The topic of Christian persecution is a difficult and sensitive one in a country increasingly allegoric to any mention of Christianity and especially of Christian repression. The problem is that Christian persecution, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, has been mostly ignored in recent decades by the political and cultural elite of Britain. This silence is particularly inexcusable in a culture vigilant of discrimination, inclusiveness and rights. Yet the plight of Christians is now slowly gaining recognition by the British establishment and the international community, although it may already be too late for the Christian communities that are all but broken and vanished from their original homelands.
The Council of Europe, a separate body from the European Union, is entrusted with the task of promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law across member states. One of the statutory bodies of the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly, passed a resolution in January 2016 which recognised the killing of Christians as an act of genocide at a 117-1 majority. Furthermore, in February 2016 the European Parliament also declared that the killing of Christians and Yazidis constituted genocide. These declarations come after the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania – Lithuania’s Parliament – was the first European Union member to announce their recognition of genocide against Christians in the Middle East in December 2015.
For an act to be recognised as genocide, it must meet very specific criteria. The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide specifies that there are two elements which must be present in order for a crime to be recognised as such. First of all is the mental element, which consists of “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”. The second is the physical element, which includes implementing killing, grievous harm, harsh conditions of life and birth prohibition or removal of children, from one group to another.
We have witnessed the long-term, large scale decline of Christianity with the mass emigration and exile of Christians from their homeland in the Middle East due to increasing pressure in the region, both practically and spiritually. For example, in Iraq alone, the Christian population stood at 12% of the population in 1947, down to 8% in 1987, down to a further 4% in 2003. Overall, the proportion of Middle Easterners who are Christian has dropped from 14% in 1910 to 4% today. Christian communities are often under pressure to either convert or leave, with daily living conditions increasingly hostile and untenable despite the support of the global Church. Moreover, the emergence of Daesh in Iraq and Syria has escalated and deepened the wound of Christian persecution. Although the atrocities perpetrated by Daesh have indeed affected a range of groups, it is also the case that Christians have been singled out as a particular target for brutal killings.
Even if Christians escape the horror of Daesh, Christians often continue to undergo intimidation in refugee camps. This has meant that many Christians are too afraid to enter camps, seeking refuge instead in church buildings or with neighbours. But this does mean that they will probably lose out in the Government’s pledge to accept 20,000 refugees over the course of this Parliament, with Archbishop Justin Welby and Lord Carey expressing their concerns over this issue and the lack of provision for persecuted minorities and those not in refugee camps. Although the Archbishop raised his concerns with the Prime Minister over this issue, Cameron is bound by EU policy not to discriminate amongst refugees and there is no desire to follow Slovakia’s precedent of only accepting Christians, a move that was condemned by UNHCR.
Nevertheless, Lord David Alton of Liverpool has been and remains a constant and outspoken advocate for persecuted Christians across the world. Lord alton, along with Labour MP Rob Flello penned a letter to the Prime Minister in December 2015 stating their “profound concern at what is now clearly best described as “genocide” being perpetrated by Daesh against minority communities including Iraqi and Syrian Christians, Yazidis and other vulnerable groups”. The letter further states that “this is not simply a matter of semantics”, arguing that the status of genocide would both indicate that the perpetrators will be brought to justice for their grave abuses and hold the international community accountable in defending persecuted. The open letter attracted over 60 signatories from MPs and Peers and signified progress in the recognition of the realty lived by millions of Christians across the world, especially in the Middle East.
The persecution of any person or group is a grave injustice to the inherent dignity of the human being. The fact that the plight of Christians, whilst severe and well documented, has been routinely understated is no longer acceptable. There must be increasing provision to support persecuted minority communities both practically and spiritually, and it is a role that both Governments and individuals have in protecting our injured brothers and sisters, both Christian and of other persecuted groups in the Middle East.