Hill of Crosses in Lithuania. Picture credit: Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The end of Christendom

Is Christianity now a homeless faith?

Artillery Row

It may seem odd to ask whether there is anywhere that Christianity can call home. 2.4 billion people call themselves Christians, and Christianity is the dominant faith of the USA, which remains the world’s hegemonic military and economic power. Christianity is likewise the leading faith of Africa, where the population is swiftly growing, with ¼ of the world’s inhabitants set to be African by the year 2050. In China, Christianity has spread rapidly in the past decades, and if trends continue China may become home to as many as 100 million Christians by 2050. 

Yet Christianity finds itself in the path of a new wave of authoritarianism and sectarianism sweeping Africa and Asia. Not only Islamic but Hindu fundamentalism is on the rise, with violence, persecution, censorship, bigotry and abuse visited on Christians more than any other faith group in the world. The past two decades have seen the Syrian civil war, the rise of increasingly violent and totalitarian forms of Islam, the collapse of Libya, the return of the Taliban, the depredations of Boko Haram in Nigeria and terror attacks that reach into the heart of Europe to punish supposed apostates and blasphemers. Converts from Islam or those who dare to depict the prophet Muhammad in art are pursued by lone fanatics or armed death squads. 

Against this backdrop of ethno-religious cleansing and theocratic terror, ancient Christian communities in the Middle East have dwindled to ever smaller and more embattled enclaves in the land where Christianity began, and where they had lived in peace and friendship with Muslim neighbours for generations. 

In Israel, there have been a series of ever more disturbing reports of Christians threatened, harassed and persecuted by extreme Zionists. Not only Palestinian Christians, but other Christian communities in the Holy Land are targeted. The most recent story involved Israeli men stopping the car of two Armenians in Jerusalem, shouting, “You don’t have a neighbourhood here. This is our country, get out of our country”, then proceeding to pepper spray them. An hour later extremists climbed the roof of the Armenian patriarchate in Jerusalem in an attempt to remove the Armenian flag. 

A few decades ago Christians made up 11 per cent of the population in Jerusalem; now only 2 per cent, comprising 10,000 Christians, remain in the city. “Death to Christians” has been found scrawled on the old city walls, and a few weeks ago a Christian cemetery was vandalised by Jewish youths. Nor are Christians safe in the Palestinian Territories, where they not only face persecution as Palestinians by Israeli authorities, but also violence and intimidation from Muslims. In a recent incident, an armed mob attacked the Christian majority village of Jifna, with scenes reminiscent of Islamic State where young men fired guns into the air and demanded that Christians pay the Jizya tax. 

In India, once known for all its troubles as the world’s largest and most religiously pluralistic democracy, religious nationalism has taken over, and mobs of fanatics seize upon Christians to mock, beat or kill. All of this is done with the tacit assistance of the media and local authorities, who respectively accuse Christians of attempting to convert Hindus or ignore and deny their claims for justice against their persecutors. 

These are not merely cases of religious sectarianism, but of a wider and perhaps more sinister trend. Religion is seized on by cynical and greedy elites as a means of mobilising and unifying national populations. The rise of Islamic and Hindu fundamentalism is an aspect of a general move across Eurasia towards nationalism and totalitarianism.

Iran, Russia, China and a host of other states tacitly co-operate to unweave the post-war and post-Soviet world order dominated by America. They work on the brute logic of energy and military blackmail, inter-state competition over territory and resources, a multilateralism built on strength, and a selective respect for national sovereignty. Internally they make use of every modern tool of electronic surveillance and propaganda, viewing civil society and independent Christian churches as a threat to their authority. 

Millions of Christians have fled Africa and Asia to seek asylum in the West

This new order exists for one purpose only — to enrich, empower and perpetuate self-serving oligarchic elites, whether they be wealthy businessmen, military officers, party members or aristocratic families. In India, Hindu nationalism has gone hand in hand with growing inequality and an ever greater commitment to capitalist exploitation. Indigenous communities are ripped apart to construct mines, ordinary people are subjected to terrible pollution, and workers die in unsafe construction sites. In China, minority groups like Tibetans and the Muslims Uyghurs are ethnically cleansed or forcibly assimilated into the Han identity. Christians face incredible hostility from the officially atheist state. Their churches are subject to state surveillance and control, with even Bibles manipulated to ensure Christians are loyal to the state and the Communist party. 

