Wednesday 18 September 2019

Christianophobia? New church attacks fit a global pattern of Christian harrassment

The horrific terror attacks in Sri Lanka reflect a spreading incidence of Christian harrassment, writes Sarah Mac Donald

Grief: mourners in Sri Lanka during funerals this week after more than 250 people were killed in coordinated attacks on churches and hotels on Easter Sunday
Grief: mourners in Sri Lanka during funerals this week after more than 250 people were killed in coordinated attacks on churches and hotels on Easter Sunday

Sarah Mac Donald

'The persecution of Christians rarely makes headlines, but it is a weekly, if not daily, lived experience for over 200 million Christians worldwide who are at constant risk of persecution of one form or another."

This is the comment of David Turner, director of Irish charity Church in Chains which supports persecuted Christians worldwide, in the wake of the deadly attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. The six co-ordinated blasts, for which responsibility has been claimed by the terror group Isis, happened at St Anthony's Church in Kochchikade, Colombo, St Sebastian's Church in Negombo and Zion Church in Batticaloa, as well as at three hotels, where Western tourists were staying.

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The string of bombings mirrors other attacks at Easter in recent years. In 2017, 45 Christians were killed in Egypt on Palm Sunday and a week later 75 Christians died in Lahore, Pakistan on Easter Sunday.

The charity Open Doors, which supports persecuted Christians in over 50 countries, says the risk of persecution runs higher for Christians on holy days. In fact, from Pakistan to Sri Lanka, from Egypt to India, from China to Nigeria, Christianity remains the world's most harassed religion according to a recent report by the Pew Research Centre, which found Christians to be the most widely harassed body of believers in 144 countries - up from 128 in 2015 (Christians are also the largest religious group, with more than two billion believers).

As people grappled with the scale of the devastation in Sri Lanka, more than 250 dead, 45 of them children, and hundreds more injured, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Britain, Archbishop Angaelos, appealed to everyone to stand together and recognise that anti-Christianism is as real a phenomenon as anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

As an Egyptian Copt, Archbishop Angaelos is well aware of the difficulties people of his religion face. Some 600,000 Copts have emigrated from Egypt since the 1980s, driven out by discrimination and the increased attacks on church-related property. In February 2015, Isis militants in Libya released a video of the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians. In May 2017, gunmen killed at least 28 Christian pilgrims travelling by bus to the Egyptian monastery of St Samuel the Confessor in Minya.

Dangers of faith

British Prime Minister Theresa May expressed concern for Christians in her Easter message, noting that for many of them, "simple acts of faith can bring huge danger".

For journalist and broadcaster Fr Giles Fraser, the nub of the matter is: "We are living though one of the most serious phases of Christian persecution in history, and most people refuse to acknowledge it."

Referring to the emptying of Christians from their birthplace in the Middle East, he wrote in The Guardian that it has happened "with hardly a bat squeak of protest from the secular West".

David Turner believes Christian persecution has been "under-reported by the mainstream media" and suggests that many journalists "resent the fact that Christians have often been on the opposite side to liberal viewpoints on social issues" and they "resent the way that institutional churches wielded power".

It's also possible that the incidence is underplayed due to a fear that highlighting it could be exploited by those who are Islamophobic.

Such fears are clearly justified in light of the recent killing of 50 Muslims and the injuring of another 50 in the two horrific mosque shootings that shocked New Zealand and the world in March.

But Turner says the situation for Christians is noticeably worsening in the two most populous nations on earth, as Hindu extremists across India attack churches in rural areas every week while in China, the authorities close churches as President Xi's religious clampdown gathers momentum.

Persecution is increasing for two reasons, Turner suggests. Repression by governments continues because they believe they can get away with it. Secondly, militant religious extremists have "become emboldened and governments seem content for them to attack Christians who are often a small insignificant minority". He believes Western governments, though they proclaim the principle of religious freedom as an international human right, frequently ignore Christian persecution because of an insatiable desire for goods and services. They are not going to jeopardise their trade with a regime like China.

According to Henrietta Blyth of Open Doors, figures indicate that persecution of Christians in China is the worst it's been in more than a decade.

Rupert Shortt is the author of Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack. Writing in the international Catholic weekly, The Tablet, he argues that the persecution of Christians is relegated far down the human rights pecking order, because it is seen as Western and thus privileged.

Responding to the attacks in Sri Lanka, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit suggested that "a fitting tribute to the memories of those who lost their lives in sacred spaces of peace and refuge is for us all to live out the difficult task of demonstrating that the power of peace and love are far greater than the power of violence".

That is a challenge which Irish missionary Fr Liam O'Callaghan lived daily in Pakistan, trying to promote inter-religious dialogue in a situation where tensions can flare up at the slightest provocation.

"I worked in Lahore for almost 16 years before coming to Hyderabad (India) in early 2016," the 53-year-old explains.

Christians account for just 1.59pc of Pakistan's population of 207 million, compared to Muslims who total 96.28pc. They are in "a very vulnerable position", according to Fr Liam, and they live with fear as a small minority with a sense of exclusion from the majority community.

This has been exacerbated by the growth in religious extremism in recent decades. The extremists, he says, have a deep sectarian bent, so the threat is real.

For Pakistani Christians, "tremendous fear" stems from the misuse of the country's blasphemy laws. Accusations of blasphemy almost invariably lie at the root of incidents of violence against Christians in the recent past, and when this happens, mob rule generally takes over.

On death row for blasphemy

The most high-profile case of Christian persecution in Pakistan in recent years is that of Christian woman, Asia Bibi who was accused of blasphemy in 2009 and sentenced to death by hanging in 2010. She was left on death row until last October when she was finally acquitted by the Supreme Court.

"The reaction to this decision was shocking in the form of a country-wide protest led by a new far-right Islamist party dedicated to killing blasphemers, Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), which brought the country to a standstill for three days. The diocesan office sent a message to all foreign missionaries not to go out during those days."

Though Asia Bibi was released from jail on November 7, 2018, she remains in custody despite Canada's offer of a new life for her and her family. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said on April 11 that a "complication" had delayed her departure.

Meanwhile, the 47-year-old remains locked in a single room.

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