Over the last couple of weeks there has been a steady stream of press articles and comment over the internet regarding the persecution of Christians around the world. This is by no means a new issue but the bombings of churches in Nigeria on Christmas day has again brought this issue into sharp focus.
Along with this discussion there have been an increasing number of calls for our government to speak out and publicly condemn the violence and suffering, not just of individual events, but also where governments are instigating and allowing this oppression. However our government’s responses to the ongoing violence have been slow to come and low key, being somewhat muted.
The Iraq war and recent Arab Spring, rather than giving Christians more freedom, has in most cases had the opposite effect. Often dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak through their authoritarian regimes have suppressed violence against Christians. As Islamists in Iraq, Egypt and other Arab countries have gained power, so the persecution of Christians has increased. Living in our relatively safe and stable country, it is easy to forget that for many Christians around the globe, having a faith in Jesus carries real risks.
Christians should not be suprised by intolerance and persecution from others. Jesus told us this would be the case:
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:18-20a)
This doesn’t mean that we should ignore the sufferings Christians in other communities and countries face. If you haven’t informed yourself already, I would recommend that you take a look at the work charities such as Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide are doing and see what we can do to pray for and support the persecuted church around the world.
Although it is Christians who are currently in the news, the principle of religious freedom should be applied to all faiths. No human deserves to face unjust suffering or be killed for what they believe even if they are clearly wrong. I believe this is the argument that our government should be adopting publicly. Article 18 of the UN Charter of Human Rights guarantees freedom of religion. Our government has put plenty of time and effort into making sure other human rights are maintained, so why not this one? Maybe the Foreign Office is worried about appearing to favour one religion over another or not wanting to upset sections of society or the international community in an ‘equal equalities’ sort of way. If so they are missing the point. In comparison, next month the US government will be establishing an Office for International Religious Freedom inside the Department of Foreign Affairs. A commitment to appoint a full-time UK envoy on religious freedom was part of William Hague’s 2001 Conservative manifesto, but this commitment appears now to have been dropped. At the end of December, Foreign minister, Alistair Burt (himself a Christian) posted a statement on the Foreign Office website setting out its position. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, words are empty without actions. In response Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator magazine, gave a considered reply with practical suggestions of what our government should actually be doing.
This is a pressing issue that is being raised by commentators along the political spectrum as well as church leaders in this country. The Christian community needs to continue to remind our government of its responsibilities, not just at home but also internationally. The UK has been a world leader in calling for Third World debt relief and giving of foreign aid. It’s time our government applied the same level of attention to religious persecution.
Recommended articles for further reading:
Left Foot Forward Blog
2012 – the year the world must wake up to Christian persecution
David Keen’s Opinionated Vicar blog
Christians: The Arab Winter