As regular readers of His Grace’s blog will be fully aware, the plight of Christians around the world is a subject that is discussed frequently on these pages. I sometimes wonder if such repetition will turn people away in a ‘read that; been there before’ approach, but as long as such intense suffering continues, given the nature of this site’s religio-political focus, there is an overwhelming duty to speak up and attempt to lay the facts bare.
The Bible is very clear that Christianity is not a private faith. When anyone makes the decision to follow Jesus, they become part of the biggest family on earth. During the Church of England’s baptism liturgy, the congregation welcomes in the newly-baptised with these words:
There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.
..by one Spirit we are all baptised into one body.
All: We welcome you into the fellowship of faith;
we are children of the same heavenly Father;
we welcome you.
My Christian family is not just my local church, but the global one. My attitude towards Christians in Pakistan or China should be no different from those I know in my local congregation. Anyone who has had even a smattering of religious education should know that Jesus calls us to love our neighbours, and the story of the Good Samaritan plainly clarifies that we should make no distinctions as to who we consider our neighbour to be. However, the New Testament writers also exhort Christians to be especially vigilant regarding the welfare of their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. In Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Mt 25: 31-46), it is not difficult to argue that when the king declares, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,’ he is referring specifically to God’s people, i.e., Christians, and not to humanity as a whole.
This is why the reports that have poured in over the last year, telling of the brutal and horrific treatment of Christian communities in the Middle East, have been so disturbing. In actual fact, the drawn-out eradication of Christians from the region has been going on for a good deal longer, but with ISIS’s inhuman treatment of anyone they choose to hate, this has been brought sharply into focus. Through the work of Christian charities such as Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide and, in particular, Canon Andrew White, the ‘Vicar of Baghdad’, this persecution has not gone unnoticed well beyond our Sunday church congregations. The secular media has increasingly taken up the cause of Christians suffering most frequently at the hands of intolerant Islam. A growing number of parliamentarians are also voicing their concerns.
One of the exceptions, though, has been the BBC. In its coverage of world affairs and the Middle East, the persecution of Christians, while not entirely ignored, proportionally receives little attention. When ISIS drove the Yazidis out of their homes and into the mountains of Iraq last year, it made the BBC’s headlines. It rightly deserved attention, but the Christians who were experiencing exactly the same treatment (and were also much larger in number) were mentioned far less. If this is still a Christian country, as David Cameron often likes to remind us, then it becomes even more irksome that the BBC, for whatever reason, devotes such little attention to (for example) the fact that the Christian population in Iraq alone has collapsed to a tiny percentage of the millions who lived there prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein. This is one of the biggest stories to have come out of the troubles in the Middle East, and yet the BBC has barely mentioned it in all of its coverage of the multiple conflicts.
So, when Jane Corbin’s Kill the Christians aired on BBC2 this week, it was a welcome surprise. Such a programme covering the situation for Christians in the Middle East is long overdue, but at least the BBC has finally begun to catch up with the rest of us. It was never going to be a perfect programme: squeezing a whistle-stop tour of Christian communities in Syria, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and Palestine into an hour could scarcely give all situations the level of attention each deserves. When the wait has been so long, expectations inevitably increase. And, on the whole, Jane Corbin did a thorough job of telling the story of a few individuals and the dislocation of their communities as they have fled the deadly violence of the ISIS.
Ed West has written a sound review of the programme for the Catholic Herald, but I want to highlight a number of factors that stood out as I watched it. The first was the complete contrast between the Christians interviewed and the actions of their aggressors. Footage of both Muslims and Christians, just moments before their execution at the hands of black-clad ISIS soldiers, was flashed up at regular intervals. This was greatly disturbing, but still failed to convey the scale of their sickening disregard for the lives of others. It was perhaps best summed up by 13-year-old Nardine. She had escaped the invasion of her village in northern Iraq, but was fully aware that if they had caught her she would now be either dead or imprisoned as a sex slave. The look on her face as she considered the Yazidi girls who had suffered that fate was haunting.
Whilst ISIS were depicted sowing fear and terror, Christians were seen feeding, sheltering and caring for the suffering and displaced irrespective of their beliefs – for Muslims as much as their fellow Christians. Even with the little that they had, they were doing their utmost for others. One Muslim bluntly stated that without the survival of Christianity in the Middle East, moderate Islam is also doomed. In countries with diverse and complex religions and histories, Christianity has provided a level of stability and cohesion. As this fades away, so does the chance of long-term peace between the different strands of Islam.
And little hope remains. Where Christians have fled persecution in their droves in the face of the utterly intolerant Saudi-Salafist strain of Islam and the increased sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shias, it is impossible to see them returning in any great number, if at all. If they are able to find better homes elsewhere, what would bring them back? The only place in the Middle East where the Christian population is secure and growing is Israel, and yet, for some strange reason, Jane Corbin told us the complete opposite. Strangely, too, she blamed Israel for the exodus of Christians from Bethlehem and the Palestinian territories. What the programme failed to mention is that since Hamas came to power, there has been a marked increase in incitement and violence by Muslims against Christians throughout Palestine. This subtle anti-Israeli rhetoric was uncalled for, and an unnecessary blot on an otherwise well-researched documentary. It would seem to be that this Twitter comment from journalist Nelson Jones has some weight:
Maybe it was? If so, thank you, Jane Corbin and the BBC, for at long last sharing the stories of just a handful of Christians in the Middle East. It was better than might have been expected, despite one grating flaw. But there is so much more to say. You could, for example, devote a whole programme to the experiences of Andrew White in Baghdad. Archbishop Justin Welby has visited Iraq and has plenty of informed opinion which could also be reported. Please don’t leave it here, thinking you’ve fulfilled your Christian-persecution quota. You have only just begun to scratch the surface, and the world needs to hear much more. Politically-correct sensibilities and the fear of causing offence should never be allowed to hide the truth of this genocidal ‘cleansing’.
As a final thought, it was quite remarkable to observe that none of the Christians who were interviewed had questioned their faith: their resilience was stoic, and at no time did they express doubt in God. We live in a country where Christianity is often derided and discarded; where God is disparagingly referred to as a magical fairy or ‘sky pixie’. But, for these Christians who have so much to lose simply by staying true to their faith, they find in God not empty indifference, but strength and unending hope. The wisdom of Nardine, despite her young age, was profound:
The Christian religion is about love and peace. I feel very sad because the Devil has taken over the Islamic State. I will pray to God to enlighten their minds. Whatever happens, we will not give up our religion. We will not abandon Christianity, never.
This World – Kill the Christians is available to watch on BBC iPlayer until 13 May.