Persecution of Christians in the Middle East

This morning Mark attended a Westminster Hall debate about the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Since the debate was so well attended, he was only able to make a short contribution. Pasted below is the text of the full speech that he wished to make. 

In January 1945, my mother, too young even for school, joined millions of other ethnic Germans fleeing westwards from Breslau as the Red Army advanced. My forefathers had lived in this region of Silesia (German since 1242) for at least nine generations that I know of. The forced repatriation – a process that might now be called ethnic cleansing – of my mother’s family and millions of other civilians from groups whose nationality would in future be inextricably linked to their ethnicity, was largely overlooked in the euphoria that swept the world at the end of World War II.

They never returned.

Now we are witnessing another wave of civilian displacement in the Middle East with hundreds of thousands of Christians being forced to flee as they are banished from their 2,000 year old homelands in today’s remarkable surge in Arabian people power.

Their fate has been largely forgotten as the global media attention has moved on from Egypt and Libya and in Syria focuses on the crimes of Assad and the mission to neutralise his chemical weapons. Innocent people on all sides there are enduring awful hardship, death and torture; civil war does not discriminate between young and old, rich or poor. In the ghastly bloodletting we are now seeing, no one seems safe from the prospect of sudden death and destruction of property.

Yet for the two million plus Syrian followers of Christ, whose lineage goes back 2000 years to St Paul’s proselytising in the first century AD, these are especially desperate times. The unspeakable truth now is that the sizeable Christian communities in war-torn Syria are at greater threat of ethnic cleansing from their ancestral homes than has been the case for generations – often at the hands of the self-styled freedom fighters that had, until more recently, been so feted by the Western press.

These fighters, increasingly rent-a-mob Jihadists with no real stake in the affairs of Damascus, do not see the enclaves of Christians as genial neighbours who they have lived alongside for centuries, as many Syrian rebels do. It is true religious minorities often find their most assured protection under dictatorships. It pays not to rock the status quo.

But to use this as a reason to attack them, destroy ancient churches and hold them to ransom seems a convenient excuse. The Jihadists simply see them as representing an infidel faith and have turned their attentions on them in a way that was so much rarer for the Syrian-based rebels. Syria’s Christians, who make up less than 10 per cent of the estimated 23 million population, include Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Maronite and Melkite Greek Catholic faithful.

Already thousands have left, part of a larger tide of displaced Syrians escaping the conflict. Churches and community centres have been targeted, defaced, and their religious icons stolen. Whilst it is true that some Christians have held prominent positions under Assad they have also taken leading roles in the political opposition to Assad’s rule, there are other Christians who have been staunchly anti-Assad.

These Christians are now abroad, staying with friends, in gardens or in churches in Lebanon, in Turkey, anywhere out of the firing line. Some have resorted to taking the Government’s side and bearing arms, a move anathema to them throughout history. What my Syrian Christian constituents fear is that once gone, there will be no coming back. A rebel victory and a harder Islamist regime, may very well not want the return of a pluralist society, with Christians living alongside Shiite and Sunni Muslims as they have since biblical times – one of the reasons why many were so staunchly against the idea of a so-called ‘surgical strike’ by the West.

Events in Iraq provide us with a timely example. Amidst savage bloodletting between Sunnis and Shiites in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the story of Iraq’s Christian population is one that is rarely told. But since the invasion it is estimated that half their number has desperately been driven to exile outside the country.

Some 330,000 Iraqi Christians fled in the past decade to Syria alone – and are now fleeing again. Others have found safe haven in Jordan and naturally some have come to these shores, including to my constituency, the Cities of London and Westminster. Under Saddam Hussein, some Christians had risen to the top of politics, most notably Tariq Aziz, Hussein’s Deputy Prime Minister. Yet since the dictator’s fall, violence against the Christian minority, who were often associated with the “crusading invaders”, has included kidnappings, the beheading of a priest, the bombing of ancient churches and forced conversion to Islam.

Turning to Egypt, media attention has been relentlessly focused on the dynamic between the Muslim Brotherhood and its detractors. Forgotten are the Coptic Christians who make up about 10% of Egypt’s eighty million-strong populace and are the largest religious minority in that nation. For centuries, they had coexisted in relative peace with their majority Sunni neighbours. But since the overthrow of President Morsi, violence against the Copts has skyrocketed. Dozens of churches were looted and torched at the end of the summer in some of the worst anti-Christian violence in centuries. It has been the same for Christian-run shops and businesses. Only two weeks ago, masked gunmen opened fire on a Christian wedding in Cairo, slaughtering four innocent people including a little girl.

As a constituent brought to my attention, there has also been appalling violence directed at Christian Eritrean refugees living in the Sinai Peninsula. Having escaped persecution by a brutal dictatorship, many are being kidnapped, tortured and targeted by a human trafficking ring in Sinai that has flourished amid political chaos back in Cairo.

In Iran, in spite of the regime’s assurances that harsh treatment of the country’s 370 000 Christians would be scaled back, just ten days ago four Iranian Christians were sentenced to eighty lashes for drinking ceremonial wine during a communion service and possessing a satellite radio antenna. The punishment came amid a government crackdown on Iran’s so-called “house churches” – where worshippers gather in unofficial buildings to conduct Christian ceremonies.

Let us not forget either, in spite of this debate’s title, that these sorts of activities go beyond the Middle East. Indeed there is a grim band of persecution now sweeping from Nigeria, across Africa and the Middle East, all the way to Pakistan. As an Islamist agenda is enforced with ever more violence in some Nigerian states, Christians in that African nation are being persecuted for the so-called crimes of ‘indecent dress’ and ‘gender mixing’. In Borno state, the authorities have announced a plan to demolish 25 churches and Christian schools. Meanwhile, around 100 Christians have been killed, over 500 homes destroyed and more than 10,000 people displaced as Islamic militant group, Boko Haram, wields its bloody influence in the North.

Bishop Angaelos, leader of the UK Copts, has expressed disappointment at the response from other religious leaders, saying that if Christians burned down ten synagogues or mosques, let alone fifty, they would be falling over themselves to express their sympathy and shame. I think there is reluctance, a sense of caution, about speaking up about Muslim-on-Christian violence that must be cast quickly aside. When so much is at stake for the region’s religious minorities, there can be no room for political correctness or fear. The scourge of intolerance cannot be allowed to take root across such enormous swathes of the world.

The West must act now to protect the Christians of Syria, Egypt and Iraq and beyond, doing what it can to ensure religious freedoms for Christians are enshrined in the laws of any future new regimes if we wish to avoid a similar scale of civilian displacement. The banishment from their homelands of Middle Eastern Christians over the years ahead cannot be allowed to become a dark derivative of the popular uprising.