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We should not disclaim these abuses

06 June 2014

AT LAST, Western governments are waking up to the reality of the persecution of Christians in parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The abduction of schoolgirls by Boko Haram ( News, 16 May), and the cruel imprisonment of Meriam Ibrahim (Comment, 23 May), have burst open our official silence.

Governments have feared that protest on behalf of Christians might fan the flames of anti-Western feeling. There has also been a reluctance to support Christians abroad, in case it compromises our own "equality" agenda.

We may well ponder what it is about Christianity that arouses hatred. The correspondent Matthew Parris suggested in a thoughtful article some time ago that Christianity was a threat because it was a halfway house to the libertarian atheism that he himself espouses.

Mr Parris was born and brought up in South Africa, and knows from first-hand what the Christianity of the missionaries brought to the poor and oppressed. He could see the hope and dignity that people found in their faith, and concluded that the genius of Christianity was its appeal to the individual. The gospel gave people an identity beyond that of tribe or ethnicity; the first step on the road to personal freedom which would find its fulfilment in Western libertarianism.

I was struck by his insight, while not sharing his conclusion that true freedom would finally mean abandoning belief in God. It is true that Christianity - particularly, although not exclusively, in its Evangelical and Protestant forms - assumes that the heart of faith is a personal relationship with Christ.

Christ becomes the friend of the soul, and the Holy Spirit is the guide of the individual person. Everyone matters. This is powerful stuff. It subverts authoritarianism in all its guises, while inviting individuals to see themselves as free agents, capable of love, choice, and challenge.

The fruits of Christian history are still present in the West, of course, but often in a degraded form. Where Mr Parris's analysis fails is that it does not see that without faith in a loving and redeeming God, individualism can become self-indulgent, choice is corrupted, and love is made shallow.

Yet the fact that thoughtful atheists are starting to acknowledge their Christian heritage holds out the possibility of a more fruitful dialogue between Christians and humanistic atheists about their common values. It also enables Western governments and media to end their denial about the persecution of Christians, and to recognise it for the gross abuse that it is.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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