As I write this column, I stop typing every few minutes to roll some small objects in my hand, rather like rust-coloured beads. In many ways this is profoundly jarring, in that they are in fact spent bullets and small pieces of shrapnel, taken from the floor of Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic cathedral in Baghdad after the evening Mass on October 31, 2010. That was when a Sunni Muslim terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq launched a concerted attack on the church, murdering at least 58 people and wounding more than 75. My brothers and sisters in Christ were slaughtered that night, and the floor of the church was still bloody when the bullets from sub-machine guns and shrapnel from anti-personnel grenades were gathered and preserved.
It is not exaggeration to say that what Christians are facing in most Muslim-majority countries at the moment is the most pernicious example of religious persecution since the Holocaust. It may well be that many of these countries, and in particular the Middle East where Christianity began, will be entirely free of Christians within our lifetimes. The world is doing relatively little to stop all this.
The campaign of persecution is international, as I found while doing research for my latest book. In the sharia-dominated states of Nigeria, in the cities and villages of Pakistan, in the towns of Egypt, in many of the islands of Indonesia, in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Sudan, post-Saddam Iraq, those areas of Syria not under government control, even the Maldives, Christians are tortured, raped, beaten, arrested, crucified, exiled, murdered. Sometimes I felt like giving the project up, surrendering to the despair of having to chronicle so many attacks and so much barbarism; all the time knowing that to many outsiders the idea of persecuted Christians was something of history.
In fact Christians are the most persecuted identifiable group in the world, and while two of the 20 most oppressive countries for Christians are non-Muslim – one is, obviously, North Korea, where everybody lives in a metaphorical prison – the overwhelming dynamic is one of Islamic subjugation of the Christian minority. Even those commentators who admit this is the case tend to argue that this is a contemporary malaise within an otherwise tolerant Islam. Problem is, that isn’t the case. While there are lyrical, poetic, gentle and tolerant verses in the Quran, there are also violent, oppressive, absolutist and vehemently intolerant ones as well. Due to the law of abrogation, those verses written later in Mohammad’s life take precedence over those written earlier, and unless we understand this we can be deceived. Like it or not, accept it or not, Islam does not call for equal co-existence with other faiths.
In its purest form the Quran commands that people of the book, which includes Christians, will be treated with respect as long as they pay a head tax, never preach publicly about their faith or try to convert people and ask permission to build churches or repair old ones.
At various times of Islamic history Christians have even prospered, but the inescapable fact is that the more secular and less Islamic the state – the Shah’s Iran, Turkey before the current regime, Ba’athist Iraq and Syria – the better Christians were treated. Saddam was a brute, Assad a dictator, but both were enemies of Islamic fundamentalism and both protected their Christian minorities.
As for the future, we have to demand more of the West, of our leaders and of our churches. The reluctance to intervene and speak is multi-faceted: sometimes a fear of being condemned as Islamophobic or racist; sometimes a misplaced and misunderstood approach to ecumenism; sometimes simple cowardice and fear of political and even physical consequences; often because Christians are simply not considered a fashionable group and struggling believers in Africa or Asia confused with comfortable Christians in North America. Every one of us must ask those in authority and in media how they would react if the victims of this repugnant persecution were of another faith or group. Surely they would do more; they must, then, do more now!
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