Yesterday, the Prince of Wales spoke of his concerns regarding the rise of religious persecution around the world.
He’s right to be concerned; our TV screens and social media streams bear witness to the growth of religious oppression in the Middle East, Africa and on the sub-continent. However, some reputable studies suggest that it may also be an emerging challenge closer to home.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights upholds the freedom of religion, yet Prince Charles noted that 'an absence of freedom to determine one's own religion is woven into the laws and customs' of more than a few nations.
He pointed out that whilst stories emerging from Iraq and Syria pushed the issue of persecution into the news, the problem extends much farther afield.
A new report from the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need says that in 41% of the 196 countries studied, religious freedom is impaired or in decline. It also reveals that a further 18 percent of nations are 'of concern', suggesting that they too feature a general trend toward the persecution of religious minorities.
A number of charities are working to provide shelter and food for the more than 120,000 Christians who have been displaced by fighting in Iraq. A friend of mine is currently working on a project to build a coalition of Christians in business and church leadership to provide thousands of tents for displaced families.
Prince Charles is one of a number of public figures in the UK and Europe to note a rise in religious intolerance, particularly as it applies to Christians and Jews.
Today the British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband has suggested that some Jewish families are concerned for the future of their children in the UK. He has spoken out, he says, in response to a recent rise in ‘violent assaults, the desecration and damage of Jewish property, anti-Semitic graffiti, hate-mail and online abuse.’
In July, the Jewish Community Security Trust recorded more than 300 anti-Semitics incidents in the UK, up 400 percent on July last year.
As with any red-button issue, there is always the danger of hyping the situation and rushing to suggest a global crisis. In the study cited above, 41 percent of the countries reviewed showed little or no significant signs of growing intolerance. Yet if you consider populations rather than states, the situation does appear to be more worrying.
A 2006 to 2009 study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life found that only one percent of the globe's population lived in areas in which there was a decline in government restrictions on religion or social hostility toward religion.
The study, conducted in 198 countries, found that 2.2 billion people, roughly one third of the world’s total population, live in countries where one or the other of these factors grew substantially between 2006 and 2009.
Recently, 2020Plus produced a TV programme in which I interviewed Bishop Dr. Michael Nazir-Ali on the subject of persecution. Our discussion particularly focused on persecution in Iraq, Syria and other areas of the Middle East.
A former bishop of Rochester – and Raiwind, Pakistan – Dr Nazir-Ali is a well known advocate for oppressed religious groups. Widely traveled, highly educated and connected to influencers in many of the regions affected by persecution, he is well placed to provide an overview of persecution and its causes.
In the course of the half hour interview, Dr Nazir-Ali called for the UN to provide an international force to prevent further displacement of Yasidis, Christians and others, guaranteeing their future in the region.
Such a force, he suggested, might best be comprised of nations in the region, like Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and others.
Since the programme was recorded in August, there has been some movement in this regard, though it has been initiated more by individual nations than by the UN and has largely been without any commitments to boots-on-the-ground.
Nazir-Ali also addressed the history of the multi-faceted patchwork of faith communities in the Middle East, adding, ‘Some [displaced] people may never be able to return,’ he noted, ‘but I would be very grieved indeed if this spelt the end of this rich mosaic of diversity in countries like Iraq and Syria.’
Our discussion turned to the factors behind the rise of extremism in some parts of the Muslim world – factors originating in both the East and the West. The bishop suggested that multi-culturalism – as a political doctrine – has contributed to extremism, particularly among the young, by actively encouraging people not to assimilate with their surroundings.
The resultant closed-off communities, he said, have sometimes provided a ready audience for extremist teachers.
Meanwhile, in Iran, persecution tends to be a greater problem for certain Christians than for other minorities, simply because they teach and worship in Farsi, the first language of the nation. Anglicans and Pentecostals, for example, read their scriptures in Farsi and are thus perceived as an immediate threat to the regime.
Speaking of the Jewish community in Iraq, Dr Nazir-Ali pointed to lessons that might be learned elsewhere.
‘In 1948, twenty percent of the population of Baghdad was Jewish. There are now seven families left. We cannot be complacent about other faith groups either.’
