By John Martin
Earlier this year, when Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt commissioned a research project on the global persecution of Christians, he chose the Bishop of Truro, the Rt. Rev. Philip Mounstephen, for the task. Few in the United Kingdom have a more profound grasp of world Christianity than Mounstephen, who has worked internationally and until recently led the Church Mission Society.
The first part of his report was published May 2. Its chilling findings prompted Hunt to comment that governments had been “asleep on their watch.” Persecution was a topic on Hunt’s agenda for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to the U.K. Pompeo and Hunt met with the Archbishop of Canterbury May 8 to discuss the issue.
The scale and severity of persecution of Christians has always been an issue for debate among historians. How widespread and deep, for instance, was persecution during the reigns of the first-century emperors Nero and Domitian? We have no way of knowing for sure, but that there was persecution is undeniable.
The late David Barrett, the pioneer Christian statistician and foundation editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia, once made the astounding claim that more Christians died for their faith in the 20th century than all previous centuries combined.
Mounstephen told the BBC he was shocked at “the scale, the scope, and severity” of global persecution. “A lot of this research has been out there, but it’s not been heard.”
There are 245 million Christians living under some form of persecution, “four times the population of the U.K.” Open Doors claims that 11 Christians are killed every day.
Mounstephen said that one in three persons were persecuted for their faith and of those, eight in 10 were Christians. Extremist groups are targeting Christians in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and East Asia, the report said. In some parts of the world, the scale was “close to meeting the international definition of genocide.”
Ahead of the report’s publication, church leaders were expressing concerns that the scope of this inquiry was not broad enough. Abp. Justin Welby and Abp. Vincent Nichols of the Catholic Church in England and Wales said in an 11-page submission they were disappointed that Mounstephen’s brief was limited only to the workings of the Foreign Office.
A “joined up approach” is needed, encompassing other government departments and the U.K.’s trade relations, they said. Freedom of belief should be “a fundamental human right.”
In conclusion, they wrote, “Every day, people across the world are facing discrimination, persecution or even death because of their beliefs. This is a grotesque violation of the human dignity innate to all people.”
The interim report makes grim reading. It aimed to sketch the scale of persecution. A final report is due in the summer and will include recommendations for how the Foreign Office can do more and raise awareness. Unsurprisingly the Middle East is a major epicentre of persecution. A century ago, Christians comprised 20 percent of the population of the Middle East and north Africa. Now the proportion of Christians is down to less than 4 percent, or about 15 million people.
“Forms of persecution ranging from routine discrimination in education, employment, and social life up to genocidal attacks against Christian communities have led to a significant exodus of Christian believers from this region since the turn of the century,” the report said.
“In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage. In Saudi Arabia there are strict limitations on all forms of expression of Christianity, including public acts of worship. There have been regular crackdowns on private Christian services. The Arab-Israeli conflict has caused the majority of Palestinian Christians to leave their homeland.”
Mounstephen’s report says there are three main drivers of persecution: political failure creating fertile ground for religious extremism; rising religious conservatism in countries such as Algeria and Turkey; and institutional weakness on the rule of law and policing, creating a climate that extremists may exploit easily.
He points out that a high proportion of hate speech on social media is government-sponsored in countries such as Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. In many instances, Christian citizens in Turkey are typecast as Western collaborators, not real Turks. In Saudi Arabia, textbooks teach “hatred and intolerance” toward non-Muslims, not least Christians and Jews. There is clear evidence that Christian women suffer disproportionately.
“The level and nature of persecution is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide, according to that adopted by the U.N.,” the report said. In countries such as Syria, Iraq, Egypt, northeast Nigeria, and the Philippines there are extremist groups with the stated aim of eliminating any Christian presence. They aim to eradicate such outward signs of Christianity as crosses and churches.
“The killing and abduction of clergy represented a direct attack on the church’s structure and leadership,” the report said. “Where these and other incidents meet the tests of genocide, governments will be required to bring perpetrators to justice, aid victims and take preventative measures for the future. The main impact of such genocidal acts against Christians is exodus.”
The report chronicles how persecution is rife in parts of the world such as south Asia. China is a country of growing concern. Indian extremist groups take a toll on Christians. In Pakistan the case of Asia Bibi, recently freed to live in Canada, involved her being accused of blasphemy, sentenced to death and held for many years in solitary confinement in one of a string of cases. The country’s blasphemy laws are routinely used against innocent Christians in local vendettas.
Referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the report concludes: “The challenge that faces us at the beginning of the 21st century is not that we need to fight for a just legal system; it is rather that, to our shame, we have abjectly failed to implement the best system that women and men have yet devised to protect universal freedoms.”
Mounstephen’s report will heighten awareness of Christian persecution. Apart from the limitations on its brief, other factors mitigate against it. Perhaps the biggest cause of persecution of Christians is that it the Church is perceived as an agent of the West. Mounstephen says many people regard Christianity as an “expression of white Western privilege.” What few realize is that the Christian faith is most widely represented among the global poor and it is this category of people likely to be most persecuted.
Ambivalence about its colonial past still affects the U.K.’s corporate psyche. There are mixed feelings about empire. Canon Max Warren, the great CMS leader in the 1950s, often called the British Empire “the beloved enemy.” Empire enabled Christianity to transform from being Europe-centred into a genuinely global faith. But the legacy of empire left a mixed inheritance that often germinated into open hostility toward Christianity.
Couple this guilt complex with U.K. commercial interests and it renders rhetoric about persecution somewhat hollow. But the Mounstephen report may still become an important change agent.