Review of Rupert Shortt, Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack (Rider Books, 2012).
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.
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.
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
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.
Shortt rejects the assumption that to be critical of Islam is a form of
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.
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