Five years ago I wrote a review of Rupert Shortt’s book Christianophobia: a Faith under Attack. “This ought to be a major foreign policy issue for governments”, was its conclusion. “That it is not tells us much about a rarely acknowledged hierarchy of victimhood”, he added. He must have been pleased last week when the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, launched an independent global review, led by the new Anglican Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, into how government is responding and should respond, to the global wide persecution of Christians.
Yes, delivered during the slow news days between Christmas and New Year, the announcement was probably a carefully timed marker in the forthcoming leadership contest in the Tory Party. But the review is a good thing in its own right. The timing was also appropriate on religious grounds, falling two days before the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which commemorates Herod’s slaughter of baby boys in his efforts to murder the new born Jesus, an early example of collateral damage.
New Year is as good a time as any to make a confession: I was unnecessarily negative about one or two aspects of Christianophobia. “Where one religious minority is persecuted, so are all to varying degrees”, I declared. “Shortt’s striking title might seem to encourage us to champion the rights of our own faith communities rather than to work beside other religious leaders to promote religious freedom for all”. I did admit that these reservations might seem a little precious. In retrospect I think they were.
True, the clunky title Christianophobia could be seen as a religious me-too response to Islamophobia and the more ancient Antisemitism. But this would be to ignore the point Shortt was trying to make that persecution of Christians was somehow treated as less newsworthy, and less of public concern, than the persecution of other religious minorities around the world.
Yet, when you think about it, this neglect of public outcry about the persecution of Christians is puzzling. Religious art is part of the cultural acquis of Europe. Try the Anglo-Saxon Exhibition at the British Library. At Christmas, carol services and other religious events, from Nativity plays to midnight masses, are crowded. The season reveals the residual Christian belief and practice in British society. And all year round hundreds of amateur and professional choirs around the country practice and sing sacred music composed by the great classical composers, often performing in churches. The Christian words they sing, the symbols and paintings, are an integral part of British and European culture and identity. They cannot be wished away by sleight of hand of the National Secular Society. Yet, before the Hunt review, nobody except Church leaders seemed officially too bothered about the Filipina housemaid in the Saudi household refused time off to attend the Easter Liturgy. Or the Christians languishing in jail in Pakistan under trumped up blasphemy charges. Or the repression of evangelical Churches in China, Copts in Egypt, and the wider exodus of Christians from the Middle East. And so on. Indeed being bothered about this persecution has often been associated, rightly or wrongly, with Right Wing political positions.
Shortt suggested the number of Christians currently under threat in 2012 as 200 million. UK government last week gave the figure of 250 Christians killed per month around the world because of their religious identity. It is very difficult to determine which killings are parts of general purges of dissidents or in rampages of militias, or the direct targeting of Christians as a defenseless minority. The figures from the FCO are reliable and paint a shocking picture. So what approach can realistically be taken to curtail these particular human rights violations?
I would still point to the promotion, protection and independent monitoring of the right to religious freedom as the starting point for effective action. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights originated in reaction to secular totalitarianism but notably in the commitment of people of faith to establish the right to religious freedom. It would be a profound irony if religious freedom became the human right that finally fell by the wayside in the 21st. century.
The Anglican Bishop of Truro has undoubtedly a difficult task. But, an evangelical and former head of the Church Mission society, he is unlikely to pull his punches. The case of Asia Bibi is telling. After being released following eight years on death-row on blasphemy charges, the British government failed to offer her asylum in the UK, apparently on the grounds it might endanger consular staff in Pakistan. These are some of the many hard realities and limitations that the Bishop is going to have to face in his future recommendations.