The new year is a good time to stand still and look at the big picture of what is happening in the world and pray not just about the individual incidents of persecution we report each week, but also the longer-term trends. Our God is sovereign, but he expects us to pray for His will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven (Matt. 6:10).
In 2017 Christians can expect to face five major challenges to their freedom of religion:
Widespread religious cleansing. Historic Christian populations in large areas of the Middle East now face extinction, as jihadists continue their efforts to religiously cleanse non-Muslim populations. This is part of a longer-term trend. Prior to the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocide a century ago, approximately 22% of Turkey’s population was Christian. Now Christians make up around 0.2%. Many of those who survived the genocide settled in countries such as Syria. Now those communities again face the prospect of genocide.
The Middle East is not the only region facing this threat. In West Africa, Boko Haram have for several years been attempting to drive Christians out of the north and increasingly the Middle Belt of the country, and have now extended their attacks against Christians to neighbouring countries such as Cameroon and Chad. A similar pattern appears to be emerging in East Africa as groups such as al-Shabaab specifically target Christians in attacks along the coastal strip, particularly in Kenya.
- The formal spread of sharia enforcement. For several years there has been a geographical spread of sharia enforcement as it is formally implemented in more and more countries. There has also been a parallel increase in intensity where sharia is already integral to a state’s legal system, to allow it to replace aspects of civil constitutional law, including, in some instances, criminal law. Brunei is currently part way through a full-scale implementation of sharia enforcement that by 2018 is planned to include criminal law and hudud punishments, such as death for apostasy from Islam. Although the spread of sharia enforcement slowed down in 2016, there are ongoing efforts to introduce sharia courts in Tanzania and Uganda, while in Malaysia there is currently an attempt to extend the jurisdiction of sharia courts into areas of law currently dealt with by the federal constitutional courts.
- The spread of violence to enforce sharia. Where one aspect of sharia is formally introduced as part of the legal system, we frequently see the use of violence by groups seeking to implement fuller sharia enforcement. This is now beginning to spread outside of Muslim majority contexts, with 2016 seeing at least six attempts by jihadists to attack churches in Europe, as well as attacks in other countries, including in Tanzania – the dhimmi status which sharia imposes on Christians forbids the construction of church buildings. It is extremely likely that this pattern will continue in 2017 with Islamic State reported to be specifically recruiting jihadists to attack Christians in the West.
- Christian refugees unseen, ignored and targeted by Islamists. Christians who have fled Iraq and Syria to nearby countries are largely ignored by the UN, with 97–99% of those refugees selected for resettlement in the UK and USA being Muslims. Meanwhile those Christians who make it on their own to European countries such as Greece, Germany and Sweden are placed in refugee shelters where many are targeted by Islamists and are subjected to death threats and physical violence. At the moment there is little sign that Western countries will significantly alter their policies in either respect.
- The West’s loss of its own Judaeo-Christian values that could provide a counter-narrative to the threat from radical Islam. The outworking of these values over the last four centuries has led to democracy, equal treatment of all by the law, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. The neglect of these has left the West uncertain what it really stands for in the face of the threat from radical Islam. At the same time, secular liberal humanists are actively using this situation to try to impose their own sectarian values in an increasingly intolerant way, claiming that anyone who disagrees with their views on issues such as sexual ethics or abortion are “extremists”. As Barnabas Fund’s recent analysis of the Casey review on “integration” in the UK observed, this is simply “replacing one form of intolerance with another”.
The way forward
Just before Christmas, HRH Prince Charles spoke of the increasing persecution of Christians, particularly in the Middle East, implicitly comparing it to the Holocaust, observing it “has deeply disturbing echoes of the dark days of the 1930s”. This is a helpful reminder that the world has faced similar challenges before.
Near the Barnabas Fund international offices a statue of King Alfred, who died in the year 899. looks northward towards the rest of England, a region which, along with much of Western Europe, was terrorised by the pagan Vikings from Scandinavia. The latter were violently anti-Christian and focused their attacks on churches and monasteries. Alfred saw that this was not just a military and political problem, but also a spiritual one. In fact, he wrote a book in which he said, “every king must have praying men, working men and fighting men”. He sought to revive the church which had largely lost its way and when, he eventually defeated the Vikings, he did so on the basis of them accepting the Judaeo-Christian values that formed the basis of English law.
Alfred’s example shows us the way forward. This is not just a military-political battle, it is also a spiritual one. This is not a new concept, although it may be one that the West has forgotten. Winston Churchill, who from 1940 led the Western fight against Nazi tyranny, spoke of Alfred as the founder of the “Christian civilisation” that was then under threat from Nazi ideology. Churchill understood that to fight an evil ideology it is necessary to have a counter-narrative – and that counter-narrative could only be the long-established Judaeo-Christian values, including democracy, equal treatment of all by the law and freedom of religion.