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Persecution Rising

8/1/2015

Lord David Alton

A Syrian man passes a child to safety in Syria

A Syrian man passes a child to safety as thousands of refugees cross the border into Akçakale, Turkey, June 14. Five years of civil war and Islamic State attacks have left 11.6 million Syrians — nearly half the country’s population — either refugees or internally displaced. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Editor’s Note: Lord David Alton, a member of the British House of Lords and professor of citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University, published a special report on the worldwide phenomenon of Christian persecution for the Geopolitical Information Service (www.geopolitical-info.com) July 1, 2015. The text below is abridged from his report and is reprinted with permission. To support the ongoing efforts of the Knights of Columbus Christian Refugee Relief Fund, visit christiansatrisk.org.

Today, Christians are being persecuted from North Korea to Pakistan, from China to Sudan. In the Middle East, where Christians made up a quarter of the population 100 years ago, they now number less than 5 percent. If current demographic trends continue, the Middle East’s population of 12 million Christians will be halved by 2020.

Systematic persecution is not a new phenomenon. The Roman Empire outlawed the new growing Christian faith and condemned all believers to death. The campaign against Armenian Christians was among the first genocides of the 20th century 1,600 years later. According to Gyula Orban, an official of the Catholic relief agency Aid to the Church in Need, approximately 10 percent of the 2 billion Christians in the world suffer persecution today.

AGONY IN SYRIA AND IRAQ

In Syria, militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) have already killed thousands and are terrifying the Christian population in Aleppo, the second largest city in that country. According to Aleppo’s Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart, his archbishopric has been hit more than 20 times by mortar shells and is under fire again.

“After attacks on Maloula, Mosul, Idleb and Palmyra, what is the West waiting for before it intervenes?” said Archbishop Jeanbart in a desperate email message in late May. “What are the great nations waiting for before they put a halt to these monstrosities?”

There are fewer than 100,000 of the 250,000 Christians left in Aleppo. Churches and ancient monasteries have been blown up, and bishops and priests — such as Father Jacob Murad, Bishops Hanna Ibrahim and Paul Yazici — have been abducted, some executed. Torture, beheadings and even “crucifixion” — by hanging corpses of the executed on crosses — has become commonplace.

In the seventh century, Christians living in what is now Syria had to pay half an ounce of gold to pay for the privilege of living under the protection of the Islamic caliphate. Failure to pay left two options: convert or be killed. So too Syrian Christians living in areas controlled by IS today are forced to convert to Islam or pay a punitive jizya tax.

Vast tracts of Syria and Iraq have become lawless and ungovernable. Law-abiding minority communities — mainly Christians — have been caught in the crossfire. They have lived in places like Aleppo and the Nineveh Plains for 2,000 years and continue to worship and speak in the Aramaic language. Many Christians have attempted to flee Syria, some risking treacherous journeys across the Mediterranean.

The brutality of IS manifests itself in beheadings accompanied by a blitzkrieg on antiquities and ancient artifacts, and the destruction of Christian churches and the defilement of Shia mosques. The fall of Palmyra in Syria follows the bulldozing of the ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq, and demolition of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas and the Sufi monuments in Mali. In an attempt to eradicate the collective memory of humanity, IS is destroying all that is “different,” while cynically smuggling and selling the antiquities that they do not destroy to fund their campaign.

IS is also at war with other Muslims and other faith traditions. The group presents this as a clash of civilizations, but the manner in which they debase all that is civilized simply pits civilization against barbarism. The IS terrorist attack in June, in which 38 tourists were killed in Tunisia, accompanied by atrocities in France and Kuwait, highlights the murderous outrages the group is willing to commit.

HAVOC AND FEAR

IS describes itself as the Islamic State, but such a title is a misnomer. It is certainly not a state and many Muslim scholars challenge the Islamic basis on which it forces Christians to convert or die. This same hatred of Christians has been nurtured by other radical groups from the Taliban to al-Shabaab and Boko Haram.

In April, al-Shabaab-affiliated Islamist militants in Kenya specifically singled out Christians in an attack where 147 students died at Garissa University College.

