Advertisement Columban MissionariesColumban Missionaries Would you like to advertise on ICN? Click to learn more.

Religious persecution of Christians around the globe - the future prognosis by Lord Alton of Liverpool

Armenian civilians being marched to prison by Ottoman soldiers through Harput, to Elâzığ  1915

Armenian civilians being marched to prison by Ottoman soldiers through Harput, to Elâzığ 1915

Franz Werfel's disturbing and prophetic novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh), written in 1933, tells the story of genocide against Armenian Christians and foreshadows the rise of Hitler - whose Nazi thugs were burning Werfel's books, in his native Austria and in Germany.

In this centenary of those events it is worth reminding ourselves of how the Ottomans attempted to eradicate the Armenian Christians and perpetrated further acts of genocide against their other Christian minorities, including Greeks and Assyrians - incubating that most dangerous pestilence: the hatred of whole peoples.

Not only should we recall those terrible events in order to give the lie to Hitler's question "who now remembers the Armenians?" - insisting that we will never forget - but also because that deadly phenomenon of deportations, concentration camps, rape and killings did not end in 1915 with the Ottomans. Hitler thought he could get away with it because people hadn't really protested against the genocide, and there wouldn't be any consequences for him. He assumed (correctly) that people would murmur but not take any real action and therefore he could continue his reign of terror against the Jews and others.

There is an old Armenian saying, echoed in Musa Dagh, that "to be an Armenian is an impossibility". It is a saying which, in the 1930s, would be understood by Jews, and which today is the experience of persecuted Christians - from North Korea to Pakistan, from China to Sudan: the world over. Prince Charles has described threats to Christians in the Middle East as "an indescribable tragedy".

In the last census of the Ottoman era, conducted in 1914, Christians made up a quarter of the Middle East's population. Now they are less than 5%. Christians in the Middle East represent less than 1% of the world's Christians. If the current demographic trends continue, the Middle East's population of 12 million Christians will be halved by 2020. As things stand, the current prognosis for Middle Eastern Christians could be fatal.

Systematic persecution is not a new phenomenon - consider the fate of St.Stephen or the persecutions of Nero or Diocletian - or even the Armenians - whose ancient kingdom became, in the fourth century, the first nation to officially embrace Christianity and who, according to Eusebius and Tertullian, were subjected to persecution by the Romans. The Empire had outlawed the new growing Christian faith and condemned all Christians to death.

Those events were recalled, this month, in the Glyndebourne premiere of Gaaetano Donizetti's opera, Polyeucte, based on Pierre Corneille's play about the martyrdom of Saint Polyeuctus and set in the third century in Melitiene, the capital of ancient Armenia.

Sixteen hundred year later the campaigns against the Armenian Christians and, in German South West Africa (Namibia) of racial extermination of the Herero and Nama people, would become the victims the first genocides of the twentieth century.

Werfel's brilliant Musa Dagh homes in on a small community of 5,000 Armenians living in Hatay Province, with links to communities in, Zeitun, Alexandretta, Aleppo, and Mosul - where perpetrators of genocidal, systematic, crimes against humanity once again persecute with impunity.

Although, according to Gyula Orban, an official of Aid to the Church In Need, the Catholic relief agency founded by Norbertine priest Fr Werenfried Von Straaten, approximately 10 percent of the 2 billion Christians in the world suffer persecution, where other than Syria and Iraq might a review of the plight of the world's persecuted Christians begin?

This month, Aleppo's Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart described how his archbishopric in Aleppo - already hit more than 20 times by mortar shells - had once again come under fire and how Christians had lost lives, homes and livelihoods - and are being traumatised by the conflict.

He says: "ISIS, which has already killed thousands in the region, is terrifying the faithful in Aleppo. After attacks on Maloula, Mosul, Idleb and Palmyra, what is the West waiting for before it intervenes? What are the great nations waiting for before they put a halt to these monstrosities. Let me cry with my people, violated and murdered. Allow me to stand by numerous families in Aleppo who are in mourning. Because of this ugly and barbarous war, they have lost so many loved ones, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters and cherished children."

The region's Chaldean Bishop, Antoine Audo, says that Aleppo's 250,000 Christians have dwindled to below 100,000. Thousands have been killed, churches and ancient monasteries blown up, whole communities forced to flee, bishops and priests - such as Father Jacob Murad, Bishops Hanna Ibrahim and Paul Yazici - abducted, some executed. Torture, beheadings and even 'crucifixion' - the hanging of corpses of those they have executed on crosses - has become commonplace. Syrian Christians living in IS controlled areas are forced to convert or pay the punitive jizya tax.

