Monday, December 07, 2015

Christianophobia: Advent Calendar Day 9

Review of Rupert Shortt, Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack (Rider Books, 2012). 

As I write, the persecution of Christians around the world is a cause for real concern. In Iraq and Syria, followers of the so-called Islamic State (IS) have daubed the Arabic letter 'n' (for 'Nazarene', the Muslim name for Christians) on the houses and churches of Christians. This marks them out for fines, harassment and murder. In Nigeria, Boka Haram (which means something like 'western education is sinful') target girls for abduction and are engaged in other campaigns of violence against the Christian community. Rupert Shortt's work predates these headlines, while demonstrating that these recent news stories are not new, even if the media attention they receive is a new departure. 

In Christianophobia, Shortt gives an account of the persecution of Christians around the world. This is not a book for the fainthearted. There are descriptions of heart-rending pain, atrocious violence, and systematic abuse; all because those targeted are Christians. Shortt documents (with a remarkable gift for under-statement and clarity) violence against Christians in Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia, India, Burma, China, North Korea, Vietnam, the Holy Land, Cuba, Venezuela, Belarus, Sri Lanka, Laos and Sudan. In all these places, Shortt offers accounts of discrimination of Christians that leads in many cases to murder. This is a wide-ranging account from a serious journalist and writer. It is emphatically not a scare-mongering nor a paranoid account of anti-Christianity, and Shortt is careful to distinguish the material he recounts from the complaints of those who would see persecution at work in the UK. Regardless of the truth or otherwise of those claims, this is persecution of a wholly different order of magnitude. 

As well as the horrific, there are inspirational stories to be found here. The Vietnamese Bishop (now Cardinal) Nguyen Van Thuan, whose patient and noble endurance of suffering offered solace to his people and converted his captors to Christianity. This is but one of a series of moving stories of those who have met violence and persecution with peace and grace. Anyone looking for examples of Christians who put the teaching of Jesus into practice will find them here. But this is not a book of hagiography. Shortt also acknowledges the times that Christians and Christian communities do not help themselves. This is a nuanced and critical work, and all the more powerful for it. 

Shortt writes from a position that acknowledges the importance of religion in the contemporary world. Faith, he notes, is very durable and has outlived the predictions of those who thought it would cease to be a force in world politics by the dawn of the 21st century. Importantly, given the way in which religion is reported, Shortt notes that "If religions ... are not part of the solution, they will almost certainly be part of the problem" (p. xiv). He quotes the previous Chief Rabbi to the effect that religion is a key contributor to the common good and to civil society. 

Yet, Shortt draws attention to an important deficit in the reporting of religion, and especially of Christianity. There is, he notes, a lazy assumption that religion causes more violence than other factors. As well as laziness, there is ignorance. In the Middle East, "the roots of their [Christian] communities are almost as old a the New Testament itself. Westerners are often shamefully ignorant ... many even assume that Christianity is an import to the region" (p. 34). There is even the idea that Christianity is a Western religion, rather than one with deep roots and its origins in the East. These lazy assumptions and ignorance lead to a bias that leads in turn to the under-reporting of injustice. 

Much of the injustice that Shortt documents is related to Islam, and this leads to a whole set of questions that he does not shy away from tackling. 

First, Shortt rejects the assumption that to be critical of Islam is a form of racism. 

Second, he emphasises that by no means all of the injustice he recounts has a Muslim origin. In Christianopobia he documents Hindu, Buddhist, secular and communist persecutions. 

Third, he tells powerful stories of Muslim co-operation with Christians. A Pastor and an Imam who share platforms on television, and in churches and mosques in Nigeria working together to build peace. Muslims protecting Christian celebrations of the Eucharist in Tahrir Square at the dawn of the Arab Spring in Egypt. These are important stories that need to be told. 

Fourth, Shortt has a broad historical view and charts the way in which Christian toleration of those of other faiths developed far slower than Islamic toleration. However, there is a critical edge when he writes that "Christianity eventually became more self-critical - and subversive of its own apparent strictness - than Islam" (p. 268). Islam is not static. It has changed and will change again.

I have two sets of questions arising from reading Christianophobia. The first is about Christianity. Christians have too often been found supporting oppressive regimes (Saddam in Iraq, Assad in Syria, to name but two). The Arab Spring has shown both why they have done this, as these regimes have protected Christian freedoms far better than the Islamic and popular regimes that have followed. But it has also given Christians in the region some difficult questions to answer, and on occasion shown them to be collaborating in frightening abuse. Shortt doesn't really deal with this set of questions, but they seem to me to demand some scrutiny. 

The second set of questions surrounds the Muslim account of religious freedom. This seems very one-sided, with freedom of religion (spoken of in the Qur'an) taken to mean freedom to convert to Islam; and conversion from Islam to another religion seen as apostasy, which often carries the penalty of death. How to engage Muslim leaders of all types in a conversation about this will be a hugely important factor in any change in the treatment of Christians around the world. 

This is not a theological book, and it is all the more powerful for that. However, all of the time I was reading it I was reminded of St Paul's discussion of the Church as a body in 1 Corinthians 12, and especially of verse 26: "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it". Shortt ends his book with St Augustine's account of hope, and her two daughters anger (that things are the way they are) and courage (to change them). This is an important book. It deserves to be read and read in hope. It should also provoke us to anger and to courage. 

First published in Outlook: Derby Cathedral Magazine

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