Across the Middle East, persecution affects a diverse range of religious communities. In Iran, the Bahá'í are legally regarded as non-persons. They are prohibited from marrying or sending their children to school or university. They are not allowed to legally bury their dead.
Meanwhile, the Zoroastrians, whose traditional home was Iran, are now more populous in India and Pakistan, having been driven out by persecution. Dr Nazir-Ali’s reports and observations were both informative and unsettling and the interview has since been seen by audiences in various regions of the world – including the Middle East.
Many groups worldwide are undergoing persecution. However, as the Prince of Wales also noted, studies suggest Christians are the worst affected overall. This is as true in large parts of Africa and the sub-continent as it is in the Middle East.
A steady stream of reports are emerging from Pakistan about the imprisonment, torture and execution of Christians under the country’s archaic blasphemy laws.
In October, a death sentence against Asia Bibi, a Christian mother, was upheld in Pakistan’s highest court in Lahore. She allegedly insulted the Muslim prophet in an argument with some neighbours. It began when they refused to share their water with her because of her faith.
Two Pakistani politicians who spoke up on Asia’s behalf were killed for their trouble.
In Pakistan and elsewhere, blasphemy laws are often used as weapons in property, business and family disputes. The same thing happens in countries like Sudan.
Here in the West, we often seem to view persecution in a smugly detached way, as if it is something that happens only in other, less enlightened parts of the world.
Yet as both Prince Charles and Ed Milliband have reflected, persecution is not a subject that warrants complacency, whatever our beliefs.
Christians represent the largest faith group in the UK. As a Christian myself, I was asked on the BBC recently, in passing, whether I felt persecuted. My answer was a clear and definite ‘no’.
For the most part, Christians here cannot be called victims of systematic persecution. No churches are being burned down and no homes are being destroyed because of a prejudice against faith.
Some Christians feel that there is a cultural bias against Christianity, or faith in general, in some areas of public life. At times it can seem to churches and other faith groups than it is harder than for other, often smaller groups, to make themselves heard in public debates.
However, to call this ‘persecution’ is perhaps to denigrate the suffering of people in other regions whose plight is so much worse. Doing so may also be a bad move strategically. How can churches and other organizations serve communities which they have already, sometimes unilaterally, declared their enemies?
Having said that, a climate of persecution usually begins in deceptively small and subtle ways and people of all faiths – and no faith – must be wary.
Already, the UK has denied some reputable church groups the right to run charities because of their moral beliefs. In so doing, it has robbed the community of valuable social resources, very often provided at minimal cost to the community.
In some instances, individuals have been denied the right to work in their chosen fields, again because of a moral stance – which they do not necessarily promote in a strident way.
Have Christians historically been among the perpetrators of persecution? Yes, sometimes they have. They have, however, also featured heavily in the fight for freedom, often on behalf of those who have disagreed with them.
Says the Prince of Wales: 'It seems to me that our future as a free society – both here in Britain and throughout the world – depends on recognising the crucial role played by people of faith.'
People of all faiths and no faith need to be aware of how easily disagreement can become social hostility, or worse, institutional oppression.
Persecution is not simply an issue for the religious. It ought to be a concern for us all, for the simple reason that hatred is as irrational in its treatment of 'believers' as people who profess no active faith.
It makes no difference whether the dispute is about faith or something else. In any field, those who hate cannot build concensus; nor do they recognise legitimate difference.
Persecution is an issue often exacerbated by political indifference and corruption. In some places it is impacted by poverty, scarcity of resources and the lack of education.
In others, it is the result of an attempt to bully individual conscience, which the teachings of Christ for one strictly forbid. In still other regions, it is born when so-called liberals become strikingly illiberal toward those with whom they disagree.
At home we must remain wary of persecution and determined to strike it down through compassion, open and frank discussion and, at times, honest disagreement. Further afield, we must see that our engagement with the persecuted reflects and reinforces our stated values of defending the defenceless and providing for the poor.
After all, whether as individuals or societies, we are not measured primarily by what we say, but what we do.