‘Persecuted and Forgotten?’ is the name of the latest report by Aid to the Church in Need. Unfortunately, there is no need for that question mark in the title. Both the persecution and the oblivion are facts. Christians have been victims of the genocide in Isis-controlled parts of Iraq and Syria. In 2011, there were 150,000 Christians in Aleppo and now there are 35,000. Persecution rises in other Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Sudan and Iran. In Nigeria, 1.8 million people have been displaced by Boko Haram. In India, there is much more harassment of Christians since Narendra Modi came to power in 2015. In China, there are now thought to be 127 million Christians. This upsets President Xi Jinping, who sees Christianity as a form of ‘foreign infiltration’ and seeks to ‘sinicise’ it. When the American student Otto Warmbier died after returning to America in a coma following his incarceration in North Korea, the Communist government blamed his allegedly subversive behaviour on the Friendship United Methodist Church, even though Mr Warmbier was Jewish: Christians are seen as spies. Almost everywhere, the trends worsen. In the opinion of the report’s author, John Pontifex, ‘it is clear that the persecution of Christians is worse than at any time in history’.
I doubt if this can quite be true — if one includes, as one should, the history of persecutions of Christians by other Christians — but it remains a terrible story. Why is this happening? The rise of Islamist extremism is the most important single factor, but a fairly new element is indifference among western politicians and media. If persecution is what you enjoy, you are nowadays probably safer persecuting Christians than any other major group. Post-Christian, multicultural societies are frightened of seeming to favour Christians, and so they ignore them. We are mimicking a pattern of anti-Semitism, which is that people who are not themselves virulently anti-Semitic in effect collude with those who are by deciding that Jews are a nuisance. If only Jews weren’t around, they come to think, there wouldn’t be all this trouble. Now they think the same of Christians: why don’t these tiresome minorities with their weird superstitions clear out of places where they aren’t wanted, and then life will be more peaceful? Soon Christians will be made to feel unwelcome in Europe itself.
I often receive direct mail shots written under the delusion that I am a ‘high-net-worth individual’. The latest, from Odey Wealth, says that ‘Since the financial crisis of 2009’, governments and central bankers have ‘anaesthetised’ markets. ‘Nine years on,’ it continues, ‘growth has underwhelmed but debt levels and equity valuations are back at their pre-crisis peaks.’ Odey promises to see me through this difficult time. I cannot help noticing that the financial crisis is usually located in 2008, and calculating — admittedly lacking the skills of a hedge fund manager — that ‘Nine years on’ from 2009 is next year, not this.
In August 1881, my great-great-great-uncle, Benjamin Leigh Smith, got stuck in the ice. He was leader of an Arctic expedition (his fifth) in his 300-ton steam yacht, the Eira. Off Cape Flora (named after Ben’s cousin) in Franz Josef Land, the Eira was crushed between two icebergs and sank, giving the men only a couple of hours to rescue what they could from her. This included wood for fires, guns, powder, flour, curry powder, ‘rum sherry’ and tobacco, and enough currants to decorate a tiny dough pudding at Christmas. The men were stuck there for the next ten months, living in ‘Flora Cottage’, a makeshift hut they had constructed, in winter temperatures often as low as minus 40 degrees. When the weather grew warmer, they fitted out the Eira’s longboats with her damask tablecloths as sails, and sailed and rowed 470 miles south for 43 days before being rescued. My then teenage step-great-grandmother Milicent Ludlow wrote in her diary in August 1882: ‘What do you think? We got a telegram from Uncle Ben! He is all right, he says… “Got back all safe but Eira is awa”.’ No one, including Bob, the ship’s dog, died as a result of the adventure. This story was often told in my family, so we were extremely excited to learn last month that a wreck has recently been found in the spot where the Eira sank. The wreck has not yet been raised, but the Russian explorers who made the discovery think it is probably she.
If this is indeed the Eira’s watery grave, nothing will be left of the maps, the specimens for Kew, the records of ocean temperatures that went down with her, but perhaps the rare fossils Leigh Smith found will be resting there. Expeditions such as his were important because after the disaster of Franklin’s expedition to the North-West Passage in 1845, the Royal Navy had stayed away and left exploration to private enterprise. I believe Ben got nearer the Pole than any of his predecessors. He also deserves credit for his leadership. When a ship goes down, the men are released from their duty to obey their captain. After the Eira had sunk, the shocked crew started to challenge Lofley, their captain, and say ‘There’s no ship now and we are all alike.’ It felt like mutiny. But, according to the rather unpunctuated account of the Eira’s doctor, ‘Mr Smith stood forward & said “What is all this grumbling about I can do better without you than you without me; will you just act as if you were on board ship and I will do the best for you all” — They cheered and said they would do anything for him; but he said they must obey him through the Captain to whom he would give his orders and so it was agreed.’ And so they were all saved.
Bob did well too. My sister Charlotte, as she records in her book Hancox, found a photograph of him in our family’s house. On its back is written: ‘This sagacious animal enticed the Bears from a distance, by going near to them, and then running away until he brought them within the range of the Guns of the Arctic Voyagers, and thus by his skilful manoeuvre, supplied them with food.’