The Pain of The Suffering Church – Celebrate Conference April 2012

Apr 5, 2012 | News

This link to a power point presentation accompanies this text:
Celebrate 2012 Pain of the Suffering Church
The Pain Of The Suffering Church
Celebrate 2012: David Alton.

Last month, Pope Benedict was in Revolution Square in Cuba – a country where the Church has been crushed for sixty years. Referring to the readings of the day and in the presence of Fidel Castro he said we must be prepared to act like the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego (Daniel 3) who
“defied the order of the king” preferring “to face death by fire rather than betray their conscience and their faith”.
Pope Benedict was echoing Maximilian Kolbe, who died at Auschwitz and who said “No one on the world can change truth”

He insisted that when we had found truth we had to serve it because
Of what use will be the victories on the battlefield if we are defeated in our innermost personal selves?
Pope Benedict concluded:
“Each human being has to seek the truth and to choose it when he or she finds it, even at the risk of embracing sacrifices.”
In the same month of March a new report was published which highlighted some of the sacrifices which countless men and women continue to make for their faith.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 14th annual report, which it is mandated to do under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 – a legal requirement which successive British Governments have declined to emulate.
USCRIF’S admirable chairman is Leonard Leo, and I was pleased to host a meeting at Westminster for him during a recent visit to the UK. Among his Commissioners is Nina Shea whose work at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom results in authoritative and insightful assessments of the plight of suffering Christians.

Each year the USCIRF report identifies those countries which are responsible for the worst excesses of religious persecution and intolerance and the authors of the USCRIF Report set out recommendations which are laid before the President and Congress.
Last month USCIRF listed 16 countries which it said have committed the most heinous and systematic violations of religious freedom and perpetrated the most egregious examples of religious persecution. I have visited half of the 16 countries which are Burma, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, (north) Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.
Among those persecuted are Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Mandaeans, Ahmadiyyas, Rohingya Muslims, Yizidis, Alevis, Shiite and Ismaili Muslims in Saudi Arabia, African traditional believers in Sudan, Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners, Sufi Muslims, Pakistani Hindus, independent Buddhists in Vietnam, Cao Dai, and many others. They suffer persecution; discrimination; detention without trial; arrest; harassment; intimidation; torture; and imprisonment. Some even pay the ultimate price – laying down their life for their faith.

One thing which is particularly striking is that although people from many religious persuasions are affected by this relentless denial of freedom, only one group features in all sixteen countries; only one group is persecuted in each and every State on the USCRIF list and that group are Christians. Remember, too, that in the twentieth century more Christians died for their faith than in all the previous centuries combined. Yet the twentieth century was also the century which, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, promulgated the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which insists in Article 18 that:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
In many parts of the world this Declaration is simply not worth the paper on which it is written. Contrast, too, the silence of those who cite the European Union’s Human Rights Act in any number of situations – or who campaign for the rights of every other species – and yet remain utterly silent in the face of persecution which I will suggest is near-genocidal in some parts of the world.
Perhaps one day a fox will arrive at the United Nations Headquarters in New York or at Westminster brandishing a placard that demands that we “Save the Human Race” and we will see the illogicality of the positions we too often take and the disproportionality of the causes we embrace whilst ignoring others that cry out for justice. Today it is estimated that 70% of the world’s population live in countries with restrictions on religious freedom. But do we care?
Christians face restrictions, discrimination and persecution in a wide range of countries. It is estimated that as many as 200 million Christians in over 60 countries face some degree of discrimination, restrictions or persecution.
When religious freedom is denied other freedoms are not far behind, so not only people of faith but all who cherish liberty and freedom should be involved in the battle to end religious persecution and intolerance.
As Amnesty International understands: “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is a fundamental component of the universal and indivisible human rights framework that applies to all people everywhere, as laid out in international law.”
They go further contending, in tracing the link between religious liberty and other cherished freedoms:
“Restrictions on religious freedoms, as well as other freedoms including social, cultural and linguistic freedoms, can often lead to other human rights violations such as the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience or even death”

Yet, this is not only a blind spot which many activists have when it comes to religious persecution, the media, too, frequently indifferent to the plight of the persecuted church. I have, however, made two series of half hour programmes entitled The Suffering Church for the Catholic TV Network, EWTN. The DVDs of those programmes may be purchased from EWTN and they make ideal material for parish home groups or study groups, and at the end of each programme suggested action are listed which each of us may take, based on pressure and prayer. St.Paul specifically enjoins us to care for the household of faith – but too often we behave like the Gethsemane Christians – the ones who fell asleep in the garden when they were most needed. We need to take our cur from William Wilberforce who said: “We can no longer plead ignorance. We cannot turn aside”.