Little surprise that millions of Christians have fled Africa and Asia to seek asylum in the West. For over 1500 years, though the geography may have shifted, there has been a thing called Christendom. Christianity may be a religion, an idea and an ideal, but it was also a refuge, a place and a polity. It involved the close identification of Christianity with particular geographies, regimes and organisations, but was equally the disidentification of Christianity from any one Christian ruler, nation or people over another. Wherever Christians dwelt free and safe from persecution by their enemies, there was Christendom — a more-than-empire, an order that was more moral than military, of which our present liberal international idealism is but the heir and shadow. 

Though we can readily recall the many martyrs of the Church and its extraordinary triumph over persecution, the existence of a realm of Christian rule and refuge was the very prize towards which the persecuted Church strove, not its antithesis. When the Goths invaded the Roman Empire, St Ambrose used the wealth of the Church, even melting down the gold used on the altar, to ransom prisoners from the invaders. He said, “The best way to use the gold of the Redeemer is for the redemption of those in peril.”

St Augustine, his pupil, responded likewise to a Gothic invasion of Rome. In his City of God, he wrote that the Goths, many of whom had converted to Christianity, spared those who fled to the churches: “The reliquaries of the martyrs and the churches of the apostles bear witness to this; for in the sack of the city they were open sanctuary for all who fled to them, whether Christian or Pagan. To their very threshold the bloodthirsty enemy raged; there his murderous fury owned a limit.” 

The sanctuary found there involved not only the sacral geography of the churches built upon relics, but in the spiritual community of Christendom. Even as pagan witnesses lamented the fall of the Roman Empire, Augustine could see the embryonic birth of something greater — a moral and fraternal empire built on shared belief and shared love. 

Today, however, Chistendom is not merely besieged from without, as Christians are driven from their homes in Africa and Asia, but the status of the West as a refuge is increasingly in question. In an increasingly secular age, political leaders appear largely indifferent to the plight of Christians overseas. Even observant Christian politicians seem to show no desire to prioritise persecuted Christians when it comes to how foreign aid is distributed, which refugees are accepted, or on whose behalf diplomatic influence is wielded. 

Many liberals once firmly took the side of religious liberty in general and Christian minorities in particular. The great leader of the Liberal party William Gladstone, in an atmosphere of denial and cynical indifference reminiscent of our own situation, furiously denounced the inaction of the British government in relation to Turkish massacres of Christians in Bulgaria. The government of the time responded to the first reports with “warnings against exaggeration; of general attenuations of the matter, as what must be expected to happen among savage races, with a different idea or code of morals from our own”. 

The rights of ordinary Muslims are less valid when they conflict the progressive agenda

He expressed disbelief that “villages could be burned down by scores, and men, women, and children murdered, or worse than murdered, by thousands, in a Turkish province lying between the capital and the scene of the recent excitements, and that our Embassy and Consulates could know nothing of it? The thing was impossible. It could not be. 

In Gladstone’s day, appeals to “humanity, freedom and justice” as well as the ancient idea of “Western Christendom” were not only enough to electrify public opinion and force concessions from the government, but played a major role in securing his return to power and the subsequent independence of Bulgaria. Historian Roumen Genov wrote of the significance of his intervention: “Some might say: Gladstone did no great deal — writing pamphlets and making speeches. However, we should be aware that the art of rhetoric was highly regarded at that time, and that the British Empire was actually ruled through speeches made in parliament, whilst the press emerged as the fourth estate.” 

Perhaps not uncoincidentally, humanistic liberal idealism has fallen out of fashion in tandem with the cultural and moral authority of Christianity. Although lip service is still paid to religious freedom, it has little traction with the media and intellectual classes who at best see it as secondary to questions of sexual freedom or  gender and racial equality. At worst they see it as a threat to these other freedoms and wish to scale it radically back. 

Though there is obviously a vast and qualitative difference between the outright persecution and violence visited upon Christians outside the West, and the subtle erosion of religious liberty within liberal Western societies, the two are working in dangerous tandem. Cases like the ban on prayer outside abortion clinics, which in especially surreal fashion have involved the arrest of a woman for praying silently (thanks to legislation banning not only protest but prayer outside abortion clinics) , are part of a wider picture of religious liberty being subtly but consistently shoved down the hierarchy of liberal causes towards the very bottom. 

