Barnabas Fund has for more than 25 years supported Christians in context of persecution around the world. However, we are increasingly concerned about the growing level of harassment of Christians in the West.
In most contexts where Christians face persecution there are a range different levels at which harassment takes place. These include at the most basic level: 1. Informal discrimination. For example, where Christians are denied jobs because the employers decide they don’t want to employ Christians; 2. Official discrimination. For example, universities in some countries require Christian applicants to get higher marks than those of the majority religion, to gain entry. Sometimes this is justified by claims that it is correcting alleged historic “underrepresentation” of the majority religion – but if you are a Christian student on receiving the end that’s pretty cold comfort!; 3. Vigilante persecution. Where intimidatory threats and various forms of violence are carried out against those known to be Christians; 4. Official persecution sanctioned by the government or law.
Over the last few years we have watched the level of persecution being experienced by Christians around the world increasing. However, we have also witnessed with growing concern a significant increase in the level of discrimination and harassment experienced by Christians in the West. We have seen Christians lose their jobs because they are Christians, for example in 2006 Nadia Eweida an Egyptian born Christian was sent home by British Airways for wearing a small cross, something that is at least as important to Middle Eastern Christians as Muslims wearing a head covering. An increasing number of public sector jobs now effectively require employees to at least notionally assent to a secular humanist worldview, including, for example acceptance that homosexual relationships are morally “good” in same way that heterosexual marriage is. This includes marriage registrars, marriage guidance counsellors, magistrates on child adoption panels – and in practice Christians are also being increasingly excluded from being adopted as election candidates by most of the main political parties unless they keep quiet about their Christian beliefs and so give the impression of assent to these newly required beliefs.
This is a significant reversal of the historic development of freedom of religion in the West, with laws requiring individuals to assent to particular beliefs in order to hold public office having been repealed in the UK between 1673 and 1871. While in Canada the 1774 Quebec Actspecifically stipulated that no-one should be required to assent to particular beliefs to hold public office, with provisions similar in the USA’s 1787 constitution and Australia’s 1900 constitution.
This is also being enforced on businesses – with companies that identify themselves as Christian being specifically targeted. For example, Ashers Bakery in Northern Ireland was “tested” by being asked to bake a cake promoting gay marriage and they are by no means the only such overtly Christian business, or even bakery to be targeted in this way.
To make matters worse, those seeking to force Christians to act against their beliefs are often financially backed by governmental organisations in the name of enforcing what is euphemistically called “equality”, but in practice often appears to mean “homogenisation” with everyone being required to assent to the new belief system. The effect of governmental bodies sponsoring those who are seeking to enforce their own beliefs and values on Christians is to send out signals that help create a culture in which Christian beliefs and Christians are disparaged. That is a very dangerous trend. It is not without some significance that it was after the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland took up the case against Ashers’ Bakery, that the bakery’s Christian owners began receiving a significant amount of hate mail, food thrown at their shops, attempts to smash their windows and a threat to burn down the bakery while they were inside it.
A recent court case suggests that the harassment of Christians in the West has reached a new low, moving from threats of violence to actual violence against people. A court case in York heard allegations that a teenage apprentice in a firm of shop fitters was subjected to an appalling regime of intimidation and physical assault because of his Christian faith. These acts included daubing crosses and sexual symbols with a permanent marker on his face while he slept - symbols that took days of rubbing to remove; tying him into a chair with a child’s dummy placed in his mouth before taking him into the street and then locking him in a room. The court also heard how he was sprayed with an aerosol directed at his head which was then lit. The violence against him culminated in him being forced onto a cross made out of two lengths of wood and being suspended a metre above the ground in a way that resembled a crucifixion.
We have seen similar or even worse acts of intimidation or physical violence in the UK meted out to Christians who have converted from a Muslim family background. But this young man was not the victim of radical Muslims, he was victimised because of his Christian faith by his workmates who disparaged and mocked his Christian beliefs.
Disturbing at this is, we need to be clear that these things do not happen in a vacuum. In any context the broader political culture and the lead that gives to culture more generally has a huge impact. We see it in countries such as Pakistan where the assumption that Muslims should rule non-Muslims feeds into the way of thinking that allows discrimination and vigilante violence against Christians and other minorities.
Like most western countries, the UK is thankfully nowhere near that level. But, as in a number of western countries, political leaders and governmental bodies are sending out clear signals that biblical Christian beliefs on issues such as marriage must be held privately – and those wanting to hold public office must at least notionally assent to a different set of beliefs – and if necessary act against their deepest Christian beliefs.
When governmental bodies send out signals that publicly disparage Christian beliefs in this way they are in serious danger of contributing towards a broader culture of intolerance towards Christians and historic biblical Christian beliefs. That is profoundly dangerous because that culture of intolerance is the seedbed in which violence against Christians can take root – the sort of acts of violence that this week the court in York heard were meted out to a Christian young man in his first job after leaving school. These were acts that were inflicted on him for one simple reason – that he was a Christian.