One of the most troubling features of our times is the extent of the persecution of Christians. In many countries Christians are being persecuted and killed for no other reason than their faith. The exact numbers killed each year are impossible to determine but it is widely acknowledged that it runs to tens of thousands. Death is not the only outcome: over half a million Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes in the last few years and well over 100,000 are now refugees. A once-vibrant Iraqi church, in existence for nearly two millennia, is now on the verge of extinction.
There are many reasons why Christians are being persecuted. However, most followers of Christ are poor, marginalised and from ethnic or linguistic minorities and it is easy for them to be associated with a Western culture that is widely and intensely disliked. So in a crowded world full of angry people, Christians make excellent and accessible scapegoats. The former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, told the House of Lords recently that the suffering of Middle Eastern Christians is 'one of the crimes against humanity of our time' and compared it with Jewish pogroms in Europe. The parallels are striking.
And why is the West largely silent? Defending Christians in far-off countries is not fashionable: it's just not cool to say that you want to stick up for illiterate peasants in Pakistan or fundamentalist famers in Colombia. There is also a long tradition in Christianity of meekly suffering in silence. We believers know that this world is not our home, that the kingdom of heaven is not to be found on earth and that as our founder suffered martyrdom, we should be prepared for a similar fate. However, the global attack on Christians has now reached such a scale that an appeal for action and support should be made to the widest possible audience.
But why should the sufferings of Christians concern those who do not share our faith? There are four reasons:
First is the principle of common decency. We all have an inbuilt sense of right and wrong and what is happening to Christians is simply wrong. The Christians being persecuted have rarely done anything other than hold fast to their beliefs. What we are seeing is quite simply bullying of the worst sort. There seems to be a global mood that the followers of Jesus are fair game. It's not right and to ignore the bullied is to ally ourselves with the bully.
Second is that we have a shared obligation. Western civilisation is unquestionably Christian: while the roots of Christian ethics lie in the Jewish faith and some of our values are affirmed by other faiths, much that is prized in Western culture - the right to free speech, the value of every individual, the recognition of love as the highest virtue, the commitment to charity and many other values - all come from the Christian faith. Christians have not always lived up to these values, but many have - and they have shaped the world that we live in.
Third is simple self-interest. Jesus told his followers to be salt and light in the world - preventing rot and bringing illumination - and Christians do stand firm against the tendency of things to go from bad to worse. Yes, you may find Christians to be dull, boring people with beliefs that you find ridiculous and a morality that you find oppressive, but such people act as the glue and the framework in society. History recounts that expulsion of the Bible-believing Huguenots from France at the end of the seventeenth century removed a solid, moral element from society and this was a major factor in the revolution and terror that descended a century later. Our failure to act today in protection of minorities sends out a dangerous signal for the future. Amel Nona, the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, now exiled in Erbil, recently made a troubling prediction: 'Our sufferings today are the prelude of those you, Europeans and Western Christians, will also suffer in the near future.' If Christians are attacked today, who will be safe tomorrow?
All the Gospels mention that at the crucifixion of Jesus there were bystanders, who stood by watching. For them, the crucifixion was no doubt just 'one of those things'. Yet Christ said that he lives on in the lives of his followers and that the Church is his body today. To accept that is to recognise that what we are seeing today is, in effect, a re-crucifixion of Christ. To stand by as people are massacred for their faith and to do nothing is to stand with that first-century crowd of callous bystanders. History has not judged them kindly and if we do the same, it will not judge us kindly either.