Imagine the unspeakable fury that would erupt across the Islamic world if a Christian-led government in Khartoum had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese Muslims over the past 30 years. Or if Christian gunmen were firebombing mosques in Iraq during Friday prayers. Or if Muslim girls in Indonesia had been abducted and beheaded on their way to school, because of their faith.
Such horrors are barely thinkable, of course. But they have all occurred in reverse, with Christians falling victim to Islamist aggression. Only two days ago, a suicide bomber crashed a jeep laden with explosives into a packed Catholic church in Kaduna, northern Nigeria, killing at least eight people and injuring more than 100. The tragedy bore the imprint of numerous similar attacks by Boko Haram (which roughly translates as “Western education is sinful”), an exceptionally bloodthirsty militant group.
Other notable trouble spots include Egypt, where 600,000 Copts – more than the entire population of Manchester – have emigrated since the 1980s in the face of harassment or outright oppression.
Why is such a huge scourge chronically under-reported in the West? One result of this oversight is that the often inflated sense of victimhood felt by many Muslims has festered unchallenged. Take the fallout of last month’s protests around the world against the American film about the Prophet Mohammed. While most of the debate centred on the rule of law and the limits of free speech, almost nothing was said about how much more routinely Islamists insult Christians, almost always getting away with their provocations scot-free.
Innocence of Muslims, the production that spurred all the outrage, has been rightly dismissed as contemptible trash. What, though, of a website such as “Guardians of the Faith”, run by Salafist extremists in Cairo? Among many posts, it has carried an article entitled “Why Muslims are superior to Copts”. “Being a Muslim girl whose role models are the wives of the Prophet, who were required to wear the hijab, is better than being a Christian girl, whose role models are whores,” it declares. “Being a Muslim who fights to defend his honour and his faith is better than being a Christian who steals, rapes, and kills children.” Hateful messages breed hateful acts. Is it any surprise that mobs have set fire to one church after another across Egypt in recent years?
Abu Hamza, the 7/7 ringleader Mohammad Sidique Khan and other totemic figures were allowed to practise their religion openly in Britain, yet there is scarcely a single country from Morocco to Pakistan in which Christians are fully free to worship without restriction. Muslims who convert to Christianity or other faiths in most of these societies face harsh penalties. There is now a high risk that the Churches will all but vanish from their biblical heartlands in the Middle East.
The suffering is no less acute elsewhere. Before East Timor gained independence from Indonesia, 100,000 Catholic non-combatants were killed by agents of the Suharto government between the 1970s and the 1990s. And a few months ago, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, officially announced that “it is necessary to destroy all the churches” on the Arabian Peninsula.
One reason why Western audiences hear so little about faith-based victimisation in the Muslim world is straightforward: young Christians in Europe and America do not become “radicalised”, and persecuted Christians tend not to respond with terrorist violence. This forbearance should of course be a source of pride in many respects, and would be an unqualified good if properly acknowledged. But it counts for much less in a climate where most of what is considered newsworthy has to involve tub-thumping or outright violence.
The problems faced by Christians are not by any means restricted to the Muslim world. Take India, where minorities – Muslims included – are menaced by Hindu extremists who consider the monotheistic traditions to be unwelcome imports, and resent Christian opposition to the caste system.
Between August and October of 2008, Hindu hardliners in the eastern state of Orissa murdered at least 90 people, displaced 50,000, and attacked 170 churches and chapels. This disaster was not unexceptional. The past four years have seen scores of assaults on churches and congregations in other parts of the country.
Elsewhere, the culprits include not only Communists, but also Buddhist nationalists in countries such as Burma and Sri Lanka. The scale of Communist intolerance is a matter of record. Curbs on freedom of worship in countries including China, Vietnam and Cuba are draconian and sometimes exceptionally sadistic.
Why does all this matter? One obvious answer is that faith isn’t going to go away. Whatever one’s view of the coherence of religious belief, it has become clear that secularisation has gone into reverse, partly through the spread of democracy. Three quarters of humanity now profess a religious creed; this figure is predicted to reach 80 per cent by mid-century.
The prospect should not surprise us. Atheism feeds off bad religion, especially fundamentalism, whose easily disposable, dogmatic certainties now form one of atheism’s main assets. On the other hand, it is much harder for non-belief to replace the imaginative richness of a mature religious commitment, and the corresponding assurance that life is worth living responsibly, because it has ultimate meaning.
But faith is like fire, to cite an analogy used by the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. It warms; but it can also burn. Along or near the 10th parallel north of the equator, between Nigeria and Indonesia and the Philippines, religious fervour and political unrest are reinforcing each other. This point should be granted even if one accepts religion’s status as an immense – perhaps the preeminent – source of social capital in existence.
On the positive side, faith-based conviction has mobilised millions to oppose authoritarian regimes, inaugurate democratic transitions, support human rights and relieve human suffering. In the 20th century, religious movements helped end colonial rule and usher in democracy in Latin America, Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
The challenge, then, at once simple and substantial, is to promote the peaceful messages at the heart of the world’s major faiths, while neutralising perversions of the core teachings.
Nothing I have said should be interpreted as encouraging a holier-than-thou attitude among Christians. Large parts of the Christian world were saturated with unsurpassed violence 70 or 100 years ago; and a British man, Thomas Aikenhead, was executed for blasphemy as recently as the turn of the 18th century. Innocence of Muslims was produced by a convicted criminal with a Coptic background.
Exceptions aside, however, Christians generally have become more tolerant and self-critical over the past half-century, reminting crucial aspects of Jesus’s message in the process. (For instance, it is worth noting that Pope John Paul II and the leaders of almost all other major Churches were vehemently opposed to the Iraq war.)
Given Christianity’s evolution, there are grounds for thinking that Islam may change, too. Points of contact between the two traditions are at least as significant as the differences. When they are true to their guiding principles, both faiths insist on the sanctity of the person as a seeker of God. From this should follow a recognition of religious liberty as the first of human rights. Self-interest need not be erased from an apparently high-minded equation. Freedom of belief is the canary in the coalmine for liberty in general, and thus for the flourishing of a society.
It is vital to pursue these medium- and longer-term ambitions. They are critical to world peace. But promoting inter-faith ties should not displace attempts to tell the truth about the current plight of Christians – and to take action against a major injustice.