David Cameron will almost certainly get his Syrian war. Who will fight it, let alone who will win it, remains unclear. But who will lose it is already known — the Christians.
The relentless persecution of Christ’s followers is foretold in the Gospels. Suffering is portrayed as the pathway to triumph. The global position today conforms quite closely to that picture. Three quarters of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians — the expanding part — now live outside the largely tolerant West. At the same time, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that Christians suffer more persecution than any other religious group.
Within the Middle East, however, the story is not of expansion accompanied by persecution but of persecution leading to elimination. The ‘Sunday’ people are now following the ‘Saturday’ people out of the Middle East. The outgoing Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, who knows that history, has called the suffering of Arab Christians ‘a human tragedy that is going almost unremarked’. He complained that ‘people don’t speak more about it’.
But do not expect the British government to speak about it. In all the deliberation about targets, timetables and media opportunities, as they ratchet up Britain’s creaking war machine, not a moment will be wasted on the consequences of intervention for Syria’s Christian population. Whether in Iraq, or Syria, or Egypt, or in any future hotspot (Lebanon will probably be next) the Christian community somehow is always just too insignificant, and usually on the wrong side of the argument. In Iraq, Christians were thought too close to Saddam. In Syria, they are reckoned too close to Assad. In Egypt, where the Coptic Pope openly backed the military ‘non-coup’ against the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Morsi, the Christians find no sympathy from western policy makers.
One reason is that Arab Christians do not fit into the governing global misconceptions. In the Middle East, reflective people are unimpressed by promises of democracy. In particular, Christians there have understood, after centuries of experience, that western promises are worthless, because westerners never stay engaged. Christians reckon that their only guarantee of survival is stability; that their only hope for equality is secularism; and that their two great enemies are Islamic zeal and anarchy. And they are right, even if that makes no sense to Britain’s neocon Prime Minister and his advisers.
Wherever any strongly Islamic regime is in power, Christians suffer. It is an immutable rule. And the more Islamic the state, the harsher the treatment Christians receive. Since the Arab Spring, every upheaval or election in the Middle East has brought some brand of Islamist to power. In every case, Christians are threatened.
Iraq’s troubles preceded those of the rest, but they are important because they eerily prefigure them. ‘Democracy’, imposed at gunpoint, has meant in Iraq, among other horrors, the mass persecution of the country’s Christian minority. Murders, kidnappings, intimidation and expulsions, impelled by a mixture of greed and fanaticism, have reduced that ancient, venerable community to total ruin. Of some 1.4 million Christians living in Iraq before the war, perhaps 400,000 — mostly the poor and the old — remain.
Many Iraqi refugees left to join the two million indigenous Christians of Syria. They now share their hosts’ lot — persecution by the western-supported, Saudi-financed, Islamist-dominated Syrian rebels. Large areas of opposition-held Syria are now under sharia law. Saudi judges have appeared to administer it. Non-Muslims are only tolerated if they pay the jizya, the tax imposed on infidels. Priests are special targets. This is where a Syrian Catholic priest, Father François Murad, was murdered last month. He was not the first to die. A Syrian Orthodox priest, Father Fadi Haddad, was grabbed last December as he left his church to negotiate the release of a kidnapped parishioner. His body was found by the roadside, the eyes gouged out. Two higher-profile recent cases — if not high enough for the government or most of our press to notice — are those of the Greek Orthodox archbishop Paul Yazigi and the Syriac Orthodox archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim. They were seized near Aleppo in April, when trying to negotiate the release of kidnapped priests. Both archbishops are now presumed dead.
The case of Egypt is more problematic for the West, which, with Britain as chief dupe, has managed to misread and misplay every move since the fall of Mubarak in early 2011. The West thought that removing a dictator would ensure democracy. Instead, it permitted the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, not a party but an unreconstructed Islamist movement, which rapidly, if incompetently, sought to reshape Egypt, until non-Islamists rebelled, and the army intervened. Whether the Coptic Orthodox Pope, Tawadros II, turns out to have been inspired or just foolhardy in backing the army, only events will decide.
By his action he rejected the traditional Muslim assumption that Egypt’s Copts — 10 per cent of the population — enjoyed second-class status. That was a direct challenge. The Islamists have reacted wherever they are in control. Since Morsi’s removal, 58 Christian churches, as well as several convents, monasteries and schools and dozens of homes and businesses have been looted, burned and in many cases destroyed. Tawadros himself has gone into hiding. In Cairo, Franciscan nuns watched as the cross over their school was torn down and replaced by an al-Qa’eda flag; the school remains were burnt; and then three of the sisters were marched through the streets, while a mob hurled abuse at them. The reaction of the US State Department’s official spokesman to these outrages was: ‘Clearly, any reports of violence we’re concerned about, and when it involves a religious institutions [sic], are concerned about that as well.’ The words ‘church’, ‘Christian’ or ‘persecution’ could not cross that eloquent spokesman’s lips. Nor, it is safe to say, will they figure in one of William Hague’s innumerable tweets.
This refusal to acknowledge the systematic maltreatment of Christians by Islamic governments is, of course, shameful, but also revealing. The facts are well known, but they are ignored. They embarrass, because they expose the impotence of the West, whereas its leaders like to pose as statesmen arbitrating the future of nations. But they also embarrass modern liberals generally, because they show how little has changed in the great religious and cultural struggles that dominate history.
In May, Pope Francis canonised some 800 martyrs. These Otranto martyrs were all beheaded by the Ottoman Turks in 1480 for refusing to convert to Islam. What now faces Christians in the Arab world, as the West flounders, blunders and postures, may yet provide further reminders of Otranto.
Robin Harris was director of the Conservative Research Department from 1985 to 1988, and is the author of Not for Turning: the Life of Margaret Thatcher.