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.