David Cameron saying he's "evangelical" about his Christian beliefs is all well and good (though I somehow doubt this means he gets on buses and proclaims passages from the Bible, as Nigerians and other Africans in my bit of London do quite regularly). But his recent comment about Christians being "the most persecuted religion around the world" is ... well, pretty dubious.
Nelson Jones' excellent dissection piece for the New Statesman suggests that, contrary to the PM's sweeping "more persecuted than thou" message, we're really talking about a lot of Christians around the world who are in some way discriminated against or prevented from freely enjoying their religion. Cameron's remark appears to have been one of those slippery half-truths so beloved of politicians.
Either way, there's no doubt that in some places Christians do suffer simply for being Christian - a disgraceful state of affairs. Two (rather different) things I've been reading recently have been reminders to me of the endless variety of anti-Christian behaviour, across time and space. In Urszula Muskus' memoir of life in the Soviet gulags she describes how the camps' religious prisoners (various Christian sects as well as those who worshipped the Romanov family of Tsarist Russia) were treated as a group apart, both by the camp authorities and many of the other prisoners themselves. It's likely that more than ten million Christians died as a result of the Soviet Union's dogmatic hostility to Christians, and Muskus' account shows how some of the indomitable religious prisoners defied the brutal camp guards and commandants even to the point of suffering a martyr's death by beatings, starvation or disease.
Meanwhile, I've also been reading a new report by Amnesty on the treatment of foreign domestic workers in Qatar (published on 23 April). Here it's striking how often the controlling host families of the completely disempowered "maids" deny the women even the right to go to church. Many of the migrant workers are devout young Christians from the Philippines and stopping them from practising their faith is part of a battery of humiliations and abuse apparently designed to dehumanise them. In some instances Christian workers have been told to "be more Muslim".
Unfortunately there are dozens of other contemporary examples, including a fearful new wave of anti-Coptic violence in Egypt, bomb attacks on Christians in Iraq, a persistent threat of violence against Christians in Pakistan, the risk of long prison sentences in China, mob attacks on Christian churches in Indonesia, repeated progrom-style Boko Haram killings of Christians in Nigeria ... and on and on. There's widespread concern that growing sectarianism in Syria could eventually envelop the minority Christian populations there, and though Syria's ancient and much-discussed Christian town of Maaloula doesn't seem to have been the scene of sectarian violence during its recent occupation by the al Nusra Front and other opposition groups, a group of nuns were nevertheless taken hostage and parts of the town and some of its many places of worship appear to have been left in ruins, with some crosses and statues deliberately desecrated. Meanwhile, in a seemingly senseless incident, earlier this month the Dutch Jesuit priest Father Francis Van der Lugt was cold-bloodedly shot dead in his monastery in the besieged city of Homs.
Despite all this though, we need to keep in mind that there's no strong evidence that Christians are uniquely persecuted for their religious beliefs. And neither, I don't think, are Muslims or Jews or Ahmadis or Hindus. Much depends on the specific context, but a recurring pattern is of a majority group targeting a minority religion, especially in highly politicised situations or in ones where economic grievances are used to justify the behaviour.
A final chilling example as we head into Easter this year is from the Central African Republic. Here armed Muslim groups have carried out mass attacks on Christian communities, massacring entire households, including burning people alive in their homes. But, since January this year, it's the Christian militias - so-called "anti-balaka", or anti-machete groups - which having been running rampant in the Central African Republic, murdering Muslims in their hundreds. It's been a truly ferocious burst of Islamaphobia which Amnesty's described as "ethnic cleansing".
No, there's no monopoly on victimhood and no fixed pattern to religious discrimination and violence. Despite what David Cameron says, Christians aren't unique in being persecuted, and nor are they always unblemished when it comes to dishing out the persecution. But, as I eat a slice of Colomba di Pasqua with my morning coffee this Easter (confession: as a confirmed non-believer, this will be my only concession to Easter), I'll readily accept that even one example of mistreatment of Christians is totally unacceptable.
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