December 22, 2011
Father Immanuel Dabaghian, one of Baghdad’s last surviving priests, is expecting a quiet Christmas. To join him in the Church of the Virgin Mary means two hours of security checks and a body search at the door, and even then there’s no guarantee of survival. Islamist gunmen massacred 58 people in a nearby church last year, and fresh graffiti warns remaining worshippers that they could be next.
The Americans have gone now, and Iraq’s Christian communities – some of the world’s oldest – are undergoing an exodus on a biblical scale.
Of the country’s 1.4 million Christians, about two thirds have now fled. Although the British Government is reluctant to recognise it, a new evil is sweeping the Middle East: religious cleansing. The attacks, which peak at Christmas, have already spread to Egypt, where Coptic Christians have seen their churches firebombed by Islamic fundamentalists. In Tunisia, priests are being murdered. Maronite Christians in Lebanon have, for the first time, become targets of bombing campaigns. Christians in Syria, who have suffered as much as anyone from the Assad regime, now pray for its survival. If it falls, and the Islamists triumph, persecution may begin in earnest.
The idea of Christianity as a kind of contagion that is foreign to the Arab world is bizarre: it is, of course, a Middle Eastern religion successfully exported to the pagan West. Those feet, in ancient times, came nowhere near England’s mountains green. The Nativity is a Middle Eastern story about a child born to a Jewish mother, whose first visitors were three wise Iranians and who was then swept off to Egypt to escape Roman persecution.
His Apostles later scattered to Libya, Turkey and Iraq, to establish the Christian communities that are now under threat. For most of history, they have coexisted happily with Muslims: dressing the same way, even celebrating each other’s festivals. The rise of the veil, and other cultural dividing lines, is a relatively modern phenomenon.
These dividing lines are now being made into battle lines by hardline Salafists, who are emerging as victors of the Arab Spring. They belong to the same mutant strain of Sunni Islam which inspired al-Qaeda. Their agenda is sectarian warfare, and they loathe Shia Islam as much as they do Christians and Jews. Their enemy lies not over a border, but in a church, synagogue or Shia mosque. The Salafists may be detested by the Muslim mainstream. But as they are finding out, you don’t need to be popular to seize power in a post-dictatorship Arab world – you just need to be the best organised. The West is so obsessed with government structure that it doesn’t notice when power lies elsewhere, and Islamist death squads are executing barbers and unveiled women in places like Basra.
Two years ago, the idea of such bloody sectarianism would have sounded like a macabre fantasy in a country as civilised as Egypt. After al-Qaeda bombed a church on New Year’s Day, Muslim elders sat in the front pews forming a human shield and defying the terrorists. But moderate Egyptians are now losing this power struggle. The killing has started, with another 25 Copts murdered in October. Tens of thousands of Egypt’s Christians have already joined their Iraqi counterparts in exile: as Iraq proved, one death can lead to a thousand emigrations. The Salafists are finding it staggeringly easy to realise their fantasy of a “purer” Egypt.
The Arab Spring was always going to mean danger for religious minorities, unleashing the Islamic extremists who previously were kept at bay. For all their evil, the old secular tyrants abused their victims equally, whether they wore the cross, hijab or skullcap. This year’s revolutions are marked by the utter absence of any leaders-in-waiting. History has repeatedly shown how, under such circumstances, regime change can be followed by a descent into sectarian chaos. Extremists can easily start fights along religious or ethnic lines by assassinating a leader, or blowing up a shrine. The result can be civil war (as with Bosnia and Rwanda), even leading to partition (as with India and Cyprus).
The Foreign Office has been typically slow to recognise the gathering threat, despite repeated warnings. The biggest one of all came a fortnight ago, when the Archbishop of Canterbury opened a gripping debate in the Lords about the widening persecutions, and what the Government ought to do. Lord Patten, the former education secretary, revealed that he spent a year failing to persuade the Foreign Office to help a group of Anglicans in the Anatolian peninsula, who are banned from worshipping in any public place. “'The answer was no,’ he said. 'They would not approach the Turkish government to ask, 'Please can you ease up a bit?’” But when German Catholics were having trouble in the same place, Angela Merkel’s government intervened immediately, working with the Turks to send a Catholic priest to hold public worship.
So why the British reticence? It might be that the Foreign Office sees this as part of a soppy equalities agenda, unworthy of diplomatic attention. Those who have raised the issue directly with William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, say he is unenthusiastic. When Mr Hague visited Algeria recently, he did not raise its ban on any Christian activity outside state-licensed buildings.
When challenged, ministers deplore persecution in general – but, seemingly, not so much that they’d do something like pick up the phone to Ankara. Yet there is plenty Britain can do. Countries could be denied aid until Christians (or Jews, or Sunnis) are allowed to worship freely. British diplomats could be empowered, even instructed, to advocate freedom of religion. When a peer of the realm alerts the Foreign Office to some persecuted Anglicans, a red alert ought to sound. Mr Hague might even publish an annual audit of religious freedom in various countries, making clear its importance to Britain. It might make its own estimate about the scale of the flood of refugees.
The Foreign Office did not realise the full evil of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans until it was too late: it did not take civil tensions seriously enough. It can do better now, making clear that it regards religious cleansing as an emerging evil that ought to be confronted wherever it is being incubated. Article 18 of the UN Charter of Human Rights guarantees freedom of religion – and yet outright religious oppression is quietly ignored, from Saudi Arabia to the Maldives. For ages, Iran has been able to persecute Baha’is with a minimum of fuss kicked up in the West. The ayatollahs are now turning the screw on Christians, with 300 arrested in the past year.
Speaking in that House of Lords debate were men to whom the idea of religious cleansing is anything but abstract. Lord (Dolar) Popat fled Uganda when Idi Amin turned on the Indians in 1971. Hindus, he said, are taught that it is a sin to be prejudiced against anyone. But it is “an even greater sin to witness persecution, then sit back and do nothing to stop it”. Lord Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, said his parents were once victims of the same evil that now confronts Christians. He quoted Martin Luther King: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
Our friends in the Middle East are all waiting to hear from HM Government. Perhaps, in the new year, it might have something to say.