Today I will talk about three things:
1. The history of persecution and suffering.
2. The present situation in some of the countries of most concern; and
3. Examples of creeping intolerance in our own back yard.

1. Let Me Begin With The History of Persecution and Suffering.
The Deacon, Stephen, was the first martyr for the Christian faith. In the waves of persecution which beset the early Christian – at the hands of emperors such as Nero in the first century to the great persecution of Diocletian and Galerius at the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth century – Tertullian’s unnerving prediction that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” came to pass. Countless men women and children were thrown to the lions in the Coliseum until Constantine made it legal in 313 AD for Christians to practice their faith and to emerge from the catacombs. Scholars disagree about the numbers who died but the highest estimates suggest that as many as 100,000 died refusing to renounce their religion.
But it wasn’t just in the Roman Empire that Christians died. In 341, the Persian emperor, Shapur II, ordered the massacre of all Christians in the empire – and around 1,150 Assyrian Christians were martyred. By the seventh century and the coming of Islam the Christians living in that part of the world would begin a life of second class citizen, often discriminated against, frequently persecuted – a phenomenon which continues to this day.
Closer to home, and in our own nation, the English Reformation, which began in 1534, exposed Catholics and Protestants to a wave of persecution at each other’s hands. Anti Catholicism stemmed from the Act of Supremacy which decreed that the King was “the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England.” Failure to comply was regarded as treason and this led in turn to Henry VIII sending Thomas More and John Fisher to the block. Other executions followed under Queen Elizabeth – particularly a succession of young Jesuit missionaries who died at Tyburn, notably Edmund Campion. Confiscation of land and houses and exorbitant, punitive fines crippled and embittered many Catholics who refused to accept the State’s right to both peer into their souls and to determine their religious belief. It would not be until 1829 that Catholics and Jews would be emancipated.
It is against this background that we should understand the freedoms and liberties we enjoy – and the price which was paid to secure them. It is also against this background that we should understand the huge historic significance of the 2011 first State Visit of a Roman Pontiff to England.
For over 30 years I have worked within the Palace of Westminster and each day I pass through Westminster Hall, where Pope Benedict addressed both Houses of Parliament.
Westminster Hall is at the very heart of Britain’s parliamentary democracy and it was here that former Prime Ministers, political and civic leaders, gathered to hear Pope Benedict XVI remind us that religion still has a vital role to play within our culture.
If the walls of that hall could speak they could tell you most things that you need to know about the history of England
I first entered the Hall in 1965, as a boy, when my school, a school named for Edmund Campion – brought a group of us to join the throngs of people gathered to pay their last respects to Winston Churchill, whose body had been brought there to lay in State. The next time I walked through the Hall was in 1979 as Parliament’s youngest Member.
As we waited for the Pope’s arrival there was a deep appreciation that history was being made but also that it was being healed.
The Pope began his address by recalling “the countless men and women down the centuries who have played their part in the momentous events that have taken place within these walls and have shaped the lives of many generations of Britons, and others besides.”
“In particular”, he added, “I recall the figure of St. Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose ‘good servant’ he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God”
Brilliant lawyer that he was, More believed he had to do all that was humanly possible to avoid prosecution and in the memorable words from Robert Bolt’s brilliant 1966 script of “A Man For All Seasons” he shrewdly says “Tell me the words” when asked to swear the King’s oath. He wants to assess whether they are words he can say while remaining true to his Faith. If there is any way to avoid direct confrontation and to live easily with his conscience then More will take it.
In the end Thomas More reluctantly concludes that the law is offering no way out and that no room is going to be given to accommodate his conscience. In the film’s exchange with his beloved daughter Meg, he explains the situation:
“If he suffers us to come to such a case that there is no escaping….then we may stand to our tackle as best we can.
And yes, Meg, then we can clamour like champions, if we have the spittle for it.
But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to such a pass.
Our natural business lies in escaping.”
Pope Benedict addressed More’s dilemma of how, in modern societies men and women of conscience, can be “the King’s good servant but God’s first”:
“These questions”, he said, “take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse.” It is not enough to live by social consensus – or opinion polls. Religious faith, he said, helps to purify and shed light on the ethics which should underpin political decisions: “Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.”
Without the “corrective” role of religion, the Pope explained, “reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person.”

Forty six years after the trial of More, in 1541 Edmund Campion was brought to Westminster the Hall to face similar charges to those which faced Thomas More.
