The historical picture is depressing: “The arrival of the newly Muslim Arabs disrupted the flow of history in the Middle East and beyond. The Christian cities capitulated one by one. Some communities were destroyed in the conflict, others were dispersed. For those that remained, a system of discrimination was set in place: they had to pay special taxes, wear distinctive dress, they could not build new churches. In due course, they were excluded from holding office,” Dr Nazir-Ali writes.
However, in spite of the strictures, Christians were able to maintain their relative strength, in some cases for centuries. In Egypt, the Coptic population did not fall below 50% until after the pogroms of the 14th Century.
However, while the historic picture is important, it is the rise of radical Islamism in recent decades that poses the greatest existential threat to the tiny Christian community who have managed to survive in an often threatening and inhospitable environment.
I have visited Christians in both Israel and the Palestinian territories. There I have heard of their experience of struggle often caught in the middle of conflict between the Islamist extremists of organisations like Hamas and the occupying Israeli forces in the West Bank. Church leaders in the West have worked hard to highlight the plight of Christians, particularly in the Holy Land. Later this month Bishop William Crean of Kerry and Bishop Denis Nulty of Kildare & Leighlin will be part of an international delegation of senior Churchmen to the Holy Land to express solidarity with the Christians there. Pope Francis announced at the weekend that he will visit the region in May and will raise awareness of the persecution of Christians.
While such visits are important, not least because of the attention of western media they bring to the situation, there is one thing that hard-pressed Christians in trouble spots cannot understand: the virtual silence of the western human rights community on their plight.
Christian persecution goes largely unnoticed and unreported, including by many human rights organisations. Tragically, the same goes for the Irish Government. When Ireland took over the rotating Presidency of the European Union (EU) last year, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore pledged that religious freedom would be a key part of his policy platform. Little or nothing was said by Mr Gilmore or his Government colleagues about persecution of religious minorities. The Taoiseach won’t mention it in Saudi Arabia this week either. Even if it was a priority for Ireland, money trumps everything and the risk of a botched trade deal will silence all talk of persecution.
There’s a peculiar blind spot in most human rights circles, and that blind spot prevents any real activism or energy being put into highlighting abuses of religious minorities, particularly minority Christian communities living in Islamic countries.
London-based Catholic journalist Ed West has recently published a new ebook on Amazon entitled The Silence of Our Friends, about the persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East, and the West’s total unwillingness to do anything about it. It makes for sobering and compelling reading and is available on Kindle for about €1.20 (99p sterling).
Irish Catholics must do all that we can to ensure that we are not complicit in the silence. If we will not speak up for persecuted Christians, who will?