Reviewing 'Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack'

Marko Joensuu         No comments

Over 200 million Christians suffer under persecution all around the world. It is one of the worst human rights violations of our time, yet the mainstream media seems oblivious to it. The few high-profile cases that are reported, such as the murder of the Catholic Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minorities minister who was killed by Islamic extremists for opposing the country’s anti-blasphemy laws, aren’t even the tip of the iceberg.

For decades the persecution of Christians has been largely ignored by the British media that still suffers from ‘white man’s guilt’ and sees Christians outside Europe and America as a relic from colonial times. And the general public seems to think that the last time Christians were persecuted was when they were thrown to the lions during the Roman rule.

Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack looks at the persecution of Christians today in Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia, India, Burma, China, Vietnam, North Korea, Israel and Palestine, and also at Christians in Cuba, Venezuela, Belarus, Sri Lanka, Laos and Sudan. And the truth seems incontestable – Christians are being persecuted by atheist, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu governments and by extremists all around the world – more than followers of any other religion.

Rising awareness after 9/11

Before 9/11 most Europeans saw religion as a spent force. Now many are in danger of seeing only its negative potency, and the world as a struggle between Islam, other ‘irrational’ religious forces and the ‘rational’ West.

Shortt’s account of the persecution of Coptic Christians highlights what is really taking place in Egypt. The nation isn’t being liberated but Islamists are winning the battle for power, and the Copts are paying for the consequences. But the persecution of Copts didn’t begin yesterday, and Shortt traces the persecution of Copts back to the 1970s when Egypt began to be influenced by the Salafist Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia. The perpetrators of 7/7 were allowed to practice their religion openly in Britain but there is scarcely a single country in the Muslim world from Morocco to Pakistan where Christians are fully free to worship without harassment. And, over half of the Christians have now left the Middle East. These are some of the oldest Christian communities in the world, yet their attackers reject their right to live there.

But Shortt reminds that it is oversimplifying the reality to see this as a battle between Islamic extremists and the West.

‘It’s not part of the story’

Shortt sees the Enlightenment narrative that introduced the idea that religion is the main cause for conflicts, framing all religions as irrational sources of violent behaviour, as one of the reasons why the persecution of Christians goes unreported. When a particular body of believers is targeted, sympathy is withheld on the basis that the victims would inflict comparable aggression against others, were they able to do so.

In the case of Christians, this is compounded by the association over the past two centuries of Christianity with Western imperialism and ‘divide and rule’ policies. That’s why even the mass killings of Christians are often reported as ‘sectarian violence’ or ‘ethnic clashes’, expressions which conceal the religious element and suppress the victimhood of Christians. Another version of the Enlightenment narrative can explain the early reporting on the Arab Spring. Initially, it was reported as the unstoppable rise of freedom and democracy. The power of this narrative was so strong that the details that didn’t fit into the story – such as the power-grabbing by the Islamic extremists and the violence against Copts in Egypt – were simply ignored. And in Syria the uprising was seen as an inevitable fall of a tyranny, rather than grasping the complexity of the conflict.

It is easy to see how the current position of news production in the media ecosystem contributes to the problem. News competes with entertainment, and even the best news programmes could be classified as ‘entertainment for intellectuals’. Whatever doesn’t fit neatly within the constraints of 60-second updates, lacks dramatic visuals, or can’t be shortened into a 144-letter tweet headline is fighting a losing battle.
In the news, there is often space for only one, dominant, and universally oversimplified storyline.

In Britain, the Olympic Games preparations were ‘catastrophic’ until the actual Games took place after which they were the ‘best games in history’.

Rarely does the persecution of Christians fit into the dominant narrative. How could the people fighting for freedom in the Middle East also oppress and kill Christians? In Britain, the church is often described as an intolerant dinosaur that oppresses sexual minorities and women. How can church be a victim? Simply, that’s not part of the story. There are other factors at play. At least in the political level, there has been a reluctance to criticise countries such as Saudi Arabia and China for human rights violations, as they play a vital part in the global economy.

Islam vs. Christianity?

There are Muslim countries such as Senegal that has Muslim majority and factual freedom of religion, but it seems clear that all across the globe, Islamic extremists are trying to generate conflicts between Muslim majorities and other religious groups. This tactic is clearly visible in in Nigeria and Indonesia where Islamic extremists have targeted Christian civilians. One particularly gruesome attack was the beheading of three Christian schoolgirls in Indonesia. Shortt picks Islam as the religion that persecutes Christians the most, but he isn’t totally pessimistic about Islam’s capacity to reform itself.

As a framework for explaining and predicting the course of global politics, secularism is increasingly unsound. Religion has simply refused to go away. Three quarters of humanity professes a religious faith and the figure is in fact projected to rise to 80% by 2050.

The persecution of Christians should be a major policy issue for many governments, but instead it’s completely missing from the agenda, Shortt says.

Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack is an important wakeup call to the secular media and politicians. Such because they don’t believe in God, it doesn’t mean that God and religion have disappeared from global politics. It argues convincingly that recognising and dealing with the persecution of Christians is one of the main human rights issues we face today.

Rupert Shortt is Religion Editor of The Times Literary Supplement, contributes to the Guardian and The Times, and is a Visiting Fellow of Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford. He has written the biographies of Archbishop Rowan Williams and Pope Benedict XVI.

Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack was released by Rider, an imprint of Random House on 1st November 2012.
Published by Marko Joensuu

Marko Joensuu has worked for over sixteen years in the publishing and media ministries of Kensington Temple. He is an author, publisher and screenwriter.
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