29th December 2012
To attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve in parts of Nigeria is to take your life in your hands. For the last three years, Islamist militants have been attacking churches but last week, when gunmen moved on a church in Potiskum, they found the military waiting. On their retreat, they came across a smaller unprotected church in the nearby village of Peri and opened fire, killing the pastor and five parishioners. A separate attack on the First Baptist Church in the village of Maiduguri took Nigeria’s Christmas death toll to a dozen, and the overall casualties of its new sectarian war to 1,400.
There was no condemnation from London. The idea of Christians being persecuted is one that the Foreign Office seems to find confusing. The writer Rupert Shortt, in his brilliant book Christianophobia, refers to a ‘bien-pensant blind spot’ which the British authorities suffer when it comes to understanding religious tensions the world over. It is as if Britain, by some measures one of the least religious countries on earth, cannot understand why anyone in the modern world would want to fight over God.
The Arab Spring was always going to mean danger for religious minorities. For all their evil, the old secular tyrants abused their victims equally whether they wore the cross, skullcap or hijab. The fall of the Assad regime in Syria may well a case in point. If the rebels triumph, it is quite likely the new regime will seek to ‘cleanse’ the ancient Christian communities. This may appal Syrian Muslims, but the Arab Spring has reminded us that for a group to seize power when a regime has been toppled it doesn’t need to have the most support. It just needs to be the best-organised.
Sooner or later, William Hague will have to take notice of all this. Britain may be secularising rapidly, but outside Europe this is not the case. In many parts of the world, religion is a stronger force than government — which is why some of the bloodiest wars of the 21st century will not be between countries, but within them. And some of the most bloodthirsty aggressors will be people for whom the enemy lies not over a border but in a church, a synagogue or a mosque.
It will be hard to ignore the effects of the new religious wars when Britain starts receiving asylum requests from the millions of Christians who are being driven out of their Middle Eastern homelands. These asylum requests, of course, should be granted — but there is plenty more that Britain can do.
The Foreign Secretary should underline Britain’s commitment to religious freedom. Once it is extinguished, other freedoms will be soon snuffed out. Protecting freedom of worship should be a basic condition for receiving British overseas aid. Our ambassadors could be empowered, or even instructed, to advocate religious freedom — and register protests against the governments who refuse to protect it. This subject may make the government uncomfortable, but we cannot afford to ignore it any longer.
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