Last week I had a meeting with Open Doors, a charity which works with Christians worldwide who face persecution for their beliefs. It was, to say the least, an eye-opener for me. I was aware that Christians in various countries around the world are being persecuted for their beliefs. Indeed, I’ve tried to raise some of those cases to the best of my ability with the (limited) power that a Member of the European Parliament actually has (less than you might think, the EU system being designed to keep power in the hands of the unelected). When something is happening, but not right on your doorstep, it’s easy to miss something very serious.
I should point out that Christians are not the only religious group that is persecuted: talking about the persecution of Christians does not preclude the existence of persecution of other groups (and indeed, I also speak out about those matters) In the 2017 reporting period, around 1,200 Christians were killed for their faith. By the 2018 reporting period, the number had grown to 3,000. These figures do not reflect the true situation, because there are many killings that cannot be included. If a Christian is killed for their faith in North Korea, how do we find out about it? Instances across the world may not be reported, for a variety of reasons. The figures I’ve given may just be the tip of the iceberg: more than 200 million Christians face ‘high’ levels of persecution because of their faith.
In North Korea, children are urged to ‘report’ their parents if they suspect them of being Christians; those who do are unlikely to ever see their family again. Afghanistan, perhaps unsurprisingly after the events of recent years, is almost as bad – with anyone converting to Christianity facing a death sentence for ‘apostasy’. Open Doors also claims that Hindu nationalism in India has “embedded the culture of impunity for those who persecute Christians”. With so much hatred in the world, in some cases persecution is the result of a consistent blind eye being turned by authorities to crimes against those of a faith ‘different’ to the majority. It is not organised by a government, but through inaction they permit such things to continue.
In that meeting, one of the people delivering a presentation sat for most of the meeting with her head in her hands, looking downwards and averting her eyes from the rest of the room. She was terrified of being photographed, fearing that she would be unable to continue her work with Christians overseas if she were recognised. I knew of such things in the past, of course: Christians who smuggled Bibles into the old Soviet Union, fearing beatings or being sent to a remote gulag in Siberia from which they might never return. That the same could be the case today, relating to a country I would not have expected (and which I won’t name here), says so much. That’s what is most shocking: beyond the figures and statistics, beyond the stories of lives changed, destroyed or ended by persecution: today – in the 21st century – persecution of Christians (and possibly other religions but I don’t have the figures for this) is increasing rather than decreasing. We feel we live in a civilised world, one in which basic truths of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ actually mean something. Four years ago, North Korea was the only country where ‘extreme’ persecution of Christians was commonplace. Today, 11 countries meet that description.
Those 11 countries don’t share much in common: in practice, if not constitutionally, they are atheist, Islamic, and Hindu, but they do share one thing: a mindset of exclusivity. To me, it’s a poignant reminder of what loving your nation, or religious beliefs, should be all about. I am a Christian myself, but I don’t hate atheists or Muslims. I care about the persecution of Christians, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about persecution of Yazidis or the Rohingya for example. I love my country, but I don’t hate anybody else’s. I’m proudly pro-Brexit, but if you disagree, we should do so amicably. And as a Northerner, I don’t hate Southerners. That kind of yah-boo dislike of the ‘other side’ should be confined to the football pitch where it belongs, where people can yell at the referee and the opposition to their hearts’ content without any actual harm being done to anyone.
If the murder, enslavement, torture, beating, execution and imprisonment of Christians worldwide is ever to stop, then a necessary first step is that we must be aware of it.