As we gear up to welcome the festive season into our hearts and homes, it is easy to forget the raison d’etre of Christmas amid the increasingly suffocating commercialism that attaches itself to the holiday. Of course, this holiday celebrates the birth of the Holy Infant in Bethlehem, 2000 years ago in a world much different to ours, which since that momentous birth, was never to be same again. But if mere consumerist indifference is prevalent in the once Christian West, we can safely say that around the world as we approach the end of 2016 the feelings that attach themselves to the season, for many Christians, are ones of abject terror and deep anxiety- at the perverse prospect of today’s Herods, and the persecution they unleash.
Although the public discourse in Western countries often seems like one where each and every claim to victimhood is passionately championed, there appears to be a curious silence in response to the escalating genocide perpetrated against Christians, especially in the Middle-East. While “transgender bathrooms” and the cause of women who wish to kill off their offspring easily captivate the bleeding hearts of do-gooders everywhere, the systematic harassment and terrorism directed against Egypt’s Coptic Christians, or the gradual destruction of Assyrian Christians in Iraq by and large, appear only as footnotes in the world’s newspapers by comparison. They have no celebrities pleading their causes, no popular hashtags exposing the scale of their suffering, no awareness beyond the occasional mention.
The palpable reality of anti-Christian violence came closer to home this year, with the tragic martyrdom of Fr. Jacques Hamel, 86 years-old, in Normandy, France on July 26th. It was at the parish church of St Étienne-du-Rouvray, where Fr. Hamel had his throat slit by radicals chanting obscene Islamic slogans. The Western world recoiled at the brutality of the attack, and responses flowed in expressing sympathy and grief at the slaughter of a man whose only crime was to be a Christian, yet many failed to appreciate that in many ways this kind of violence is commonplace across the globe, in staggering numbers.
The most destructive and pervasive persecution has been taking place in the countries that have been destabilized by US invasions and the Arab Spring. In Syria, the country where St Paul had his famous conversion on the road to Damascus, the US has had no qualms about propping up Jihadi groups to topple Assad, with the result that the convoluted conflict has practically decimated the Christian population as well as other minorities who lived in relative safety and preservation for millennia. As vast areas came under the control of ISIS, countless Christians from the oldest apostolic churches have been killed, kidnapped, looted or at best subject to punitive taxes. Of Syria’s estimated Christian population, which stood at up to 30% of the country prior to the war, now has been reduced to an estimated 10%.
Similarly Iraq, where the Syriac Orthodox Church has liturgy in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, has experienced an exodus of astonishing proportions since the advent of sectarian wars. The ISIS terror in the country has been characterized by mass killings of young and old, as well as the subjection of women and girls to slavery and unspeakable abuses.Hundreds of thousands have become refugees, and their faith, which existed in the country since the 1st millennium, now could conceivably be rendered extinct.
Wahhabist Islam features as the most prominent source of these persecutions, of which the Iraq and Syrian examples are only the most relatively reported cases. The African case is one which has attracted practically no repercussion or attention in the mainstream media of the Western world. Nigeria for instance, according to a report by the organization “Open Doors”, has had “11,500 Christians killed, a million displaced and 13,000 churches destroyed or shut down in the last 15 years.” Even in Turkey, which is often hailed as the model country for a vision of moderate Islam with secular politics, it is reported that the tides are turning for the worse when it comes to the tiny Christian minority, with the advent of President Erdogan’s brand of nationalism.
In all these scenarios, where we have militant groups mushrooming up to wreak havoc in the region, not much has been said about the way in which Saudi Arabia is responsible for disseminating the apocalyptic Islamist ideology that propels them. Indeed, the very nature of this threat is not very well understood in the West, where a secular liberal technocratic paradigm is incapable of getting to grips to what motivates the terror campaign, never mind coming to a conclusion on how to solve these problems. This is illustrated in the sickeningly sycophantic proximity to the Saudi regime, which US and EU politicians insist on cultivating, for opportunistic financial and geopolitical reasons.
I imagine that historians in the future might well look back at this dire period with a less than favorable view of these representatives, who don’t think twice before styling themselves as champions of human rights and liberties.
Rupert Shortt, author of Christianophobia (2012), has done a seminal study in cataloging the various ways in which throughout the world, Christians are victims of prejudice and hatred, ranging from deprivation of civil liberties to systematic extermination. Shortt’s extensive work paints a grim picture of the diversity of justifications found for anti-Christian persecution, which are not limited to radical Islam.
India for example, where militant Hindu nationalism has risen to prominence in recent years, has on a many occasions seen violent purges. These appear to be driven by an association of Christianity with European colonialism, which has led Hindu purists into campaigns of violence to drive out a faith perceived as “foreign”, despite the fact that historically there have been Christians in India since apostolic times as attested by the existence of an ancient community founded by St. Thomas in the country. In any case, the organization “Barnabasfund” reports that “The BJP has given support to Hindu extremist groups that attack Christians, and states under the party’s rule have generally experienced a rise in anti-Christian violence. The party was at the helm of Orissa state during the horrendous 2007-08 riots in which Hindu militants rampaged through villages, torching houses and churches. Around 60,000 Christians were left homeless; 91 lost their lives, and around 18,000 were wounded.”
I could go on but I imagine the plethora of examples I referred to so far must suffice to provide a picture of the sheer scope of the phenomenon I describe.
In many ways, the public conversation in the West seems to be still stuck in an archaic perception of anti-Christian persecution as a feature of the distant past, which conjures up mental images of lions in the Roman Colosseum yet evidently this, is clearly not the case. It must not go without mention that there are perhaps other reasons as well for the relative indifference to this phenomenon. A variety of virulent anti-religious secularism can be said to be responsible for the inaction and nonchalant attitude of many in the West, which is not seldom accompanied by sentiments on the identity politics-obsessed Left that overlook these statistics due to its designation of Christians as an “oppressor group”. Other reasons that come to mind are the general ignorance of the demographic history of the areas affected, in terms of the presence of Christianity in these places, as well as the timid stance by many governments when it comes to countries like China and Pakistan and their human rights and freedom of conscience record, when this is inconvenient to trade and foreign relations.
This Christmas I hope that all of us may enjoy the festivities with our friends and families, especially as this is prospect many across the world can only hope to have, amid persecution, war, prejudice and political tyranny. Although I’m sure the many Christians in the areas plagued by these evils, as they recall the birth of Jesus Christ, will no doubt also recall His words “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).