“Today of all days, I want us to remember those Christians around the world who are facing persecution. For them, Christmas Day will be marked in private, in secret, perhaps even in a prison cell. As Prime Minister, that’s something I want to change. We stand with Christians everywhere, in solidarity, and will defend your right to practice your faith.”
extract from the Prime Minister’s Christmas message
FAITH UNDER FIRE
Across the globe the persecution of religious minorities has intensified over the past decade. Free societies must insist upon and defend the exercise of private conscience
Excepting only the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, there is no more important statement of liberty than the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1786. Its author, Thomas Jefferson, urged that religious belief is an inviolable principle of private judgment and that there should be no religious test for public office.
It is a dismal fact of the modern era that Jefferson’s words remain vital yet unobserved in large parts of the world, and that religious persecution has increased even in the past decade. The subjugation of believers is a humanitarian crisis of the first order as we approach the third decade of the 21st century.
Christians across the globe will tomorrow celebrate the birth of Christ. They will affirm their faith that, in ancient Palestine two millennia ago, God became flesh and assumed the tribulations of suffering humanity. In Britain and other democracies they will pay no civic cost for their freedom of worship, assembly and belief.
Sadly, the same is not always true of Christians elsewhere. A review led by Philip Mounstephen, the Bishop of Truro, and commissioned by Jeremy Hunt when he was foreign secretary, concluded this year that the persecution of Christians is at near-genocide levels in some parts of the world.
It is an under-reported crime. Mr Hunt suggested that a form of political correctness was obscuring the plight of Christians worldwide, even though in many societies they form an impoverished minority. There is a lot to be said for this as an explanation for the invisibility of the persecution of Christians. Yet even if the discrimination and disadvantage were pursued against more powerful minorities, it would still be iniquitous.
A tragic example is the Christian community in Egypt. At least 10 per cent of the most populous nation (of 95 million inhabitants) in the Middle East identify as Christians. In the form especially of the Copts, the largest Christian community in the region, they are an integral and ancient part of Middle Eastern history.
Yet their plight has intensified in the decade since the Arab Spring, as the rise of extremists affiliated to Islamic State has led to murderous attacks on churches and the kidnapping of young girls to be forced into sexual slavery.
This is not the same type of genocidal repression visited upon the Christian populations in the past decade in Syria and Iraq by Islamist terrorists. It is devastating nonetheless. It compounds the suffering of Christian communities in other societies in the Muslim world, such as Pakistan, and under polities that are nominally secular, such as North Korea and China.
Conversely, Muslims face ferocious persecution in Burma, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people have been expelled from their homes and lead a precarious existence in the neighbouring state of Bangladesh. And India, the world’s most populous democracy and home to more than 10 per cent of Muslims worldwide, is introducing a new citizenship law that critics argue discriminates against Muslims.
It is entirely reasonable that adherents of churches, mosques, temples and synagogues should wish to interpret the ethical dictates of their faith and apply them in the political realm. A topical example is the argument among evangelical Christians in the United States about whether President Trump’s character flaws and mercurial conduct should disqualify him from office.
Yet, as Jefferson insisted, questions about the origins and the purpose of the universe are matters of private conscience alone. The only role of the state in religious matters is to uphold liberty, not to arbitrate between rival claims to truth. Even in Britain, the issue has become more prominent in the past decade, as the scandalous recrudescence of antisemitism has become a topical political issue. The defence of religious freedom is always vital. Tragically, it is needed now more than ever.
The Times leading article on the preservation of religious freedom: Faith Under Fire
The Prince of Wales recorded a Christmas video message for Aid to the Church in Need specifically aimed at persecuted Christians, assuring them of his thoughts and prayers over the festive season.