In the seventh century Christians, 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 Caliphate. If they didn't pay they had two options: they could convert of "face the sword". In February 2014, 20 or so Christian families still living in the northern Syrian town of Raqqa were given the same choice. The cost of protection is now the equivalent of $650 in Syrian pounds, a large amount for people struggling to make ends meet in a war zone.

Syria and Iraq, those hatcheries of Jihadism, have seen vast tracts of their territories become lawless and ungovernable with fault lines opening between Islamic extremists and moderates, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and between Sunnis and Shias - with funds and arms flowing in from the Gulf and Tehran.

Caught in the cross fire have been the law abiding minority communities - mainly Christians - who have lived in places like Aleppo and the Nineveh Plains for 2,000 years and continue to worship and speak in the Aramaic language of Jesus.

In recent weeks joint Assyrian and Kurdish forces recaptured a number of Christian villages in north eastern Syria from ISIS - although many of the original occupants remain unaccounted for and many of their homes have been left booby-trapped.

And will the international community do any more to protect them in the future than it has in the past? The failure to respond to Chaldean and Assyrian requests for a protected area for Christians near Nineveh is a scandal.

No wonder so many contemplate dangerous attempts to flee - including treacherous journeys across the Mediterranean.

The brutality of ISIS - or Daesh -, devoid of mercy, manifests itself in deadly beheadings accompanied by the year zero blitzkrieg of antiquities and ancient artefacts, in the depraved destruction of Christian churches, and the defilement of Shia mosques. The fall of Palmyra follows the bulldozing of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, the blowing up of Afghanistan's Bamiyan Buddhas and the Sufi monuments in Mali.

The Irish philosopher and British politician, Edmund Burke said that "our past is the capital of life" and what we are witnessing at the hands of ISIS is an attempt to eradicate the collective memory of humanity, destroying all that is "different" - while cynically smuggling and selling on the antiquities which they do not destroy to fund their campaign of mass murder - with Turkey turning a blind eye.

ISIS presents this as a clash of civilisations but the manner in which they debase all that is civilised simply pits civilisation against barbarism. ISIS is not just at war with civilisation, it is also at war with other Muslims and those of other faith traditions.

ISIS describes itself as the Islamic State - but this 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 invoking the Qur'ānic injunction that there should be no compulsion in religion (lā ikrāha fī 'l-dīn :Q.2:256).

The same visceral hatred of Christians has been nurtured by other radical groups - from the Taliban to al-Shabaab and Boko Haram.

Last month, jihadist ideology led to the deaths of 147 students and staff in Kenya's Garissa University College, with Christian students specifically singled out by al-Shabaab-affiliated Islamist militants.

Earlier this year, in Pakistan - following the 2013 killing of 85 Anglicans who were praying in their church at Peshawar -the same hatred led to the burning alive in a kiln of a Christian couple by a mob of 1,300 people while their young children were forced to watch. This week, in the British Parliament, MPs raised the tragic case of Nauman Masih, a 15 year old Christian boy, who on 9 April 2015, in Lahore, was beaten, tortured and burnt alive after he was identified as a Christian.

MPs called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.

Given the failure to bring to hold to account those who, in 2011, murdered the country's only Christian Cabinet Minister, Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, don't hold your breath.

At the time of Pakistan's foundation its first President, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, said: "Minorities, to whichever community they may belong, will be safeguarded. Their religion, faith or belief will be secure. There will be no interference of any kind with their freedom of worship. They will have their protection with regard to their religion, faith, their life and their culture. They will be, in all respects, the citizens of Pakistan without any distinction of caste and creed."

In 2015, in a population of over 172 million people, only about 1.5% (3 million) is Christians - half Catholic, half Protestant, - minorities are neither safeguarded or protected.

Think, too, of Nigeria and the depredations of Boko Haram - graphically illustrated by the abduction of young girls and the murder, in cold blood, of twenty nine students of the Federal Government College in Buni Yadi, Yobe State, while they slept in their student hostels.

Churches have been bombed, pastors executed, Christians targeted and, despite the Government's insistence that it is tackling Boko Haram, Reuters reports recent attacks, in the past few days, which have led to more than 80 people being killed. Boko Haram openly say their interim goal is "to eradicate Christians from certain parts of the country."

The north-south conflict in Nigeria is reminiscent of Sudan - when, during the civil war, 2 million, mainly Christian people, were killed. Khartoum continues to target whole communities - having dropped more than 2500 bombs on its civilian, predominantly Christian, populations of Blue Nile and South Kordofan. In addition it has committed crimes against humanity in Darfur, which I have visited, and where they are being ethnically cleansed by co-religionists.

This unremitting violence has led to massive displacements and generated vast numbers of refugees. Eritrea, Sudan's near neighbour, is the North Korea of Africa - and last month's UN Commission report suggests crimes against humanity may have been committed there. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Eritrea, is responsible for around 18% of the 200,000 people who reached Europe in 2014. Having reached Libya some Eritreans Christians have then been cruelly beheaded by ISIS - in yet another display of their barbarism.

