Jim Sillars: Christians need not be martyrs

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Christmas is a special time for Christians. In the UK they believe that their religious needs, their desire to express themselves, are not just overlooked, but dismissed by the state bureaucracy, and some companies, as not acceptable. I am not a Christian, but they have cause for their complaints. They are, however, lucky to be here.

Whatever slights and insults come their way in this country, it is nothing to what is happening to Christians in other parts of the world. Civitas, the think-tank, has just released its research on the treatment of Christians in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It makes depressing reading, and even with this atheist, generates a sense of outrage.

Civitas’s report shows that Christians suffer greater hostility in those parts of the world than any other religious group. I know from personal experience, or more accurately that of a former Iraqi work colleague, just how severe the persecution can be. Her family are not new arrivals. They are descendents from the great Assyria and Babylonia empires. They are Iraqi – but they are Christians, and that is where danger lay for them.

Before bible-thumping Tony Blair and his Born Again pal George W Bush felt the hand of God guiding them to attack Saddam’s regime, there were around 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. They were not persecuted, and could, as they were entitled to do, run businesses, sell alcohol, and attend churches. After the war, they were the targets for Islamic thugs. They faced threats to veil their women, shops were destroyed, demands were made for them to convert to Islam, churches were bombed and people killed – because they were Christians.

There are now fewer than 500,000 Christians in the country.

Earlier this month, which is so precious to the Christian community, an Iraqi Shi’ite Ayatollah, Ahmad Al Hassani Al Baghdadi, issued a fatwa against Christians in Iraq, calling them “polytheists” and “friends of the Zionists”. They must choose “Islam or death”, adding that “their women and girls may legitimately be regarded wives of Muslims”.

How would you like to be a Christian with that kind of licence to kill, abduct and rape, made available to every fundamentalist nutter in Iraq?

It is not only in Iraq, where a Shia majority holds sway, that Christians are literally under attack. Anyone in Pakistan who, because of a genuine spiritual influence, converts from Islam to Christianity, faces death. No ifs or buts – death. Conversion is not allowed. Better in the eyes of the ­fundamentalists that a man lives a lie than tells the truth.

One cannot help but wonder if the God they believe in is so easily taken in by the prayers of a non-believer.

Pakistan is not alone. The same terrible fate awaits any convert in Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Iran. Then there is Egypt. The new ­Muslim Brotherhood-inspired constitution that has gained a majority, is one that promotes Sharia law as the nation’s guiding influence.

Thus it turns its face against a secular society – that is one where people of all faiths, and none, can respect the right of each other to believe what they will, and to live peacefully together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance. The western educated middle class in Egypt are unhappy as their personal freedoms may be undermined, but they will, as Muslims, be reasonably safe.

But what of the Christians? They have never been regarded as first-class citizens, and in recent years have been subjected to persecution, unfair treatment, harassment and, sometimes, death. Will they be safe under a Sharia-based constitution?

Civitas tells us that 200 million Christians are “socially disadvantaged, harassed or actively oppressed for their beliefs”. We here thought the days were gone forever of Christian people being martyred for their faith, but that is not so in many parts of the world today.

In those parts, it takes enormous moral courage to be a Christian, and those people deserve the respect, help and support that we can give.

But while they may deserve our support, they ain’t getting it. Civitas points out that our politicians have been apparently “blind” to what has been going on.

They are not, of course, blind. UK, US and EU ambassadors in these countries will have tabled their reports on the persecution. Our newspapers have published articles on the plight of the Christians. Blair knew about it when he was PM, as did Bush while President. Cameron knows, as does Obama and all EU presidents.

There seems to be a timidity among our political leaders to say anything that will offend allies such as the Saudis, Egyptians, Iraqis and Pakistanis – either through fear of seeming to be anti-Muslim, because of their strategic military and diplomatic value, or both. But the need for allies is not a one-way street.

Saudi Arabia shelters under the US’s military umbrella. Egypt’s government would be up an economic junction without western aid. Either pull those strings or let the Christians be persecuted – that is the choice, and whatever our religious views, we should be demanding that western governments pull those strings.