“Do we want to be the generation that stood by as Christians disappeared almost entirely from the ancient homelands they have occupied since the days of the New Testament?” – so asked Peter Feavor and Will Inboden in last September’s issue of Foreign Policy magazine. They were Americans addressing a largely American audience. In Britain, however, I’m not so sure we care.
In April 2016, the British Parliament unanimously declared that what ISIS had been doing to Christian and Yazidi minorities in Iraq and Syria should be counted as “genocide”. But what interest has come of it, what action, what policy initiative? Nothing that I can think of.
I have already written here about my recent trip to Syria, where I was part of a group of Christians from the UK who were invited by the Syrian Orthodox Church. I also appeared on Newsnight to discuss it. Evan Davis, the presenter, wanted to talk about the way I had used Twitter from Syria. He rightly challenged me about the extent to which the group, and my tweets, could be seen as useful for the Assad regime. It was an important question.
But even after I admitted that, yes, I could have been wiser in my use of social media, he was still extremely reluctant to move onto the core purpose of our trip: to listen to, and express solidarity, with persecuted Christians in Syria – precisely those about whom the word genocide had been used.
His seeming uninterest wasn’t especially surprising. The media are worse than Alastair Campbell in not doing God. And so the Christians of the Middle East remain the great unheard.
Speaking to the European Parliament in 2014, the Pope said the following:
“I cannot fail to recall the many instances of injustice and persecution which daily effect religious minorities and Christians in particular. Communities and individuals today find themselves subjected to barbaric acts of violence: they are evicted from their homes and native lands, sold as slaves, killed, beheaded, crucified or burned alive, under the shameful and complicit silence of so many.”
It is a thoroughly damning indictment.
The reasons for our ‘shameful and complicit silence’ may have as much to do with increasingly negative attitudes towards Christianity in the West. Christianity is seen as the religion of the establishment, of the past, it is deemed to have fostered negative attitudes towards minorities. Moreover, there may be those who feel that to intervene on behalf of beleaguered Christians is to take sides in a religious war that feels positively medieval.
For many, religion is a no go area – too contested, too fraught with conflict. And so journalists and others pass by on the other side. After all, there are other – less troublesome, less complicated – causes to get behind.
Surely, if we have decided to engage the word genocide, then it carries with it an obligation – at the very least, an obligation to find out what is going on. That is why Christianity in the Middle East is an area of such concern for UnHerd. We must not be the generation that sits back and allows Christians to be systematically murdered for their faith; we must not allow Christianity to be driven from the place of its birth.
But perhaps – just perhaps – not all the news is bad news for Christians in the Middle East. While I was in Damascus the other week, I sat down with Dr Erica Hunter, Senior Lecturer in Eastern Christianity at SOAS. And as we talked about the future for Christians in the region, I was delighted to find her more optimistic that I had expected. Have a listen.