Having spent a year clandestinely celebrating Mass and bringing the sacraments to England’s Catholics, Campion had been arrested and brought before Queen Elizabeth – who asked him if he acknowledged her as the true Queen of England. After he replied in the affirmative she offered him wealth and preferment on the condition that he renounced his faith. His refusal led to incarceration in the Tower of London. He later pointed out that the Queen’s offer of a rich and comfortable life made nonsense of the charge that he was a traitor.
After being tortured on the rack, on September 1st, 18th, 23rd and 27th 1581, he faced public interrogation at the Tower and subsequent torture.
On November 14th Campion, along with his companions Frs. Sherwin, Kirby, Cottam, Johnson, Rishton and a layman, Orton, were arraigned at the Bar of Westminster Hall.
Campion responded “I protest before God and His holy angels, before Heaven and earth, before the world and this bar whereat I stand, which is but a small resemblance of the terrible judgment of the next life, that I am not guilty of any part of the treason contained in the indictment, or of any other treason whatever.”
Campion’s companion, Ralph Sherwin, added: “The plain reason of our standing here is religion and not treason.”
The following day a further seven Catholic priest were similarly arraigned at the Bar of the Hall. The trial took place on November 20th when his accusers described him as an agent of the Pope and the Holy See. He replied that his sole aim was to preach the Gospel.
In addressing the jury he told them “how dear the innocent is to God, and to what price he holdeth man’s blood.” He reminded them who his accusers were: “one hath confessed himself a murderer (Eliot), the other (Munday) a detestable atheist, a profane heathen, a destroyer of two men already. On your consciences would you believe them – they that have betrayed both God and man, nay, that have nothing left to swear by, neither religion nor honesty?”
Campion was convicted and sentenced to death as a traitor. With words that still resonate in 2010 he rebuked those who condemned him: “The only thing that we now have to say is, that if our religion do make us traitors, we are worthy to be condemned; but otherwise are and have been, as good subjects as ever the Queen had. In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England — the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.
“God lives; posterity will live; their judgment is not so liable to corruption as that of those who are now going to sentence us to death.”

As they were taken from Westminster Hall the condemned men broke into the words of the Te Deum. Campion spent the next eleven days in prayer, and then, on December 3rd, with Fr.Sherwin and Fr.Briant he was taken to Tyburn – today’s Marble Arch – where he was hanged, drawn and quartered. He was aged 41.
No one has ever told Campion’s courageous story better than Evelyn Waugh. His 1935 book has been republished by Sophia Institute Press under the title “St.Edmund Campion –Priest and Martyr”, and includes the full text of “Campion’s Brag.”
The sham trials and trumped up charges of treason leveled against Campion and More; the State’s determination to force men to choose between their conscience and submission; and the systematic abuse of power and falsified evidence are all a part of the story of Westminster Hall.
In their final agonies I doubt that either Campion or More would have foreseen a day when the successor of Peter would be respectfully welcomed at Westminster. But both would surely rejoice. As Campion hopefully wrote in the final words of his “Brag”: “we may at last be friends in Heaven, when all injuries shall be forgiven.”
Where better then for Pope Benedict to have made his explicit plea, in the face of the pincer movement of intolerant radical atheism and intolerant radical Islam, for religious toleration in our own age.
I am not unaware that religious ideologies can themselves pose a threat to human rights – think, for instance of theocracy in Iran but remember too that in South Africa the Dutch Reformed Church defended the racist apartheid system; and that in the civil rights struggle in the United States some white-majority churches defended segregation.
However, religion has been a compelling force in the work of many human rights activists, notably the examples of William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe, South America, South Korea, and East Timor.
I am also aware of the tendency to “blame God” – and certainly those who believe in Him – for all our ills. But God doesn’t persecute; we do. God doesn’t discriminate; we do. God doesn’t hate or abuse; we do.
The mass murder of millions during the twentieth century was not the work of religious adherents. The secular ideologies of the twentieth century were all united in their hatred of religion – led by Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung and the rest – and it was as a response to these horrors that 25 years ago I joined with Danny Smith to launch the Jubilee Campaign in Parliament.
Initially, Jubilee’s work centred on the persecution of Christians in the former Soviet Union. So often their suffering had been overlooked. In the West we chose not to see.
Canon Michael Bordeaux, the inspirational founder of Keston College, who monitored the plight of the suffering church, has often described how it was politically convenient for church leaders and parliamentarians to hide behind the excuse that “intervening will only make their situation worse.”