Protestors recently gathered in London, outside the Eritrean Embassy, to mark the thirteenth anniversary of the imposition of severe restrictions on churches in Eritrea, the deposing and house arrest of the Eritrean patriarch, Abune Antonnios and imprisonment of other Christians.

Eritrea is one of the world's most repressive regimes and the largest refugee-producing countries. Freedom of religion and belief - guaranteed by Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights - means nothing in Eritrea.

There is a direct correlation between the denial of Article 18 Freedoms - to believe, not to believe, or to change your belief - and the denial of other freedoms, the generation of violence, displacements, and the desperation which leads to the exodus of refugees.

By contrast, in those countries where Article 18 is honoured and upheld there is a direct correlation with internal harmony, development, prosperity and progress (something which China should study more closely).
Freedom of belief is at the heart of the struggle for the future of whole societies and countries.

Take Egypt - which was recently horrified by the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts who were working in Libya.

In 2013 I suggested that we should compare the charred husk of the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin, in 1938, with pictures of the blackened walls of Degla's ruined Church of the Virgin Mary, and why August 2013 represented Egypt's Kristallnacht.

It was one of many churches which was attacked - along with Christian homes and businesses. Under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi the situation has improved but Dr.Mohamed Abul-Ghar, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, warned that the forced displacement of Coptic families by customary meetings is contrary to the Constitution, the principles of citizenship, humanity and justice - remarks which came against a backdrop of the displacement of a number of Coptic families in Beni Suef because a member of these families was accused of allegedly publishing cartoons of the Prophet of Islam on his Facebook account. The man is illiterate.

Abul-Ghar wrote in Al-Masry Al-Youm "Have you seen or heard about an Egyptian Muslim forced to leave his home by a customary meeting whatever his mistake is? So there is clear injustice and if there is a suspicion against a Copt, why is not he treated like a Muslim and referred to the public prosecutor?"

The Egyptian writer and novelist Fatima Naaot in a message to the President, says that the displacement of Christian families from their villages and the burning of their homes in the presence of security forces is a scandal that undermines the sovereignty of the Egyptian state and indicates the absence of the rule of law and the fall of the prestige of the Government and the President.

Last month the Egyptian TV presenter, Islam al-Beheiry, was sentenced to five years in prison with labour for "contempt of religion."

At the beginning of this year President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi gave a speech at Cairo's Al-Azhar in which he called for a "religious revolution" to re-examine those aspects of Islamic thinking that "make an enemy of the whole world." Yet, despite his timely and important call for religious renewal, 'contempt of religion' and blasphemy charges are occurring more frequently. These can be an impediment to healthy and constructive religious debate and can encourage vindictive acts.

It against this background - from Syria and Iraq, to Sudan, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, and many other countries in which Christians and others are persecuted for their beliefs - that June 2015 has witnessed the staging of a UN human rights conference on combatting intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief.

I couldn't work out whether it was a black sense of humour or a rather astute move to have asked Saudi Arabia to host this event in Jeddah.

Given that Saudi is one of the worst violators of religious freedom, and that Saudi Wahhabism has fuelled so many of these conflicts, it did seem comparable to inviting Herod into the kindergarten.

Given the West's oil dependent, arms providing, symbiotic relationship with Saudi it is hard to imagine much being said at that Conference about the Saudi human rights activist, Raif Badawi, languishing in prison for the crime of religious dissent and under threat of further public flogging and potential execution - let alone its outright persecution of Christians. Saudi Arabia ranks sixth on the 2014 World Watch List of most repressive countries for Christians, a list compiled by the charity, Open Doors.

When a country like Saudi Arabia passes legislation defining atheists as terrorists, beheads or tortures its citizens, and refuses to protect the right of minorities to follow their beliefs, or to have no belief, is it any wonder that such actions are mimicked by ISIS? Saudi Arabia beheads people in the public square - 100 executions already this year - a practice routinely practised by ISIS.

The aim of the Jeddah Conference was to discuss how to effectively implement UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 on combating religious intolerance, discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against people due to their religion or beliefs.

Unlike ISIS, Saudi Arabia really is an Islamic State and it would be the first place to start in heralding an acceptance of pluralism of belief and the upholding of diversity and difference.

In his opening speech to the Conference, OIC Secretary-General Iyad Ameen Madani said that the international human rights community attached great importance to combating religious intolerance. Madani correctly observed that religious hatred needs to be addressed at all levels, including the need to ascertain the limits of freedom of expression to determine where it ends and transforms into incitement to hatred.

