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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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue