend political capital on fighting Islamist zealots and their parties (arguably the case of Pakistan).

Outside pressure seems an obvious solution. Yet Western governments resist intervening in behalf of embattled Christians lest that mark them as sectarian “Christian powers” or cast doubt on their status as purveyors of universal values and human rights. There is no such reluctance on the other side. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has treaties with the European Union about protecting specifically Muslim rights in Europe. In practice, however, the Europeans shy away from protecting Christians even on “universal” human-rights grounds. They want untroubled relationships with Arab governments on strategic and business grounds. They prefer a quiet life. And even if they were minded to intervene, they apparently haven’t found the right language to justify this particular “responsibility to protect.”

What they mainly need is a spine. But guile, diplomacy, and language are important too. Moss would like to avoid the language of “persecution,” since it raises an obstacle to negotiation and compromise with the alleged persecutor; Harris wants the West to take a clear and robust stand in defense of the persecuted. These two positions do not exactly contradict each other, but there is certainly a tension between them. Maybe the U.S. has found a (partial) answer in the International Religious Freedom Act, which employs the universal language of rights, focuses it on violations of religious freedom, and establishes a commission independent of the State Department to keep America aware of them. That commission has been relatively dormant in recent years. But with the recent addition of such commissioners as Katrina Lantos Swett and Princeton’s Robbie George, it is starting to look and act like a formidable ally for all those, including Christians, who are suffering for their faith. We shall see.

In the meantime, whatever the reason (and whatever the language we use), there is something very disturbing in the thought that compared with earlier times, our present age is the Age of Christian Persecution.

— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.



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