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Synod: Christians ‘abandoned, not defeated’

21 November 2014

Iraq and Syria



THE Synod spent Tuesday morning exploring violence against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.

It began with a panel discussion led by the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth; before the Archbishop of Canterbury chaired a question-and-answer session. At the end of the session, the Archbishop of York led the Synod in prayers.

The panel included the first Muslim ever to be invited to address the Synod: Sheikh Fuad Nahdi, the executive director of Radical Middle Way. Alongside him was the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, Bishop Angaelos (an ecumenical representative on the Synod); the Revd Rachel Carnegie, joint executive director of the Anglican Alliance; and the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines.

Introducing the discussion, Dr Cocksworth said that members had "read and even seen with our own eyes" incidents of violence and persecution, including beheadings. "We have seen religion seen as a weapon of war, and human beings targeted and eradicated because of their faith. We have seen two beautiful countries descend into chaos." He said that the threat facing Christians "crosses the continents and mocks the Universal Declaration of Human Rights".

Bishop Angaelos told the Synod that its interest and support in the plight of persecuted Christians was one of the things that touched many people on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Countless Christians were displaced across the Middle East, and many were in urgent need of humanitarian aid, in particular food and medicines. "People are feeling vulnerable, betrayed. There is a lack of trust with their neighbours they have lived side by side with for generations, and their own government and rulers there. Some of them feel abandoned. Having said that, they do not feel defeated."

He said there were four key issues he wanted to raise. He urged the Synod not to forget the needs of persecuted Christians, even as the media and politicians moved on. "There is also an immediate need for a humanitarian response," he said. "It's great to have wonderful intentions, but they need it now."

The third issue was asylum. Not all Christians in the Middle East wanted to leave, although some in Iraq and Syria in particular said that they could not survive there any longer.

"The fourth plea is [that] we stop making distinctions between the Western and Eastern Church, because we are one Church and one body," he said. "When one suffers, we all suffer. This division has become cosmetic and artificial. We need to feel and to react as one Church."

Sheikh Nahdi said he was neither a theologian nor an academic, but wanted to speak about how the British Muslim community was reacting to the events in the Middle East. "The vast majority of the Muslim community in this country are paralysed by what is going on. They are looking for prophetic action, but they find none. What is going on is totally incomprehensible." He said that some "younger" and "weaker" members would become frustrated and try to find someone to blame.

"The persecution of Christians in the Muslim world is heinous, and totally unacceptable to any sane human being, whether they are Muslim or otherwise," he said. "But we should not forget that the Muslims have borne the brunt of these extremists and fanatics."

People of faith could provide something that no other solution could provide. Re-educating Muslims that they had co-existed with Christians and other minorities for centuries was crucial, he said. "But we don't get time to do that, because all the pressure on us is to try and justify things which are unjustifiable." Continuously condemning Islamic State and other jihadist groups was, he said, meaningless, as they didn't listen.

Bishop Baines argued that it was "no good just reacting to the latest issue". The seeds of the issues in the Middle East today had been sown in the 1980s. What was happening now was the seeds of what would occur 30 years hence. On offering asylum to those facing persecution, he emphasised that voices in the Middle East were "diverse. There are those saying 'Don't denude our lands of Christian presence and witness. If you open the gates for asylum, you may be creating a long-term problem for us here.'"

He also noted that raising the question of asylum here was difficult because "we are incapable of having an adult debate about immigration." Ms Carnegie spoke of the "simply devastating" facts on the ground: "Behind these statistics are horrific tales of impact on individuals and families." There was a need for a comprehensive long-term strategy, and it was "crucial that all actors pull together". These actors included the DfID, Christian NGOs, and the diocese in Cyprus & the Gulf.

There were examples of faith charities' reaching out to other communities, such as Islamic Relief, bringing help to Christian families. Parishes and individuals could do several things: listen and learn; pray; give; and act informed by those on the ground.

The question-and-answer session followed. The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, asked about the "vast diaspora of displaced communities all round the world", and how to mobilise it.

The Revd John Chitham (Chichester) spoke as someone who had ministered in the Middle East, and was married to an Arab Christian. He asked whether President Assad and Hezbollah could be given "credit for the fact that they have been living with and helping religious minorities for decades". He suggested that the omission of Saudi Arabia from the report on the debate produced for the Synod was "strange", given that it was "in the eyes of many the root of religious intolerance in the region". He also questioned whether trade, not just aid, could be linked to religious freedom. Finally, he asked about the right to convert.

Canon Celia Thomson (Gloucester) asked what processes could be put in place to ensure that the perpetrators of violence were brought to justice in international courts.

Bishop Angaelos spoke of the need to help expatriate communities get their message across: "Quite often . . . they are trying to communicate but becoming frantic rants, because they come from a place of extreme passion." They required help to deliver their message "in a way that is heard and responded to positively".