Beyond conferences and speeches, remains the challenge to world leaders to champion and uphold the rule of law and the protection of minorities. That is the antidote to Jihadist ideology, not assassination squads or endless bombardments.

The challenge is to bring to justice war lords and regime leaders responsible for persecution and atrocities; to increase the effectiveness of the International Criminal Court (not providing impunity to indicted leaders such as Sudan's Omar al Bashir, as South Africa recently did); to systematically collect evidence; to document these atrocities and to demand that the Security Council instigate prosecutions.

We also need to create more safe havens to protect beleaguered groups of Christians, and others, and every Foreign Minister needs to promote Article 18 obligations. Dag Hammarskjold, one of the great Secretary Generals of the UN, once said that "The UN wasn't founded to take mankind to paradise but rather to save humanity from hell." It's hard to see that, in vast tracts of the world, the international community is achieving even that limited objective.

The UN, our Western legislators, policy makers and media need to become literate about religion. How right is the BBC's courageous Chief Correspondent, Lyse Doucet, when she says: "If you don't understand religion - including the abuse of religion - it's becoming ever harder to understand our world."

At the heart of all these challenges is the central question of how we learn to live together, tolerantly respecting and rejoicing in the dignity of difference; emphasising our common humanity; promoting the ability of members of all religious faiths to manifest their religion; and allow all people to contribute openly and on an equal footing to society.

Malala Yousafzai, whom the Taliban tried to murder in Pakistan because she insisted on a girl's right to an education, rightly insists that "One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world". Are we going to stand with Malala against those who try to deny women education, who use education to promote hatred of difference, who teach that non adherents are destined for the fires of hell and murder in God's name?

Our aid programmes and humanitarian interventions must surely reflect our own values and be used to protect minorities, to provide security, and to open the possibility of decent lives for those currently trying to flee their native home lands. We can apply "soft power" - or smart power - in the way we provide aid but also, where necessary, by shutting it off, or threatening to shut it off - and in the ways we broadcast, educate and share our own values.

Meanwhile, the immediate and over-arching concern must be the plight of Middle Eastern Christians, a shrinking and threatened minority throughout the region, subjected to the most traumatic, degrading and inhuman treatment. It's as simple as that.

The international community needs to be more consistent in its moral outrage. It denounces some countries for their suppression of minorities while appeasing others who directly enable jihad through financial support or the sale of arms. No wonder Western powers are seen as hypocrites when our business interests determine how offended we are by gross human rights abuses.

These people are being crushed in the mill, dying out, and need help. That is the future unless we act.

This is not about Christians versus Muslims. Religious persecution is taking place all over the world and whoever is responsible should be in our sights. A Pew research Centre Study begun a decade a ago has found that of the 185 nations studied religious repression was recorded in 151 of them.

It is irresponsible and indifferent for the international community to show disproportionate concern for fringe issues and politically correct concerns while ignoring and failing to understand the forces behind this flood of chaos.

Turning an indifferent blind eye merely emboldens the perpetrators to further spread their hatred.

The dramatic rise in the persecution of Christians has been accompanied by a vilification of Islam and, in Europe especially, the reawakening of Anti-Semitism.

For the future, the three Abrahamic religions need to ask deep questions of themselves about what they can to remedy these distempers - and become transformative agents in conflict management, reconciliation and healing.

Where secular governments are manifestly failing - and are too often tone deaf when it comes to religion, simply failing to understand the power of the forces which are at work - can the great faiths, with their innate claim to our deepest impulses, motivate their adherents to be peace makers, peace builders, protectors of minorities, and practitioners of pluralism, tolerance, mutual respect, and the upholding of the rule of law?

Can we devote comparable energy into countering religious extremism as the energy which has been used to spread religious extremism?

Could we not form a generation of religious leaders and educators to promote faith that is based on altruism, tolerance and love - the common good - not faith that designates all others as enemies of yourself and your God?

It was Churchill who said "what is the use of living if it is not strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone?"

Our muddled and tortured world needs 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 need to challenge our key cold indifference, speak up and defend humanity.

I began by citing Franz Werfel's The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.

It has a complex ending. Part of the novel's denouement - based on fact - sees the rescue of many of the besieged Armenian Christians by the French navy. The French respond to distress signals and the sight of the Red Cross emblem. The question for us is will we, in our day, see the distress signals of today's besieged Christian communities and respond in like manner or merely feign indifference?

This article has been republished with permission from David Alton's website. See:



We offer publicity space for Catholic groups/organisations. See our advertising page if you would like more information.

We Need Your Support

ICN aims to provide speedy and accurate news coverage of all subjects of interest to Catholics and the wider Christian community. As our audience increases - so do our costs. We need your help to continue this work.

You can support our journalism by advertising with us or donating to ICN.

Mobile Menu Toggle Icon