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The world has been appalled this past week by the chemical weapons attack on civilian people in Damascus. Syria, very likely by the regime itself. We hold our breath as western nations decide what response to make. And we must all be worried and alarmed by the bloodshed and conflict so widespread at this time within the Middle East in general. Not just in Syria, but Egypt, Tunisia, Israel, Afghanistan, Lebanon and further afield.
But one aspect of all this turmoil that has gone relatively unreported is the frightening increase in violence against religious groups, in particular violence against Christian churches and communities in the region.
A few commentators and some Christian groups have noticed what is going on but the main emphasis in news bulletins is rightly on the suffering of the population as a whole.
However a book recently published highlights this issue in stark terms. It is entitled 'Christianophobia; A Faith Under Attack' by Rupert Shortt, the religion editor of TLS, and it is an investigation of the worldwide oppression of Christians who, you may be surprised to hear, are the most persecuted faith in the world.
Now I'm not talking about BA employees not being allowed to wear a cross around their neck at work. I'm talking about three teenage girls in Indonesia being beheaded as they walked to their Christian school, and Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row in Pakistan for allegedly insulting the Prophet. Shortt gives many, many harrowing personal examples such as Mr Dahan in Iraq who was kidnapped, beaten and held prisoner in a car boot until his relatives paid a ransom. The and his family stayed put because Mr. Dahan said "if all of us Christians leave, who is going to stay in the land of the prophets and pray in our churches? Two years later, he was kidnapped again and killed.
Shortt points out some very uncomfortable truths in his book. The politicisation and growing conservatism of Islam mean that it is much more difficult for Christians and Muslims to sit side by side in peace, as they have done in the past, not just in the Middle East but in Africa, India, Pakistan and elsewhere.
The Islamist organisation Boko Haram in Nigeria can be translated as "Western education is sinful' which points to one of the key reasons why Christians are targeted, because they are seen as propagators of a degenerate western culture, or as part of western expansionism or as scapegoats for the actions of their own repressive governments.
Even in the Holy Land, Israel- the cradle of Christianity, Israel-Palestine Christians are caught in the middle, mistrusted and disliked by the hard men amongst Israelis and Palestinians alike.
In Palestine Christians in 1945 made up 20% of the population: now they are only 2%. And this draining-away of ancient Christian communities is going on all over the Middle East, exacerbated by the conflicts in the region, as people become refugees, or emigrate or are killed.
As Shortt makes clear, violence against Christians isn't confined to extremist Muslims. Hindu, and Buddhist extremists have been responsible for terrible atrocities and Christians face severe abuse, and many Communist countries, from China and North Korea to Cuba and Belarus where Christians are suspected of being agents of western subversion.
The overall impact of the picture painted by Short's book is profoundly shocking, and he makes it quite clear that other faiths, especially minority faiths, also face severe persecution. His account is an indictment of the western media for giving so little attention to the plight of persecuted Christian communities, apart from a few high profile cases. He says that one of the reasons is the legacy of the enlightenment, which tended to equate to religion of all kinds with irrationality has led to the lazy assumption by governments and media that religions groups are unusually prone to commit violence. As a result, secular media are inclined not to be sympathetic to the persecution of Christians and to allow violence against religious groups that goes unreported.
So what should our response be to this shocking state of affairs? Firstly, although it is an unpleasant and worrying subject that we would probably prefer to turn away from and ignore. It is important that we inform ourselves about what is happened to our Christian brothers and sisters across the world. How can anything change if we chose to ignore the problem in the first place?
Secondly, we should remember that all religions, especially religious minorities fare better in societies where freedom, speech and basic human rights are protected, and give thanks for the freedoms we enjoy. Religious freedom, or the lack of it, is often a clue to how much basic liberty is cherished or not.
Thirdly, we need to remind ourselves that Christians are taught by our Lord to live in peace and turn the other cheek. Christianity, says Shortt, is the only major monotheistic faith to originate in an explicit repudiation of religious violence. We follow Jesus who absorbed hatred and violence of the Cross and met it with love. We need to pray for our Christian brothers and sisters across the world who are suffering persecution, remembering the words of St. Augustine:-
"Hope has two beautiful daughters: their names are anger and courage. Anger that things are the way they are. Courage to make them the way they ought to be."
In spite of the persecution that faces so many of our fellow Christians today we must have hope that things can and will be better.