Recent turmoil has destroyed ancient Christian communities in Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East. Photo: Getty
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Are Christians really the world’s most persecuted religious group?

David Cameron says Christians around the world suffer the most persecution for their religion. Is he right?

In a rare theological intervention at a Downing Street reception yesterday, David Cameron made the eye-catching suggestion that Christians were the most persecuted religious group in the world today. (He also credited Jesus with the invention of the big society, an idea most of us assumed he’d forgotten about.)

The PM is not the first prominent figure to make such a claim. Pope Benedict XVI said it during his New Year message in 2011, Angela Merkel made similar remarks during a visit to a church in November 2012, and late last year Prince Charles spoke of “intimidation, false accusation and organised persecution to the Christian communities in the Middle East at the present time.”

Tragic news reports seem to bear this out. The destruction of ancient Christian communities in their homelands in Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East, described by Tom Holland as “a crime against civilisation as well as against humanity”, has been one of the most depressing consequences of the recent turmoil. Sometimes, direct religious persecution seems to be involved, as in this week’s murder of Dutch priest Frans van der Lugt in the besieged town of Homs. Meanwhile, in Pakistan yet another absurd blasphemy prosecution came to light, this time of a Christian couple sentenced to death (and a fine!) for allegedly sending text messages deemed to be offensive to Islam.

And let’s not forget North Korea, officially the worst country in the world to be a Christian, where a few weeks ago 33 Baptist missionaries are said to have been sentenced to death on the personal orders of Kim Jong-Un.

The persecution of Christians has been the subject of some recent books. The US Catholic journalist John Allen entitled his The Global War on Christians, maintaining that Christians as a whole were “indisputably ... the most persecuted religious body on the planet”. Writing in the Spectator, Allen commented that,

the world is witnessing the rise of an entire new generation of Christian martyrs. The carnage is occurring on such a vast scale that it represents not only the most dramatic Christian story of our time, but arguably the premier human rights challenge of this era as well.

In slightly less apocalyptic vein, British author Rupert Shortt in his recent book Christianophobia: A faith under attack catalogues violent targeting of Christians from Nigeria to the far east as well as less lethal but clear human rights abuses and intimidation. In an interview with Alan Johnson, Shortt said that “in a vast belt of land from Morocco to Pakistan there is scarcely a single country in which Christians can worship entirely without harassment”.

In the same interview, Shortt also lamented the “liberal blind spot” which, he suggested, made western politicians over-cautious when it came to the persecution of Christians abroad, especially in majority Muslim countries, while at the same time being “very very sensitised to the perceived sufferings and complaints of Muslims”. Post-colonial guilt, a political and intellectual history which since the Enlightenment has often pitted the forces of progress against a reactionary and over-powerful Church, and some Christians’ own tendency to turn the other cheek (including on behalf of Christians in other countries) were also, he thought, reasons why the subject of anti-Christian violence and persecution have achieved relatively little prominence in public debate in Britain.

Shortt didn’t quite say it, but I wonder too whether anti-Christian persecution is an unfashionable cause because it has been co-opted by campaigners who see equivalence between, say, the Peshawar bombing of 22 September 2013 in which 78 Pakistani Christians were murdered at their church, and the case of Islington registrar Lillian Ladele whose “persecution” involved being asked to conduct civil partnership ceremonies.

Perhaps “persecution’ isn’t the most helpful word. It is invoked to describe such disparate phenomena as inter-communal violence in Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo or, most recently, the Central African Republic (where Christians are as likely to be the perpetrators as the victims of atrocities against members of different religious communities) the legal discrimination against Christians in Egypt (where, for example, church building is severely restricted) and Saudi Arabia (where Christians aren’t even allowed to worship openly) or low-level harassment and bad community relations, some of which can be found even in Europe. Tempting as it is to subsume all the unfortunate experiences undergone by Christians identified by their religion under the concept of “persecution”, it may not actually be very helpful.

Reliable figures are hard to come by and, where they exist, disputed. Last year a senior Vatican official told the United Nations that 100,000 Christians were martyred annually – a figure that would dwarf the achievements of even the most anti-Christian Roman emperor possessed of the hungriest lions. It turned out, though, that the great majority of these deaths occurred during the long-running civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and thus could only indirectly (if at all) be described as Christian persecution.

Rather more rigorous data has been assembled by the Pew Research Forum in a report produced earlier this year. Pew found that official “restriction on religion” (a more objective term than “persecution”) was at the highest level for six years, as was the “social harassment” of members of religious communities. And Christians, indeed, were the most affected group. Christians faced harassment in no fewer than 151 countries worldwide – and not just in the Middle East, China or North Korea.

Undoubtedly a serious finding. To some extent, however, the high figure for Christians is an artefact of the statistics. Christianity is the world’s largest religion by number of adherents, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to discover that the largest number affected by what might be described as persecution are Christians. That would be the case if members of all religions were equally affected by persecution. By the same logic, one would expect Muslims to be the second most persecuted group. And so Pew discovered: Muslims suffered harassment or restriction in 131 countries worldwide.

It’s almost certainly not the case that Christians are the most “persecuted” religious group in proportion to their numbers. Rather, they suffer along with other minority groups from, to take the most obvious example, the increasing prominence and, in some countries, power of strains of Islam that are uncomfortable with the very notion of religious pluralism. So, to an equal or even greater extent, are Muslims belonging to minority sects, such as the Shia in Saudi Arabia or the Ahmadi in Pakistan. Persecution against the Ahmadis, a sect not regarded by some orthodox as Muslim at all, has spread even to Britain, where recently a local newspaper in Luton was prevailed upon to apologise for the “hurt feelings” of Muslims after it carried an advertisement from the Ahmadi community.

If Christians are persecuted in many parts of the world, so are Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Buddhists and Jews. If Christians are persecutors in other (or sometimes the same) parts of the world: as are Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Buddhists and Jews. The fact that such a list of persecutors can include Buddhists, probably the faith least renowned for its zeal or intolerance, is a strong indication that by and large we are dealing with group rivalries, hatred of minorities, political struggles and only rarely a persecution based in the specifics of Christian theology.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.