To attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve in parts of Nigeria is to take your life in your hands. For the last three years, Islamist militants have been attacking churches but last week, when gunmen moved on a church in Potiskum, they found the military waiting. On their retreat, they came across a smaller unprotected church in the nearby village of Peri and opened fire, killing the pastor and five parishioners. A separate attack on the First Baptist Church in the village of Maiduguri took Nigeria’s Christmas death toll to a dozen, and the overall casualties of its new sectarian war to 1,400.
There was no condemnation from London. The idea of Christians being persecuted is one that the Foreign Office seems to find confusing. The writer Rupert Shortt, in his brilliant book Christianophobia, refers to a ‘bien-pensant blind spot’ which the British authorities suffer when it comes to understanding religious tensions the world over. It is as if Britain, by some measures one of the least religious countries on earth, cannot understand why anyone in the modern world would want to fight over God.
But they do, and in all sorts of ways. The persecution of Christians takes a different form in each country, from China to Cuba, but is on the rise worldwide. The Pew Forum and the World Evangelical Alliance jointly estimate that 200 million Christians are being either socially disadvantaged or actively oppressed. In Turkey, this can simply mean expatriates being unable to find a licensed place of worship. In Iraq, it can mean executions and an exodus on a biblical scale. Since Saddem Hussein was deposed, two thirds of Iraqi Christians have fled.
Even in Indonesia, an extraordinary 100,000 police officers were needed to guard churches last week. There was no bloodshed, but the very fact that such a force is needed says much about the size of the threat. The police in Indonesia were joined by volunteers from local mosques, moderate Muslims appalled at the idea that their communities should be divided by bloody sectarian violence. This was reminiscent of scenes in Cairo three years ago, where Muslims sat in the front pews of Coptic churches at Christmas to form a human shield against Islamist attacks.
Christians would be wrong to see themselves as the sole victim of this new oppression. Nicholas Sarkozy, the former president of France, was closer to the mark when he spoke about ‘religious cleansing’ — the phenomenon, demonstrated from Yugoslavia to Rwanda, where war erupts between communities that have lived together peacefully for generations. The agitators can be hardline groups that seek to profit from chaos (as al-Qa’eda has sought to do in Egypt) or use religious totalitarianism to exert control over a region, as the Shiite death squads did in British-controlled Basra, and as Boko Haram seek to do in northeast Nigeria.
Pakistan is going through similar convulsions now. A few weeks ago, a father and daughter were both shot as he drove her to school in Karachi, for no other reason than that they were Shia. This kind of sectarian bloodshed is relatively new to Pakistan, home to the world’s second-largest Shia population. All it takes is a few revenge attacks from Shia insurgents for civil war to break out. It is striking that al-Qa’eda has been seen as the force behind recent attacks on the Coptic Christians in Egypt. Having been left out of the Arab Spring, al-Qa’eda’s only way back in is to capitalise on sectarian violence.
The Arab Spring was always going to mean danger for religious minorities. For all their evil, the old secular tyrants abused their victims equally whether they wore the cross, skullcap or hijab. The fall of the Assad regime in Syria may well a case in point. If the rebels triumph, it is quite likely the new regime will seek to ‘cleanse’ the ancient Christian communities. This may appal Syrian Muslims, but the Arab Spring has reminded us that for a group to seize power when a regime has been toppled it doesn’t need to have the most support. It just needs to be the best-organised.
Sooner or later, William Hague will have to take notice of all this. Britain may be secularising rapidly, but outside Europe this is not the case. In many parts of the world, religion is a stronger force than government — which is why some of the bloodiest wars of the 21st century will not be between countries, but within them. And some of the most bloodthirsty aggressors will be people for whom the enemy lies not over a border but in a church, a synagogue or a mosque.
It will be hard to ignore the effects of the new religious wars when Britain starts receiving asylum requests from the millions of Christians who are being driven out of their Middle Eastern homelands. These asylum requests, of course, should be granted — but there is plenty more that Britain can do.
The Foreign Secretary should underline Britain’s commitment to religious freedom. Once it is extinguished, other freedoms will be soon snuffed out. Protecting freedom of worship should be a basic condition for receiving British overseas aid. Our ambassadors could be empowered, or even instructed, to advocate religious freedom — and register protests against the governments who refuse to protect it. This subject may make the government uncomfortable, but we cannot afford to ignore it any longer.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 29 December 2012