This was not the wish of many Christians – Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic – and, in the wake of the successful campaign to free the Seven Siberian Christians who had been holed up in the basement of the American Embassy in Moscow, Jubilee was determined that the world should see and understand the fate of their co-religionists on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Seeing was believing. Once we had seen the scale of suffering, an evaluation had to be made about how best to act.
At first the action consisted of individual cases being taken up with ambassadors and heads of government. This often had an unexpected secondary effect.
It would be impossible to learn the story of a persecuted believer without being affected.
Just as many of us were inspired by the sacrifice of Elizabethan Catholics who laid down their lives for their beliefs, by raising these contemporary cases we rapidly appreciated how much we take our own religious liberties for granted. A faith that is worth dying for is a faith which is worth living for.
I vividly recall one cold night in 1989 at Mostiska, on the Polish border with the former Soviet Union. I had just embarked on a Jubilee visit that would bring home the reality of the price which men and women pay for the things we take for granted.
That night I and my two companions were ordered off the train and we and our belongings were searched. I had with me an ITN camera and several hundred Ukrainian prayer books.
Five hours later, after a lot of questioning, the prayer books and camera were carefully re-packed although a biography of Cardinal Basil Hume and my copy of the Liverpool Echo were confiscated. Despite Perestroika they clearly weren’t ready for the Scouse Mouse cartoon strip.
This was mildly irritating but like nothing in comparison with what we learnt from people we met during that visit.
Ivan Gel was the chairman of the Committee for the Defence of the (Greek Catholic) Church. He had spent seventeen years in prison. Bishop Pavlo Vasylyk had been incarcerated for eighteen years. A young priest had been caught illegally celebrating the liturgies and had just returned from his punishment: six months at Chernobyl clearing radioactive waste, without any protective clothing.
On our return Jubilee organised prayer vigils, letter writing campaigns and parliamentary action. We persuaded BBC Newsnight to broadcast our film material. In small ways the world knew a little more about what was happening in the Ukraine.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union Jubilee’s work refocused.
I travelled to the military zone in South East Turkey to see first-hand the plight of the Chaldean and Syrianni Christians. I took evidence from the Coptic Christians of Egypt and from other ancient churches and have served for the past 15 years as President of the British Coptic Association.
I entered Burma, illegally, to see the scale of the suffering among the Karen people. This was re-enforced by the campaign which Jubilee launched on behalf of the jailed Christian human rights activist, James Mawdsley – and who is today training to be a Catholic priest.
Perhaps one of Jubilee’s greatest strengths has been that in its inception we drew heavily on both the Evangelical and Catholic traditions. Pretty well all Christian traditions have been represented in Jubilee’s work – among those we have campaigned for and among those who have campaigned on their behalf.
As the recently published USCIRF Report has so vividly illustrated the situation today is in many respects even worse than when the Jubilee Campaign was founded.
So in the second part of my remarks let me talk about the present situation in some of the countries of most concern and let me give you three examples: stories from Pakistan, the Middle East and North Korea.
The first story is from Pakistan. It concerns a remarkable Catholic man, Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, who, on March 2nd, 2011, aged 42, was brutally murdered. Bhatti was Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities. His assassination not only robbed Pakistan’s National Assembly of a dedicated, honest, and able politician but his death also threw into sharp relief the plight of Pakistan’s minorities, whose fearless champion he had become.
Little over a year since his killing – and after the detention in Dubai of a possible suspect involved in the murder – it is worth reflecting on the life of this singularly virtuous man while considering the continuing suffering of the people on whose behalf he sacrificed his life.
One of five children, Bhatti was born in 1968 in Lahore to Catholic parents. They originated from a village near Faisalabad. His father, Jacob, after army service, became a teacher and then chairman of the board of the churches in Khushpur. The family were observant Catholics whose faith was central to their identity and lives.
Unsurprisingly, as he was growing up, Bhatti became acutely aware of what it was like to stand out as different.
In a population of over 172 million people, only about 1.5% (3 million) is Christians (half Catholic, half Protestant).
In part, the Catholic Church has its roots in the Irish presence within the British Army during colonial rule and the significant Goan community which the British established in Karachi.
There are other minorities: in 2011 the Pakistan Hindu Council put the number of Hindus at some 7 million people. Pakistan’s cruelly treated Ahmadiyya community is 4 million strong. There are also small numbers of Sikhs, Buddhists, Bahais and Zoroastrians – all of whom have faced relentless violence and profound discrimination. Along with those Muslims caught up in the sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi’a, the minorities have suffered grievously Terrorism and instability have led to over 35,000 deaths since 2003 and 2,522 fatalities in one recent six month period alone.
