Last year, on the feast of the protomartyr St. Stephen, U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that he had asked the Anglican Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, to set up an independent review into the global persecution of Christians.
The Foreign Secretary’s intention was for the bishop to map the extent and nature of this phenomenon so as to “assess the quality of the response of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and to make recommendations for changes in both policy and practice.”
Initially, it was hoped that the review could be completed by Easter 2019. However, as bishop explained in his introduction to an Interim Report released last week, “it rapidly became apparent that the scale and nature of the phenomenon simply required more time.” The final report is now to be delivered at the end of June 2019.
Detailing persecutions by governments and others in the Middle East and North Africa, Southeast Asia, East Asia, Africa and Latin America, the Interim Report draws some general and sobering conclusions.
The Scale of the Problem
The Interim Report notes that “persecution on grounds of religious faith is a global phenomenon that is growing in scale and intensity,” citing evidence for this from reports by the United Nations and others. The Interim Report goes on to suggest that it is impossible to know the exact numbers of people persecuted for their faith. But from the evidence provided by NGOs worldwide it is estimated that one-third of the world’s population suffers from religious persecution in some form, with Christians being the most persecuted group.
The Interim Report notes that: “academics, journalists and religious leaders (both Christian and non-Christian) have stated that, as Cambridge University Press puts it, the global persecution of Christians is “an urgent human rights issue that remains underreported.’” Even Western news sources such as The Washington Post have said, “Persecution of Christians continues… but it rarely gets much attention in the Western media. Even many churchmen in the West turn a blind eye.” Or, as journalist John Allen wrote in The Spectator, “[The] global war on Christians remains the greatest story never told of the early 21st century.”
And while the Interim Report acknowledges that ostensibly Christian government leaders, such as British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “have publicly acknowledged the scale of persecution, concerns have centred on whether their public pronouncements and policies have given insufficient weight to the topic.” In fact the report quotes former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, who said Western governments have been “strangely and inexplicably reluctant to confront” the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
The Interim Report looked at the work of the Pew Research Center, which concluded that in 2016 Christians were targeted in 144 countries. That’s a rise from 125 countries in 2015. That research also reveals that Christians have been harassed in more countries than any other religious group and have suffered particular harassment in the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa.
NGO Open Doors (OD) revealed in its 2019 World Watch List Report on anti-Christian oppression that “approximately 245 million Christians living in the top 50 countries suffer high levels of persecution or worse” — a rise of 30 million on the previous year. Open Doors stated that within five years the number of countries classified as having “extreme” persecution had risen from one (North Korea) to 11. Both OD and the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) have highlighted the increasing threat from “aggressive nationalism” or “ultranationalism” in countries such as China and India as well as from Muslim groups. According to Persecution Relief, 736 attacks were recorded in India in 2017, up from 348 in 2016. With reports in China showing an upsurge of persecution against Christians, for example, between 2014 and 2016 government authorities in Zhejiang Province targeted up to 2,000 churches, which were either partially or completely destroyed or had their crosses removed.
The report further noted evidence that shows not only the geographic spread of anti-Christian persecution, but also its increasing severity. In some regions, the report argues that the level and nature of persecution is close to meeting the international definition of genocide as adopted by the U.N. The eradication of Christians and other minorities on pain of “the sword” or other violent means was revealed to be the specific and stated objective of Islamic groups in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Nigeria and the Philippines. There appears to be an intention to erase all evidence of the Christian presence in these countries by the removal of crosses, the destruction of Church buildings and other Christian symbols. Furthermore, the report stated that the killing and abduction of clergy represented a direct attack on the Church’s structure and leadership.
The report says that the “main impact of this genocide against Christians is exodus. Christianity now faces the possibility of being wiped-out in parts of the Middle East where its roots go back furthest.”
In Palestine, Christian numbers are below 1.5 percent; in Syria the Christian population has declined from 1.7 million in 2011 to below 450,000; and in Iraq, Christian numbers have slumped from 1.5 million before 2003 to below 120,000 today. Put starkly, the Interim Report predicts that “Christianity is at risk of disappearing… in the [Middle East] region.” It quotes the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal who said: “‘Does anybody here hear our cry? How many atrocities must we endure before someone comes to our aid?”
The Interim Report goes on to give a sad litany of the types of violent persecution Christians suffer worldwide: the bombing of churches; torture; extrajudicial killings; kidnappings, especially the systematic targeting and kidnapping of Christian girls by Muslims; mob violence; rape and murder.
The Interim Report notes also a “social persecution often structural in nature and harder to detect,” namely, the private lives of Christians being subject to “widespread state propaganda attempting to regulate the thought lives of its citizens.” In countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Maldives citizens are not entitled to hold Christian meetings, even in the privacy of their own homes. In countries such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan the churches are tightly regulated with the freedom of religion and belief severely inhibited as churches are regularly raided. There is also discriminatory behaviour and harassment by bureaucratic means including the denial of permits and licenses to build churches in countries such as Egypt; the denial of burial rights in Nepal; the use of textbooks with contempt for non-Muslims in schools in Pakistan.
The Interim Report also sees how blasphemy laws in different countries are used against Christians, citing the high profile case of the Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi as an example.
The Interim Report concludes with talk of engaging in discussion with the British Foreign Office and its diplomats.
All well and good, no doubt, but what the report fails to recognize is that for all its talk of religious persecution abroad, many Christians in today’s aggressively secular Britain feel equally under attack because of their faith.
Only this year in London an elderly street preacher was arrested for a “breach of the peace” – proclaiming the Gospel – and while crying out, “Don’t take my Bible,” two police officers did just that and then proceeded to handcuff him before dumping him miles away from where he had been preaching. In addition, so-called “Hate Crimes” are routinely used to silence Christians who deviate from the state-sanctioned view of morality now being imposed.
Also, yet more shameful in light of the report it has commissioned, the UK government of Conservative Prime Minister May refused asylum to Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian who spent 10 years in jail after being sentenced to death for blasphemy. Despite being released from prison in late 2018, she remains in hiding, fearing that vigilante mobs would carry out the original court sentence. In light of this decision, the UK government sponsoring a report is one thing, its actions speak another language.
As the finishing touches were being put to the Interim Report, news was coming in of the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka that targeted and killed hundreds of Christians. As the report concludes: “The sad fact is that this report will be out of date even by the time that it is published.”
It is already.