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The seed of the Church?

by
04 January 2013

Gerald Butt faces the grim reality for many Christians today

Christianophobia: A faith under attack
Rupert Shortt
Rider Books £20
(978-1-8460-4275-1)
Church Times Bookshop £18
(Use code CT719) 

PICKING up this book made me reflect on four decades of reporting on the Middle East, and realise that the threat to Arab Christian minorities has emerged as an ever more prominent theme.

While being aware of Christians facing oppression in other corners of the world - Indonesia, India, China, and so on - only after reading Rupert Shortt's new book ( extract, Comment, 16 November) did I grasp what a global and shocking problem this had become. No fewer than 200 million Christians, we learn, are now under threat, more than any other faith group. "This ought to be a major foreign-policy issue for governments across a vast belt of the world," Shortt writes. "That it is not tells us much about a rarely acknowledged hierarchy of victimhood." In our politically correct modern world, sensitivity over Islamophobia has become more fashionable than concerns about Christianophobia.

Not only does the author provide proof that Christians are afflicted on a huge scale, but he also succeeds in his other stated aim: to show that the injustice remains under-reported. He compensates for this last failing by taking a detailed look at the plight of Christians in 19 countries, one by one, through the Middle East to Asia, Africa, and Central America. It does not make for comfortable reading. Page after page, the author methodically and dispassionately lists the atrocities committed against Christians, mostly (but by no means exclusively) by militant Islamists.

It is a grim catalogue. Acts of intimidation can be as unsettling as violence itself. An Iraqi Chaldean archbishop tells of the "common expressions of sectarian belligerence" experienced by Christians in his country - from direct threats in letters with bullets enclosed to the appearance of armed men outside Christian households and Qur'anic quotations daubed on the walls.

The author is right to point out, however, that much of the violence committed in the name of religion has other triggers. In Nigeria, for example, Islam and Christianity often come to blows in the fertile Middle Belt that separates the swamps in the north from the arid land in the south, where the issues at stake are jobs and resources as much as anything else. Nor are Christians always the innocent party in sectarian disputes. "Let no Muslim think they have the monopoly on violence," says Peter Akinola, former Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria.

Then there is the significant problem, not least in the Holy Land and elsewhere in the Middle East, of the association in the minds of Muslims of indigenous Christianity with the West, to which imperialist and Islamophobic connotations are still attached.

In calmly chronicling the acts of violence and intimidation, and analysing the varying challenges that Christianity faces around the globe, Shortt has produced an important book that statesmen of all faiths would do well to read. In his concluding paragraph, he points out that it need not be like this; for, when Christianity and Islam "are true to their guiding principles, both faiths insist on the sanctity of the person as a seeker of God, and from this should duly follow a recognition of religious freedom as the first of human rights".

Quite so. But what further steps should be taken to achieve this goal? That is a subject for another book - one that will need to draw heavily on the findings of Christianophobia.

Gerald Butt is the Middle East Correspondent of the Church Times.

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