In 1947, at the time of partition, Muhammad Ali Jinnah gave a speech to the New Delhi Press Club, setting out the basis on which the new State of Pakistan was to be founded. In it, he forcefully defended the right of minorities to be protected and to have their beliefs respected:
“Minorities, to whichever community they may belong, will be safeguarded. Their religion, faith or belief will be secure. There will be no interference of any kind with their freedom of worship. They will have their protection with regard to their religion, faith, their life and their culture. They will be, in all respects, the citizens of Pakistan without any distinction of caste and creed.”
These words became a forgotten aspiration when, in 1956, Pakistan became an Islamic Republic – although, even then, the Constitution guaranteed equal citizenship to all its citizens and guaranteed freedom of religion. Notable Christians, such as Mr. Justice A.R.Cornelius became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and others became celebrated members of the Pakistan Air Force and the professions.
But, as Bhatti was growing up a campaign of discrimination, intimidation and violence against the country’s Christian minorities had begun to disfigure the ideals of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and by the 1990s attacks had become routine. The world slowly began to wake up to the enormity of the suffering when, in 1998, Bishop John Joseph, the Catholic bishop of Faisalabad, shockingly, as a protest against the cruelty perpetrated against his flock, took his own life.
Following Bishop Joseph’s suicide, Shahbaz Bhatti founded the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance and in 2002 was unanimously elected as APMA’s chairman. In the same year he became a member of Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party. Although the authorities placed him on their Exit Control List his name was removed and, in 2008, he was both made a Minister and, remarkably, given Cabinet rank – the only Christian in Pakistan’s Cabinet.
At the time of his appointment, Bhatti singled out the country’s Blasphemy Law as the principal instrument which had been used to vexatiously prosecute and harass minorities. He said it should be amended and he proposed a law to ban hate speech, changes to the school curriculum, representation for minorities in government and parliament, and eight months before his death, a National Interfaith Consultation out of which the country’s religious leaders issued a declaration against terrorism.
In doing all this, he knew that his outspokenness and singularity would make him a primary target for Pakistan’s radical Islamists and sensed the almost inevitable consequence of his courageous words and actions. However, he said that his stand would “send a message of hope to the people living a life of disappointment, disillusionment and despair” adding that his life was dedicated to “the oppressed, the down-trodden and the marginalised” and to “the struggle for human equality, social justice, religious freedom and the empowerment of religious minorities’ communities.”
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Bhatti’s murder is that his countrymen overwhelmingly share his ideals.
In a survey of Pakistan opinion, 90% cited religious extremism as the greatest threat to their country. Presumably the overwhelming majority of the UK’s 1.2 million British citizens of Pakistani descent must also contrast the tolerance of their adopted home, and the protection which minorities receive, with the truly shocking intolerance of their homeland.
That Bhatti’s life would be in danger became very clear in January 2011 when the Governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer, was murdered for seeking clemency for a Christian woman sentenced to death under the Blasphemy Laws. One year later, in Pakistan’s climate of impunity, demonstrators gathered to shower rose petals on his assassin.
Two months after Taseer’s death Shahbaz Bhatti would follow him to the grave.
On leaving his Islamabad home he was gunned down by self described Taliban assassins. He had accurately predicted his own death – knowing that the cause he had embraced – Jinnah’s cause – would ultimately cost him his life. His murderers scattered pamphlets describing him as a “Christian infidel”. The leaflets were signed “Taliban al-Qaida Punjab.”
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, called the murder “absolutely brutal and unacceptable” but Cardinal Keith O’Brien sharply contrasted the rhetoric with the reality: “To increase aid to the Pakistan government when religious freedom is not upheld and those who speak up for religious freedom are gunned down is tantamount to an anti-Christian foreign policy.”
At the beginning of this year, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Chairman of the Conservative Party, visited Pakistan and in the Lords told me that “the assassinations of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were tragic for both Pakistan and the rest of the world. They were a personal tragedy for me because of my personal relationship with Shahbaz Bhatti.” She made a point of visiting the Catholic Archbishop of Karachi and said that the local Christian community “is doing well, despite its challenges”. She defended British aid to Pakistan – which can end up in the hands of radicals and rarely reaches the minorities.
Christians who are not “doing well” continue to face prosecution, discrimination, forced conversions to Islam, rape, and forced marriage. This denial of civil rights and the failure to protect minorities are all directly attributable to the rise of the Taliban and the failure of the civil and security forces.
Shahbaz Bhatti was a brave advocate of reform of the country’s Blasphemy Law. But he was more than this.
His was a sacrificial and exemplary life and his life was given for the common good.
