David Cameron will almost certainly get his Syrian war. Who will
fight it, let alone who will win it, remains unclear. But who will lose
it is already known — the Christians.
The relentless persecution of Christ’s followers is foretold in the
Gospels. Suffering is portrayed as the pathway to triumph. The global
position today conforms quite closely to that picture. Three quarters of
the world’s 2.2 billion Christians — the expanding part — now live
outside the largely tolerant West. At the same time, the Pew Forum on
Religion and Public Life reports that Christians suffer more persecution
than any other religious group.
Within the Middle East, however, the story is not of expansion
accompanied by persecution but of persecution leading to elimination.
The ‘Sunday’ people are now following the ‘Saturday’ people out of the
Middle East. The outgoing Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, who knows that
history, has called the suffering of Arab Christians ‘a human tragedy
that is going almost unremarked’. He complained that ‘people don’t speak
more about it’.
But do not expect the British government to speak about it. In all
the deliberation about targets, timetables and media opportunities, as
they ratchet up Britain’s creaking war machine, not a moment will be
wasted on the consequences of intervention for Syria’s Christian
population. Whether in Iraq, or Syria, or Egypt, or in any future
hotspot (Lebanon will probably be next) the Christian community somehow
is always just too insignificant, and usually on the wrong side of the
In Iraq, Christians were thought too close to Saddam. In
Syria, they are reckoned too close to Assad. In Egypt, where the Coptic
Pope openly backed the military ‘non-coup’ against the Muslim
Brotherhood’s President Morsi, the Christians find no sympathy from
western policy makers.
One reason is that Arab Christians do not fit into the governing
global misconceptions. In the Middle East, reflective people are
unimpressed by promises of democracy. In particular, Christians there
have understood, after centuries of experience, that western promises
are worthless, because westerners never stay engaged. Christians reckon
that their only guarantee of survival is stability; that their only hope
for equality is secularism; and that their two great enemies are
Islamic zeal and anarchy. And they are right, even if that makes no
sense to Britain’s neocon Prime Minister and his advisers.
Wherever any strongly Islamic regime is in power, Christians suffer.
It is an immutable rule. And the more Islamic the state, the harsher the
treatment Christians receive. Since the Arab Spring, every upheaval or
election in the Middle East has brought some brand of Islamist to power.
In every case, Christians are threatened.
troubles preceded those of the rest, but they are important because
they eerily prefigure them. ‘Democracy’, imposed at gunpoint, has meant
in Iraq, among other horrors, the mass persecution of the country’s
Christian minority. Murders, kidnappings, intimidation and expulsions,
impelled by a mixture of greed and fanaticism, have reduced that
ancient, venerable community to total ruin. Of some 1.4 million
Christians living in Iraq before the war, perhaps 400,000 — mostly the
poor and the old — remain.
Many Iraqi refugees left to join the two million indigenous
Christians of Syria. They now share their hosts’ lot — persecution by
the western-supported, Saudi-financed, Islamist-dominated Syrian rebels.
Large areas of opposition-held Syria are now under sharia law. Saudi
judges have appeared to administer it. Non-Muslims are only tolerated if
they pay the jizya, the tax imposed on infidels. Priests are
special targets. This is where a Syrian Catholic priest, Father François
Murad, was murdered last month. He was not the first to die. A Syrian
Orthodox priest, Father Fadi Haddad, was grabbed last December as he
left his church to negotiate the release of a kidnapped parishioner. His
body was found by the roadside, the eyes gouged out. Two higher-profile
recent cases — if not high enough for the government or most of our
press to notice — are those of the Greek Orthodox archbishop Paul Yazigi
and the Syriac Orthodox archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim. They were seized
near Aleppo in April, when trying to negotiate the release of kidnapped
priests. Both archbishops are now presumed dead.
The case of Egypt is more problematic for the West, which, with
Britain as chief dupe, has managed to misread and misplay every move
since the fall of Mubarak in early 2011. The West thought that removing a
dictator would ensure democracy. Instead, it permitted the rise of the
Muslim Brotherhood, not a party but an unreconstructed Islamist
movement, which rapidly, if incompetently, sought to reshape Egypt,
until non-Islamists rebelled, and the army intervened.
Coptic Orthodox Pope, Tawadros II, turns out to have been inspired or
just foolhardy in backing the army, only events will decide.
By his action he rejected the traditional Muslim assumption that
Egypt’s Copts — 10 per cent of the population — enjoyed second-class
status. That was a direct challenge. The Islamists have reacted wherever
they are in control. Since Morsi’s removal, 58 Christian churches, as
well as several convents, monasteries and schools and dozens of homes
and businesses have been looted, burned and in many cases destroyed.
Tawadros himself has gone into hiding. In Cairo, Franciscan nuns watched
as the cross over their school was torn down and replaced by an
al-Qa’eda flag; the school remains were burnt; and then three of the
sisters were marched through the streets, while a mob hurled abuse at
them. The reaction of the US State Department’s official spokesman to
these outrages was: ‘Clearly, any reports of violence we’re concerned
about, and when it involves a religious institutions [sic], are
concerned about that as well.’ The words ‘church’, ‘Christian’ or
‘persecution’ could not cross that eloquent spokesman’s lips. Nor, it is
safe to say, will they figure in one of William Hague’s innumerable
This refusal to acknowledge the systematic maltreatment of Christians
by Islamic governments is, of course, shameful, but also revealing. The
facts are well known, but they are ignored. They embarrass, because
they expose the impotence of the West, whereas its leaders like to pose
as statesmen arbitrating the future of nations. But they also embarrass
modern liberals generally, because they show how little has changed in
the great religious and cultural struggles that dominate history.
In May, Pope Francis canonised some 800 martyrs. These Otranto
martyrs were all beheaded by the Ottoman Turks in 1480 for refusing to
convert to Islam. What now faces Christians in the Arab world, as the
West flounders, blunders and postures, may yet provide further reminders
Robin Harris was director of
the Conservative Research Department from 1985 to 1988, and is the
author of Not for Turning: the Life of Margaret Thatcher.