I arrived in Colombo the morning after the attack and went straight to the morgue to identify some of the 269 victims. The concrete building, with its pretty wooden roof, had been overwhelmed by the sheer number of Christian dead. Several bodies lay on the floor of the entrance, some only partially covered up. One had gone black. It was very hot and humid and the smell lingered in my clothes for weeks. Outside the morgue, a computer had been set up. Distraught relatives were encouraged to view a slideshow of body parts to see if they could recognise a clump of hair, a fragment of ear or a finger still wearing a ring.
This was the 2019 Easter Bombings in Sri Lanka, in which three packed churches and three hotels were targeted by Islamist suicide bombers. Forty-five foreign nationals, of whom nine were children, were among the dead. Eight were British, including brother and sister Daniel and Amelie Linsey, aged 19 and 15. Little Zayan Chowdhury, who was blown up while having breakfast with his father, was a relative of Labour MP Tulip Siddiq.
I recall this grim episode mainly for the benefit of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Take heed: this is what the persecution of Christians looks like.
Yesterday, Mr Welby and Hosam Naoum, an Anglican bishop in Jerusalem, jointly penned an article in the Sunday Times entitled: 'Let us pray for the Christians being driven from the Holy Land'. In it, they drew readers’ attention to the 'frequent and sustained attacks by fringe radical groups' in Israel, arguing that this was behind the sharp decline in the Christian population in Jerusalem. Nowhere else in the region. Only the Jewish state.
About half way down, the clergymen did briefly say that 'in Israel, the overall number of Christians has risen'. They also acknowledged that 'Christians in Israel enjoy democratic and religious freedoms that are a beacon in the region'. But these comments — inserted, one presumes, for the sake of accuracy — were quickly pushed aside. The Archbishops took care to remind readers that the 'first Christmas' had taken place 'against the backdrop of the genocide of infants', carried out by King Herod. 'There’s not much in there about lullabies and cuddly farm animals,' they wrote. The negative parallels were hard to ignore.
Marie van der Zyl, the president of the Board of Deputies, British Jewry’s representative body, has already responded with a fiery letter to Mr Welby. 'In the past century,' she wrote, 'both in Israel’s heartlands and the West Bank, the demographics show that the Palestinian population has increased significantly.' She continued:
“'If the overall Palestinian population has greatly increased, but the Palestinian Christian population has significantly declined, then clearly there are more complex reasons than those raised in the article, which appeared to attribute this decline to Jewish settlers.
Quite. But such awkward conclusions, however obvious, were ignored.
It goes without saying that no 'fringe radical group' in Israel has ever carried out anything like the Easter Bombings in Sri Lanka. The Archbishops were curiously silent on who these 'fringe radical groups' are or what motivates them. Yet in the examples they pointed to, cases of arson and vandalism against church buildings, it is hardline Jews who have been blamed. These attacks must of course be condemned. But this does not detract from the fact that overall, Christians in Israel are flourishing.
The education figures alone tell their own story. More Christian Arabs leave school with grades that will get them into university than any other group in the country (71.2 per cent). More Christian women attend higher education than from any other background, excelling particularly in medicine, engineering, architecture and law. As a case in point, the first-ever Arab to hold a permanent appointment as a Supreme Court justice in Israel was Salim Jubran, a Christian — who sat in judgment over former prime minister Ehud Olmert. Much of this is thanks to schools run by the Christian community itself. But it should be noted that Christian schooling is a rarity in the Middle East. In Israel, they operate freely and with the full support of the state.
Compare this to the routine anti-Christian carnage across the region, which the Foreign Office has described as 'coming close to genocide'. A government report stated that 'the inconvenient truth is that the overwhelming majority (80 per cent) of persecuted religious believers are Christians'. This ranges from routine discrimination in education, the workplace and wider society all the way to kidnap, assassination and mass murder against Christian communities. It might not be the Holy Land, but surely such persecution deserves at least a mention by the Archbishops.
In countries like Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Egypt, the anti-Christian oppression is carried out by Islamist terrorists; in Iran, Algeria and Qatar, it is the state that carries out systematic discrimination and persecution. The effects are depressing. The Christian population in the region has declined from 20 per cent a century ago to just 5 per cent today (echoing the almost total exodus of Jews that took place in the late 1940s and 1950s).
Islamist groups in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, as well as northeast Nigeria and the Philippines, seek to erase Christian civilisation by the sword, driving believers out and destroying churches. 'The killing and abduction of clergy represented a direct attack on the church’s structure and leadership,' the report said.
In Iran, Saudia Arabia and Egypt, arrest, detention and imprisonment are common. Christian festivals are often a target. In 2017, 99 Egyptian Christians were killed by Islamist militants, with 47 massacred on Palm Sunday in Tanta and Alexandra. A year later, in the six days leading up to Christmas, 114 Christians were arrested in Iran on trumped-up charges.
In Iraq, Iran and Turkey, anti-Christian state propaganda is commonplace. Ankara, for instance, often depicts followers of Christ as a 'threat to the stability of the nation', stereotyping them as western collaborators. In Saudi Arabia, the very school textbooks that are used to mould the minds of the next generation foster hatred of Christians and Jews.
Yet this Christmas, the Archbishop of Canterbury is ignoring all this to draw our attention to the Jewish state alone, which by his own admission is a ‘beacon in the region’, in the pages of the Sunday Times. Yes, Christians in the Holy Land deserve greater protection. Yes, attacks by Jewish hardliners are appalling, as is all sectarian violence. But by far the greater Christian persecution lies elsewhere in the Middle East.