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Focus on the opposition to all faiths

22 August 2014

Religious people need to decry persecution more widely, says Paul Vallely

CONSIDER two statements. The hate that starts with Jews never ends there, Rabbi Lord Sacks said last week. The persecution of Christians in Iraq has been inexplicably neglected by the British Government, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, wrote in a letter to the Prime Minister. Both men were concerned with universal issues; yet both emphasised specific concerns of their own faith communities.

Likewise, Pope Francis this week stressed universality in his concern for Iraq. Members of religious minorities, "not just Christians", are "all equal before God", he said, suggesting that force could lawfully be used against the so-called Islamic State to end the beheadings and crucifixions of those who refuse to embrace its perverse view of Islam. Yet the Pope's views stood in stark contrast to what he said when the United States was threatening airstrikes on Syria last year.

Then, he vehemently opposed military intervention. Cynics might observe that, at that point, the Christians were largely escaping the violence in Syria's civil war. Today, in contrast, Christians are in the front line of persecution, and are being driven from places throughout the Middle East in which they have lived for 2000 years.

Bishop Baines's accusation against David Cameron's Government was that its policy in the Middle East was incoherent, unstrategic, and merely reactive. Given that it has an approach that seeks simultaneously to oppose both sides in Syria's civil war, there is truth in that - as there is in the accusation that our Government has turned a blind eye to the persecution of Christians around the world.

The International Society for Human Rights estimates that 80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians. Despite this, Western élites are largely in thrall to an outdated notion that Christianity, with its colonial and ideologically dominant past, is a perpetrator rather than a victim. Until recently, anyone writing to the Foreign Office to complain about Britain's failure to address this has been treated to a pompous politically correct reply, implying that anyone who is bothered about the ill-treatment of Christians must be some kind of religious bigot who is unconcerned at the plight of other minorities.

Even so, it is important that religious leaders do not focus on persecution only when it is their own adherents - in Gaza, Israel, Iraq, Syria, or wherever - who are under attack.

Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism, Lord Sacks says, and yet he decries a "rush to judgement . . . that if people are killed, it is Israel's fault". Bishop Baines laments the Government's lack of "a coherent or comprehensive approach to Islamist extremism . . . across the globe", and yet it is unclear what he wants the broader strategy to be in order to curb jihadi terrorists in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, and elsewhere. Pope Francis should consider whether earlier military action in Syria, or pressure on the Qataris and Saudis who fund salafi jihadism, might have prevented the spread of the savagery that now so repels him. Coherence is not merely the province of governments.

Paul Vallely's biography, Pope Francis: Untying the knots, is published by Bloomsbury.

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