Last Wednesday, the UK's foreign office and some 120 other UK public buildings and churches were bathed in red light as part of Red Wednesday. The latter is an initiative to draw attention to the plight of persecuted Christians worldwide. Rehman Chishti, a Muslim whose family are originally from Pakistan, led a candlelit procession from Parliament Square to Westminster Cathedral for a liturgy focusing on persecuted Christians in countries such as Iraq, Pakistan, and Nigeria.
Last November, Chishti tendered his resignation to Theresa May as vice-chairman of the Conservative Party, citing her failures regarding Brexit and the fact that she had refused to offer sanctuary to Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who had spent nearly a decade on death row after being wrongfully convicted of blasphemy. Chishti now holds the post of UK special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, a post similar to the one created in the United States by Bill Clinton in 1998.
There were violent riots for three days in Pakistan when Bibi was acquitted. Some years earlier, Salman Taseer, a Muslim governor of Punjab who spoke out against Pakistan's blasphemy laws and in favour of Bibi, was shot 27 times by his own bodyguard. Unsurprisingly, many countries, including Britain and Ireland, declined to offer Bibi sanctuary. She was eventually taken in by Canada.
Tragically, Bibi’s prison cell is now occupied by another impoverished Christian woman, Shagufta Kausar, convicted of blasphemy for sending anti-Islamic texts in English – even though both she and her husband are illiterate and the SIM card produced at the trial proved to be bogus.
If we claim to care about minorities, especially poor minorities, we cannot justify ignoring the plight of the 245 million Christians who face extreme persecution for their faith
Her husband, Shafqat Masih, is a wheelchair user and was tortured in custody. Both are under sentence of death. The courageous Muslim lawyer, Saif ul-Malook, who defended Bibi and who needs constant police protection as a result, has taken on their case.
The plight of Christians in Pakistan illustrates some of the reasons why the West should care about Christian persecution. Firstly, Christians in Pakistan are an impoverished minority, part of the Dalit or untouchable caste. If we claim to care about minorities, especially poor minorities, we cannot justify ignoring the plight of the 245 million Christians who face extreme persecution for their faith.
Secondly, women are disproportionately affected by persecution of Christians. Women and young girls are kidnapped, raped and often forced to marry their persecutors.
Thirdly, persecution of Christians generally accompanies persecution of other minorities. Renewing a focus on Christian persecution does not mean ignoring or downplaying the plight of others. Equally, concern for non-Christian minorities should go hand-in-hand with concern for Christian minorities, but so often, does not.
For example, much-needed media attention was given to the shameful, brutal violence meted out to the Rohingya in Myanmar but few know that Christians are also being targeted in Myanmar (formerly Burma), particularly in Kachin.
Women and girls have been trafficked as brides to China. Three thousand Christian villages have been burned to the ground in the past decade and more than 200 churches destroyed since 2011.
The Guardian describes it as a slow genocide. One-hundred thousand displaced people are living in intolerable, sub-human conditions.
When US president Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops he obviously cared little for the Syrian Christians once again abandoned by alleged allies. He left troops to protect oilfields, not minorities.
Myanmar, where there is a Buddhist majority, shows that persecution of Christians does not just happen in Muslim-majority countries. The Anglican bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, conducted an influential independent review for the British government on the issue of religious persecution.
In the preface, the bishop stated: “Christian persecution is not limited to one context or challenge. It is a single global phenomenon with multiple drivers and as such, it deserves special attention. More specifically, it is certainly not limited to Islamic-majority contexts. So this review is not a stalking horse for the Islamophobic far right, and nor does it give the Islamophobic right a stick to beat Islam with.”
Perceptively, the bishop says that in the West, we tend to set one human right against another. But for many in the lowest-income countries, religious freedom is foundational and if it is not present, other human rights violations are not far behind.
The case of Iraq and Syria are particularly tragic. The organisation Aid to the Church in Need, which initiated Red Wednesday, points out in its recent report, Persecuted and Forgotten, that while less than half of the Iraqi Christians displaced from the Nineveh Plains have been able to return, there has been a shocking lack of support from the international community to help them rebuild their shattered lives and homes.
Christianity in this area dates back to the time of the apostles and yet members of the faith are in danger of being wiped out in the very cradle of Christianity. Syrians fare little better. When US president Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops, suggesting that it was time to “let someone else fight over this blood-stained sand”, he obviously cared little for the Syrian Christians once again abandoned by alleged allies. He left troops to protect oilfields, not minorities.
Red Wednesday saw Irish churches lit up from Waterford to Down, from Knock Basilica to Armagh Cathedral. But it is not enough unless secular governments and institutions end their neglect of the world’s most persecuted religious minorities.