By definition, a martyr is a witness and an example to the Christian community of how to behave – and Bhatti was certainly a witness for truth and for justice. He stands in a long tradition – from Beckett to More, Kolbe to Romero, Stein – of men willing to sacrifice their lives as the price for upholding their beliefs.

After his death, in Bhatti’s diocese of Faisalabad, local Catholics fasted, prayed and processed, venerating his legacy. His bishop, Archbishop Saldanha of Lahore subsequently announced that the Pakistan Bishops Conference have written to Pope Benedict asking that Bhatti’s name be recognised as a name to be listed among the martyrs of the faith.
On the anniversary of Bhatti’s death recall the words of Pope Benedict last year: “I ask the Lord Jesus that the moving sacrifice of the life of the Pakistani minister Shahbaz Bhatti may arouse in people’s consciences the courage and commitment to defend the religious freedom of all men and, in this way, to promote their equal dignity.”
Who better, then, to now raise to the altars and, in these disturbed and dangerous times, to entrust with the cause of religious freedom – for which there is no patron saint – than Shahbaz Bhatti?
Bhatti was a victim of radical Islam and he is not alone. My second story is about the Middle East.
Take the present situation in Syria. The city of Homs, the third largest in Syria, has now seen almost its entire Christian population of 50,000 to 60,000 flee for safety as fighting continues in that stricken country.
The number of Christians left in the city has reportedly fallen to below 1,000 after the strife between the troops of President Bashar Assad and anti-government forces. Those who remain have spoken of a growing “atmosphere of fear”.

During the worst of the conflict, the opposition forces attacked churches and also occupied a Christian school and home for the elderly, which were then shelled by the army. Church leaders have reported that Muslim neighbours are turning on the Christians, and that Muslim extremists from other countries have been coming to Homs to join the fighting.
Christians have also suffered kidnappings and gruesome murders. Some Christian families, unable to pay a ransom for their relatives’ release and fearing that they may be tortured, have been driven to ask the kidnappers to kill their loved ones at once.
Christians are seriously endangered in other parts of Syria too. Not only are they generally assumed to be pro-Assad, but also a strongly Islamist element amongst the rebels will attack them simply because they are Christians.
Bombs have already exploded in the Christian quarters of Damascus and Aleppo.
Pope Benedict XVI has called on those of us who enjoy freedom of speech and belief-the freedom to reject religious belief, for that matter-to speak out more clearly on behalf of the Christians in the Middle East. In remarks at Castelgandolfo in September 2007, he warned:
“Churches in the Middle East are threatened in their very existence”.
As the sand slips through the glass, the situation seems to get worse and worse. Palestinian Christians now constitute just 0.5 per cent of the population, and in Lebanon, they have declined from 75 per cent to 32 per cent. Jerusalem, a holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims, is, as the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore elegantly puts it in his magnificent book, Jerusalem,
“The prime place on Earth for God to meet man”.
Yet, in that same city, man seems incapable of meeting man.
All over the Middle East, men of faith need to go back to their holy Scriptures and consider what must be done to enable men and women to meet one another, to coexist and to honour and respect each other’s religious traditions. In particular, it is essential, as others have done during this debate, to affirm the goodness of many fine Muslims but also to be willing to criticise those things which are being done by radicals in the name of Islam. These range from outright murder, such as the slaying of the Bishop of Orano in Algeria in 1996 to persecution by law, such as the existence and capricious use of apostasy and blasphemy laws in many countries to suppress and intimidate, and to the publication in schools throughout the region of books being used by the next generation which include pernicious incitements to hate and which poison minds.
Throughout the region, the case for religious freedom has been going by default. Take a country such as Iran, which affirms Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights
Yet in Iran, over the past year, there have been 300 arrests of Christians in 48 cities. Twenty remain in prison, some seeing a significant deterioration in their health. One, a 34 year-old, Youcef Nadarkhani, held for two years in Rasht prison, has been sentenced to death for apostasy. There are now hundreds of thousands of Iranians who have become Christians. Are they all to be sentenced to death?
Iran’s model of intolerant theocracy, its export of hideous terror, its failure to honour Article 18 and its increasing persecution of religious minorities-for instance, it executed a Baha’i convert-have disfigured the life of a great nation, and its ideology has seeped like poison all over the region.
