Silent night

The agony of global Christianity goes unheard in the West


This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

November brought vast “Free Palestine” marches to the streets of Britain and the world. Those who protested were not put off by unabashed demands for Israel’s elimination or that organisers included Muhammad Kathem Sawalha — whose history as a senior Hamas commander has, interestingly, proved no bar to gaining British citizenship. Neither has weeks of coverage of bombed-out Gazan homes softened the views of Israel’s supporters who see it as a necessary price to demolish the nest of pitiless terrorism.

Christians have been forced to flee historic homelands in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Holy Land itself

Such demonstrations show that we have, rightly, not forgotten the Palestinian people — displaced and rendered stateless for decades — nor the plight of Jews worldwide, attacked, abused and threatened, forced to post security guards outside every school and synagogue.
But other conflicts and injustices, as or more terrible, command far less attention. Gaza is sometimes called an “open-air concentration camp”. Whatever we think of that, there are more than a million Muslims detained in literal concentration camps in Xinjiang, subjected to forced labour, re-education, the removal of their children, and mandatory sterilisation. In the most systematic act of ethnic cleansing in recent history, the birth rate in Uyghur- majority regions collapsed by more than 60 per cent in only three years.

But there is no BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement targeting China. Chinese students are not asked to defend their government’s conduct. Muslims do not march for their Chinese brethren, Labour councillors do not resign over Britain’s China policy and the new Foreign Secretary’s history of opening doors for Beijing suggests his conscience is unstirred. You can add to this list of the butchered, displaced and discriminated- against Kurds, Syrians, Yemenis, Sahrawis, Indians and Rohingya.

But one religious minority subjected to some of the worst treatment, with 360 million facing persecution, receives even less attention in the West. With one in seven of its adherents endangered, Christianity is one of the most oppressed religions in the world.

While Middle Eastern Jews have a homeland to flee to, carved out from the former Ottoman Empire, the place intended to be the Christian Arab homeland, the Republic of Lebanon, is now a failed state, dominated by Islamist groups such as Hezbollah. Since 2012, Christians have shrunk from 40 per cent to 32 per cent of Lebanon’s population, with many fleeing for the West.

The other enclave of Christians in the Middle East, Armenia, faces continual hostility from its more powerful neighbour Azerbaijan, which recently struck a devastating blow in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabkh, displacing thousands of Armenian Christians.

Christians have been forced to flee historic homelands in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Holy Land itself. From making up 13 per cent of the region’s population i the early twentieth century, they now comprise only 5 per cent.

The world is poorer for the displacement from their homelands of those with Syriac, Coptic and Chaldean cultures —indigenous peoples whose presence long preceded Arab conquest of their lands — to an uncertain life seeking refuge in the secular West. This is a civilisational loss.

Yet in the face of this global agony, the West this Christmas stands silent. Where are the sanctions, weapons and cultural solidarity for the millions of Christians facing existential threat? The war against Christianity is furiously waged by Marxist atheists in China, by Hindu nationalists in India, and even, piquantly, by Jewish bigots in Israel.

But its worst perpetrators, who are unleashing a wave of violence across Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, are Muslim extremists. The collective meekness of the West in the face of this cultural “other” has no doubt blunted concern for Christians for this reason. But the larger problem is that Christian suffering does not comfortably fit into our present political narratives.

Palestine appeals to the Left for obvious reasons. Palestinians are non-white (by their curiously racist definitions) stateless victims, part of the global “subaltern”, unpolluted by power. By contrast, Christians deserve no such sympathy, for theirs is the religion of the West, of imperialism and oppression. Their victimhood is invisible to the progressive worldview, even though by the Left’s definition they are also mostly non-white.

The indifference of the Right, which claims to uphold Christian “heritage” and oppose Islamism, is, by contrast, apparently inexplicable. But as they treat politics as an essentially secular project, even among national populists, Christianity plays the same role as for the Left — a religion for white people, a cipher for Western Civilisation.

Israel attracts support as a right-wing Western-style liberal democracy menaced by Islamist terrorism. With religion reduced to “Judeo-Christian” cultural heritage however, Christianity can therefore be reduced to mere symbolism, used in domestic playfights, but without making any real demands on policy makers. Least of all overseas.

The West’s utter indifference to Christianity is a dismal present which offers no cheer for this year

Concern for Christians runs subtly and implicitly counter to both leftist globalism and rightist nationalism. It belongs instead to an increasingly forgotten civilisational politics that was both realist and idealist; one that was last operative in the Cold War fight against Soviet Russia’s “evil empire” and has dwindled since the catastrophic follies of the War on Terror.

Rediscovering civilisational politics and establishing solidarity with Christians worldwide is not a matter of crusading interventionism (a lesson thoroughly learned after Afghanistan and Iraq).

Rather, it involves all that liberal multiculturalism lacks; real dialogue and engagement with other cultures and religions without the patronising assumption that we are all on the same dual-carriageway to Western secular modernity. Far more has been done on this front by Western religious leaders than by all the West’s armies and drones.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading Muslim cleric, is a salutary example of an Islamic leader promoting a third way between secularism and sectarianism. A fierce critic of the US occupation, he has spent the past 20 years seeking to restrain violence between Sunnis and Shias, and met with Pope Francis, releasing a statement in which he called for the protection of Iraqi Christians and their rights. Interreligious dialogue is a more powerful force than a secular human rights agenda without cultural precedent.

In the Middle East, of course, democracy and secularism are substantially opposed. In many Muslim countries there are more restrictions on Islamic expression, of thought as of dress, than in the West. The vital task of building a tolerant and humane Islamic politics has been entirely neglected by most in the West.

Yet, it is a process in which Christian leaders and thinkers have a profound role to play. For it is secular modernity that has been backed by bombs, dictatorship, invasion and occupation, intensifying the tragedy of Middle Eastern politics.

“End of history” liberalism, two bloody decades on, has proved a cul-de-sac. It is a sorry reflection that, despite its cruelties, prejudices and hierarchies, the Ottoman Empire was a more hospitable place for religious minorities than the modern nation states Western leaders carved out from it. The great strengths of the liberal tradition have become unmoored from religion and traditional culture, to their mutual cost.

Ultimately, what the West does, or neglects to do, elsewhere is just a reflection of what it is at home. Christianity is not simply a religion for — or of — the West. But the West’s utter indifference to Christianity is a dismal present which offers no cheer for this year, or for many yet to come.

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