He explained: "What they say is legitimate and valuable, but sometimes it is lost in translation, quite literally." He encouraged the Synod to "listen sympathetically when they express themselves in that way, to cut through the expression and listen to what is actually being said".

Sheikh Nahdi said that, from his understanding of Islam, "there is nothing like apostasy: the right to choose religion is a right of every individual, and it should be free. There is no compulsion in religion." A round table of scholars which he had organised had concluded "categorically" that a fatwa condemning to death a Muslim who had converted to Christianity was "based on politics, not theology; so it is totally obsolete and against the very essence of religion".

The issue was one of "fear, and not knowing about the other. We know much less about our own faith and even less about the other." He emphasised that there were many Muslims in Muslim lands who did not have the choice to practise their religion, and that, while a lot of churches had been destroyed, "many more times have been the shrines and mosques that belonged to groups that are not part of the extremist craziness that is going on."

On the question of offering persecuted Christians asylum, he argued that "they should not be forced to make such a decision. But also it is good for Muslims to have Christians among them to enhance their own spirituality. . . It is an opportunity to learn about the magnanimity and greatness of God."

Bishop Angaelos argued that "a lot of this is not really about Christians and Muslims, but the radical fringe and everyone else." He also suggested that talk of a tapestry of co-existence "has been real in some places, but is almost a mythical reality in others, because we speak about it, but it is actually not there".

There were, he said, "not enough voices like Fuad's, because while there is an idea of no compulsion in religion, we know on the ground this is not always true. There is not only compulsion, but retribution. . .

"What we need is to challenge our very good Muslim friends to say 'This is wrong,' but also, once they speak, to support them, because once they speak, they become marginalised." The tapestry could still be a reality, "if the very silent majority speaks out, because what we have now is very vocal minority that is silencing everyone else. What we have seen is that when the Christian voice is added to the encompassing Muslim voice, that becomes the majority, and that can be very effective."

Ms Carnegie said that "there is a real value in trade and aid being linked to human rights, including the right to religious freedoms." But she said that "the other side" of that was for "critical trading arrangements globally to lift people out of poverty".

Poverty, she said, "creates the very conditions where extremist ideologies can take root and fester".

Bishop Baines asked, rhetorically, "What sanction can you possibly apply to people who have no fear, and to whom human rights are meaningless? whom you can't threaten with death, because they would welcome it?"

"The international courts", he said, "are going to have to address this in due course. It poses a huge challenge to the democratic world."

Vasantha Gnanadoss (Southwark) asked whether the media had a part to play in correcting perceptions of Muslims. When imams spoke about persecution, it was not reported.

The Revd Mark Ireland (Lichfield) said "Our concern as Christians about freedom of religion shouldn't extend simply from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also from the doctrine of creation."

The Revd George Newton (Guildford) said that, in many Muslim-majority countries, other verses from the Qur'an were used to argue that "when somebody converts from Islam, they should be killed under sharia." He asked what could be done to challenge this.

In response, Bishop Baines said that there was a problem with religious literacy in the media; and he cited a recent example where "somebody quite senior in the BBC wanted a story about 'Christian Yazidis'." The media "have a responsibility to tell the truth, and to present all sides of a reality, not just a selected bit that fits pre-ordained narrative". But, at the same time, "Journalists are losing their lives in relatively large numbers for going to very dangerous places to try and tell the stories. They can only tell the stories from where they are, and what they see and here."

Sheikh Nahdi said that the biggest problem Muslims had with the media was Google. "The internet now dominates the media," and that on it "you can find justification for anything."

Bishop Angaelos said that documents such as the Declaration of Human Rights had not invented such rights, but safeguarded God-given liberties. "We are much more credible as a Church when we speak for the liberty and rights of all. Otherwise, we sound very tribal and discredited," he said. "I wouldn't feel comfortable being a protected Christian while a Muslim next to me is victimised, alienated, or persecuted."

Sheikh Nahdi said that most Muslims had come to the UK because of its religious freedom. He said that the onus on advocating this freedom was on them rather than attacking people in "far-away deserts" who opposed religious freedom. Muslim intellectuals spent too little time discussing the essence of the faith. For instance, he said, the Qur'an granted "massive rights" to one's neighbour, regardless of his religion, but this was not widely understood.

The Revd Angus MacLeay (Rochester) asked what the C of E could learn from the "courageous faith" of suffering Christians.

Bishop Angaelos said that, while he wanted to raise awareness of Christians' plight, he was aware of "the victory in that persecution". "If we are fully dependent on him, then he will grant us the grace and power that we need in that situation." He always told Christians in the Middle East not to fear Islamists' killing them, as the worst thing they could do was to make Christians hate them.

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