In clinging to sectarianism, Iran’s regime also misses a central point
Religious freedom is important in its own right, but in democratic societies, religious freedom is a major factor in good economic, political and social outcomes. Iranian ideology underpins both the misuse of religion and the resultant demonisation of Muslims the world over. Throughout the region, these same Iranian ideologues are in danger of casting a terrible shadow over the Arab spring. As the winds of change have swept across the region, Christians have found themselves unprotected, targeted and caught in the crossfire. It is a cruel paradox that the removal of tyrannical regimes has often removed the thin veneer of protection which was previously afforded to the Christian minorities. The same may tragically be true in Syria.
Violence in the region has been at its worst in Iraq, where it was assumed that, as the situation stabilised, we might see an improvement. However, the killing of Christians there has not stopped. In October, in Kirkuk, in the district of Muthana, according to the charity Aid to the Church in Need, an armed group assassinated a 30 year-old Catholic, Bassam Isho. On 1 October, the body of Emmanuel Polos Hanna was found at the edge of the road in Baghdad. He had been shot dead. Christian sources in Kirkuk said:
“The attacks on Christians continue and the world remains totally silent. It’s as if we had been swallowed up by the night”.
Not only is Iraq-Mesopotamia-the cradle of civilisation, it forms an essential part of the cradle of Christianity. The scriptures celebrate the great city of Nineveh, the waters of Babylon and Ur of the Chaldeans. Today, the cradle of the ancient churches is the scene of their asphyxiation and annihilation.
Since June 2004, 71 churches in Iraq have been attacked-42 in Baghdad, 20 in Mosul, eight in Kirkuk and one in Ramadi. In March 2008, the body of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho was found dumped in a shallow grave in the city. Since 2003, up to 585 Christians have been killed and there have been large-scale atrocities. In October 2010, 58 Christians were killed during evening mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad.
Is it any wonder that Christians are fleeing in an exodus of Biblical proportions? Many have fled to Syria, and it is anyone’s guess what their fate will now be. In 1987, according to the last census in Iraq, there were 1.4 million Christians. Today, as we have heard, there could be fewer than 150,000.
Iraqi Christians have a historic right and duty to take their place alongside other citizens in the development of a pluralistic, open society and to once again make a huge contribution to the life of the nation. However, this cannot occur unless the Government of Iraq do
improve security and uphold the rule of law, rooting out the perpetrators of religious hatred, curbing the extremist groups, and ending the cycles of violence and the sporadic killings, bomb attacks and kidnappings, which always leave Christians fearful and at risk.
In their Christmas messages in 2010, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Benedict both reflected on the murders at Baghdad’s Syrian Catholic cathedral. At the time, the perpetrators of
those murders threatened violence against Egypt’s Christian communities, and we did not have to wait long to see those threats become a reality.
At the very beginning of 2011, days after those Christmas messages, a bomb attack took place outside the al-Qiddissin church, the Church of the Two Saints, in Alexandria as worshippers were leaving a midnight service to celebrate the New Year. According to official figures, at least 21 were killed and 79 were injured. The injured included eight Muslims. The church and a nearby mosque suffered extensive damage from the blast, and other attacks have followed.
Unsurprisingly, the European Union of Human Rights Organisations says that more than 100,000 Coptic Christians have left Egypt during nine months last year. This quotation is from its director:
“Copts are not emigrating voluntarily; they are coerced into that by threats and intimidation of hard-line Salafists, and the lack of protection they are getting from the Egyptian regime”.
The Foreign Office, in a letter to me, says:
“We believe that there is now a moment of opportunity for Egypt … We support a peaceful transition to a diverse, non-discriminatory and democratic Egypt”.
That moment looks as though it may pass. Little is being done to engage the authorities in Egypt to protect its Coptic community.
Those Christmas bombings in Egypt point to the spread of the same radicalised Islamic attacks throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In Iraq, there have been 70 documented church bombings over the past eight years.
In Sudan the Nuba people are being pounded into the ground in South Kordofan in what has been described as “the second genocide of the twenty first century.” I made a speech on the subject in Parliament just two weeks ago.
In Nigeria the country’s Catholic bishops report that some 200 individuals, mostly Catholic worshippers, were killed in coordinated Christmas bombings in 2011.Terrorists set off bombs in churches across Nigeria. It was one of the worst attacks by Boko Haram, who are pledged to impose its reign of terror until the country is ruled by Muslim Sharia law. The north-south conflict is reminiscent of Sudan – when 2 million, mainly Christian people, were killed,
Christian pastors have been beheaded by Boko Haram who openly say their interim goal is “to eradicate Christians from certain parts of the country.”
Boko Haram has killed 250 people this year alone. It draws inspiration from the Taliban, has links to Al-Qaeda and has carried out numerous sophisticated attacks, including multiple car bombings.