Even well-publicised and apparently robust campaigns against “Islamophobia” often involve the cynical dismissal of valid concerns about fundamentalism and religious violence in the name of defeating “harmful stereotypes”. Meanwhile the rights of ordinary Muslims are mysteriously much less valid when they conflict with other parts of the progressive agenda, as we saw in 2019 when Muslim parents protested the teaching of an “LGBT inclusive” sex education curriculum at a Birmingham primary school. 

In the context of recent discussions in the Church of England over same-sex marriage, many prominent politicians effectively demanded that the Church conform to the values that secular politicians and society hold, rather than make their decision freely on the basis of theology and internal debate. 

Andrew Selous MP, acting in his role as second Church commissioner, answered questions in parliament on the subject, correctly pointing out that parliament “approved measures in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 to ensure that conscience and freedom of religion were protected for all faiths, including the Church of England. Freedom of religion and belief must apply here in the United Kingdom as well as around the world”. 

Only ten years ago the Church of England and religious bodies across the country were given powerful and supposedly binding assurances that they would be allowed to make their own choices, about when and whether religious groups would choose to conduct religious ceremonies for same-sex marriages. Now many MPs appear to disregard this settlement entirely. 

Ben Bradshaw asked “how continuing to discriminate against lesbian and gay Anglicans in England is compatible with the unique duty of the established Church to serve everyone?” 

Sir Peter Bottomley pointed out that parliament had the power to amend the legislation creating the General Synod, warning, “We are coming to a stage, on that and on this, where the Church of England needs to wake up.” 

Christians have an urgent duty to advance rather than retreat

Meanwhile Wes Streeting suggested passing legislation that would compel the Church of England to allow individual priests and parishes to make up their own mind. 

The question to consider here is not the rights and wrongs of same-sex marriage, but the basic issue of the right of Christians and Christian organisations to decide on the subject for themselves; to follow God and their conscience, rather than being compelled by the state to prove their loyalty to the ideals of the secular state and its governing classes. 

With no refuge or well of power and influence with which to draw on, Christians are becoming further endangered across the globe. Christian refugees will find no special welcome in the secular West. Christian churches in exile may find their beliefs again denounced and legally persecuted by Western societies. The great influence and rhetoric that helped win freedom for the Christian peoples of the Balkans is unlikely to be available for Christians now persecuted worldwide. 

Far from challenging the rising totalitarian powers of Eurasia, Western elites and commentators are often in idiotic awe of them. Bookshelves are stuffed with Pinkersque odes to the progressive wonder that is the “rise of China” and the “millions lifted out of poverty” by the one-party state. Similarly China’s grotesque lockdown policies, which saw sick families welded into their homes, were widely admired by Western observers — much as its disastrous and obscene “one child policy” was once the darling of many Western commentators. 

Western nations seem more interested in trading with authoritarian regimes than they are with spreading ideals of liberty and human dignity. According to post-colonial scholars, these ideals are in fact Eurocentric intellectual imperialism, built on white supremacy and racist oppression. Today’s liberals are more concerned with Britain’s alleged crimes against India 200 years ago, than they are with the increasingly horrific crimes of India against its own people, more bothered by Islamophobia than they are by the multiple genocides carried out in the name of Islam. This is not merely hypocrisy, but self-destructive parochialism — a culture critiquing itself to death. 

Post-Christian Western civilisation is increasingly unable to articulate what it believes in, ever more subservient to its direst foes and rivals, able to find moral purpose only in deconstructing its own ideals and achievements. Christians have an urgent duty to advance rather than retreat, to rescue a dying world besieged by iniquity. 

Christendom was born amidst the ashes of Rome, ruling with moral authority and purity of purpose in a world otherwise governed by violence, force and greed. To restrain the infinite lusts of the powerful even by an inch, to stop the depredation of the barbarian at the very foot of the sanctuary, was enough for Augustine and enough for the Church — a tiny window of hope through which all the light of Christian civilisation would pour forth for a thousand years.

In this moment of maximal crisis for Christians, we gain nothing by ignoring the seriousness of our plight, or clutching after a vanished centrality to a culture that has discarded religious faith. We have everything to gain and to win from collectively recognising the depths of the problem, as no cure may be attempted without a diagnosis. 

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