Boko Haram is creating havoc and fear in Nigeria, graphically illustrated by the February 2014 abduction of young girls and the murder of 59 students from the Federal Government College in Buni Yadi, Yobe State, while they slept. Churches have been bombed, pastors executed and Christians targeted despite the government’s insistence that it is tackling Boko Haram. The terror group, which killed more than 80 people in attacks in June, openly says its interim goal is “to eradicate Christians from certain parts of the country.”

More than 10 years since Sudan’s civil war, unremitting violence has led to a massive displacement of predominately Christian populations there and a vast number of refugees.

Sudan’s neighbor, Eritrea, is the North Korea of Africa with one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Nearly 18 percent of the 200,000 immigrants reaching Europe in 2014 come from Eritrea, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In May, protestors gathered in London to mark the 13th anniversary of the imposition of severe restrictions on churches in Eritrea, the deposing and house arrest of the Eritrean patriarch, Abune Antonnios, and the imprisonment of other Christians. Fleeing Eritrean Christians braved arduous journeys to reach Libya only to be captured there by IS and beheaded.

Egypt was horrified in February by the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts who were working in Libya. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called for a “religious revolution” in 2015 to re-examine those aspects of Islamic thinking that “make an enemy of the whole world.” But, despite his calls for religious renewal, “contempt of religion” and blasphemy charges are occurring more frequently.

Among the many other countries in which Christians and others are persecuted for their beliefs is Pakistan.

British politicians have raised the tragic case of Nauman Masih, a 14-year-old Christian boy, who was beaten, tortured and burned alive in Lahore April 9, after he was identified as a Christian.

“COUNTRIES HAVE TO MAKE THE CAUSE OF THOSE WHO SUFFER FOR THEIR RELIGION OR BELIEF THE GREAT CAUSE OF OUR TIMES.”

In late 2014, a Pakistani Christian couple was burned alive in a kiln by a mob of more than 1,200, and a year earlier, 85 Anglicans were killed by a bomb attack while praying in their church in Peshawar. These incidents followed the assassination of Pakistan’s only Christian Cabinet Minister, Clement Shahbaz Bhatti in 2011. Nobody has been convicted for this crime.

Pakistan’s first President, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, said at its founding in 1947, “Minorities, to whichever community they may belong, will be safeguarded. Their religion, faith or belief will be secure. … They will have their protection with regard to their religion, faith, their life and their culture.”

Yet the minorities in Pakistan — including the 3 million Christians, accounting for 1.5 percent of a population of 182 million — are neither safeguarded nor protected today.

OUR COMMON HUMANITY

World leaders face the challenge of championing and upholding the rule of law and the protection of religious minorities.

The UN and our Western legislators, policymakers and media first need to become literate about religion. The BBC’s chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet, said, “If you don’t understand religion — including the abuse of religion — it’s becoming ever harder to understand our world.”

The central question of how nations learn to live together, tolerantly respecting and rejoicing in the dignity of difference, is at the heart of all these challenges. It means emphasizing a common humanity; promoting the ability of members of all religious faiths to manifest their religion; and allowing all people to contribute openly and on an equal footing to society.

Aid programs and humanitarian interventions have to reflect values and be used to protect minorities, provide security, and open the possibility of decent lives for those currently trying to flee their native homelands. Countries can apply “soft power” — or smart power — in the way aid is provided and by shutting it off, or threatening to shut it off, where necessary — and in how values are shared through education and the media.

The immediate and overarching concern remains the plight of Middle Eastern Christians. The international community has to be more consistent in its moral outrage rather than denouncing some countries for their suppression of minorities while appeasing others who directly enable jihad through financial support. Western powers are seen as hypocrites when business interests determine responses to human rights abuses.

Nonetheless, this is not about Christians versus Muslims. Religious persecution takes place all over the world, and those responsible should be prosecuted. The three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — need to ask deep questions about what they can do to remedy these issues — and become transformative agents in conflict management, reconciliation and healing. Can the great faiths motivate their followers to be peace-makers, peace-builders, protectors of minorities, and practitioners of pluralism, tolerance, mutual respect and the upholding of the rule of law?

Countries have to make the cause of those who suffer for their religion or belief the great cause of our times. Christians, Jews and Muslims privileged to live in free societies have to challenge cold indifference and speak up and defend humanity.

LORD DAVID ALTON, professor of citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University and a former member of the British House of Commons, was nominated to the House of Lords in 1997 and speaks regularly on human rights and religious liberty issues.