CHRISTIANS are the most widely persecuted religious community in the world, and attacks in some regions are so widespread that they are close to meeting the international definition of genocide, an interim report, published on Friday, says.
The Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, who is leading the independent review of the persecution of Christians around the world, said that he was “truly shocked by the severity, scale and scope of the problem”.
The report was commissioned by the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, on Boxing Day, to measure the scale of the problem and to assess the Foreign Office’s response to it (News, 4 January).
In a foreword to the interim report, Bishop Mounstephen writes: “It forces us in the West to ask some hard questions, not the least of which is: why have we been so blind to this situation for so long?”
Even while the report was being finalised, it became out of date, he said, owing to the “horrific death toll” of the attacks on Christians on Easter Day in Sri Lanka (News, 26 April).
The report says: “In some regions, the level and nature of persecution is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide, according to that adopted by the UN.”
Findings published in the interim report include figures from the Pew Research Center in the United States, which found that, in 2016, Christians were being targeted in 144 countries around the world — an increase from 125 the previous year.
The charity Open Doors, which monitors religious persecution, estimates that 245 million Christians suffered high levels of persecution last year. In China alone, there was a doubling of attacks on Christians from 2016 to 2017, the charity said.
The interim report is intended to map the extent of persecution. A full report, which will recommend changes in Foreign Office policy and practice, is expected in June.
In response to the report’s findings, Mr Hunt said: “We’ve all been asleep on the watch when it comes to the persecution of Christians.
“Personally, I think it is partly because of political correctness that we have avoided confronting this issue.
“I think there is a misplaced worry that it is somehow colonialist to talk about a religion that was associated with colonial powers rather than the countries that we marched into as colonisers.”
The reviewers looked at six regions. Persecution was “most virulent” in the Middle East and North Africa, leading to a collapse in the Christian population in the region, which could soon be “wiped out in parts of the Middle East where its roots go back furthest”.
“Forms of persecution ranging from routine discrimination in education, employment and social life up to genocidal attacks against Christian communities have led to a significant exodus of Christian believers from this region since the turn of the century,” the report says.
“In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage. In Saudi Arabia there are strict limitations on all forms of expression of Christianity including public acts of worship. There have been regular crackdowns on private Christian services. The Arab-Israeli conflict has caused the majority of Palestinian Christians to leave their homeland. The population of Palestinian Christians has dropped from 15% to 2%.”
In South Asia, routine discrimination has crossed over into “outright persecution” in recent years, owing to a rise in militant nationalism, the report says. In sub-Saharan Africa, there has been a rise in attacks on Christians, the most violent perpetrated by Boko Haram.
Ninety per cent of the violent deaths of Christians in the world, in which faith was a critical factor, occurred in Nigeria last year. These fatalities, as well as the rape and abduction of girls such as the Chibok schoolgirls, and statements by Boko Haram promising to “eradicate” Christians from the region, meet the UN test for it to be considered as a genocide, the report says.
In East Asia, state authoritarianism and rising Islamic militancy are the main drivers of persecution. The region includes North Korea, which ranks as the most dangerous country in the world for Christians.
Rising Islamic militancy in states in Central Asia is also leading to widespread persecution, the report says. “The situation of Christians in Central Asia is bleak as authorities have further enforced a widespread crackdown on churches and Christian activities.”
The final region, Latin America, is an anomaly, because it is predominantly Christian. Conflict over the rights of indigenous populations, however, and the control exercised by criminal gangs have increased levels of violence against Christians. The report says that in many areas it is caused by Christian leaders’ opposition to authoritarian governments and criminal gangs, which has led to their persecution.
Bishop Mounstephen said: “It is essential we now recognise that religion is a massive vulnerability marker for many communities worldwide. The oft-cited Western mantra that we need to attend to ‘need, not creed’ disguises this fundamental fact. Put simply, your creed might put you in much greater need, and we cannot be blink to that.
“It is also ironic that many Western secularists, Islamic extremists, and authoritarian regimes share a common erroneous assumption — that the Christian faith is primarily an expression of white Western privilege. In fact, Christianity is primarily a phenomenon of the global South and the global poor.”
Read the interim report here