My third example of acute suffering by Christians concerns North Korea, which I have visited four times, most recently last year.
Pope John Paul II described the church in Korea as “a community unique in the history of the church.” Founded in the late eighteenth century the Korean Church is unique because it alone is the only local Church to have been founded solely by lay people. It is a church founded without missionaries and it is a Church which continues to suffer.
200 years ago young Korean intellectuals, such as Yi Pyok, read about Christianity from Chinese books circulating among a group of friends. In 1777 he brought them together to make further study. They met in a Buddhist monastery happily known as the Hermitage of Heavenly Truth.
One of Yi Pyok’s young associates, Yi Sunghun, travelled to China and met French missionaries. They baptised him with the name of Peter, and he returned to Korea in 1785. Within a year a secret church was established in Seoul (now part of the Cathedral campus). The authorities raided it and discovered a prayer group. The owner of the house, Thomas Kim, was so badly injured during interrogation that he died of the injuries. He became the first of 10,000 witnesses for the faith. In 1801 alone more than 300 Christians were executed.
Intermittently, itinerant priests arrived in the country – most were executed. For 35 years the fledgling church was without a single priest. Only one sacrament could be given – and thousands came forward to be baptised.
In 1837 a French priest, Laurent Imbert became the first bishop of the Korean diocese. Within weeks 2,000 had been baptised bringing the total number of Korean Christians to 9,000. Two years later he was decapitated, with two other priests. Hundreds of Korean Christian suffered the same brutal fate, including many members of the same family: fathers along with their sons and daughters, wives and mothers.
Typical was Peter Yu, aged 13, who was tortured on 14 occasions. In his defiance he even picked up shreds of his own flesh and threw them before his interrogators. He was strangled in the prison in October 1839. 150 years later he would be canonised.
In 1845 the first Korean-born priest, Andrew Kim, aged just 25 was arrested, stripped and decapitated.

The persecution continued until 1886 – with four generations of martyrs in one family alone. In a moving CTS Pamphlet, “Martyrs of Korea”, the late Monsignor Richard Rutt eloquently tells their story.
Today, in North Korea persecution has returned.
Becoming a Christian is a serious crime. Some who have escaped say that they had never seen a church or a Bible before leaving the country. Many are in camps or prison – where they are kept in horrific conditions, fed on starvation rations. Deprived of sleep they are crammed into overcrowded cells. They are unable to even lie down straight.
Meanwhile, China continues to repatriate refugees who have fled across the border. It did so again last month. They return to torture, interrogation and humiliation. Any woman who became pregnant in China will be forcibly aborted to avoid the birth of babies “contaminated” by foreign influences. There are also reliable reports of infanticide. There are reports of repatriated North Koreans being corralled and bound together with wire being passed through their wrists or noses.
Despite the continuing suffering in North Korea there are two positive things I can say.
During my last visit, in 2011, I was allowed to speak to the congregation at the country’s one Catholic Church (Changchung Cathedral, opened as a “show church” in Pyongyang in 1988. Since then the North Koreans have resolutely refused requests to allow a Catholic priest to be resident and to minister to the needs of the Catholic faithful. Nor have they normalised their relations with the Holy See – which would send an immediate signal to the world’s one billion Catholics that North Korea wants friendly relations with Catholic people.
At Changchung I met Jang Jae On, the Communist Party official who regulates religious belief, and since that encounter senior figures from the church in South Korea have been in the North opening dialogue.
By denying pastoral access to the Catholic Church – no priest has been permitted in 55 years – the DPRK is preventing the Korean Church from providing help, development investment, and support for the poor and needy – which has led to phenomenal social provision in the South.
Religious freedom leads to voluntary social endeavour on a huge scale. But, of course, dictatorships tend to fearful of those institutions it cannot control.
I however report positively on the opening of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, of which I am now a trsutee. PUST was founded by a South Korean Christian, Dr. James Kim, who was initially arrested and sentenced to death by the North Koreans.
Dr.Kim is a man with an infectious joyful laugh and who says he doesn’t “believe in capitalism or communism. My ‘ism’ is Lovism.”
PUST has clearly been embraced as a flagship by the country’s leadership. It remain the country’s first and only privately funded international institution, with a small cohort of academic staff, mainly Christians, drawn from Europe, China and North America, openly promoting a strategy for enabling North Korea’s citizens to engage successfully in the world economy and global society. One of their Associate Directors is a Cambridge educated scientist from the UK.
PUST’s small corps of teachers, who include young men and women from England, along with Chinese, Canadians and American Koreans, who are committed to ushering in North Korea’s “information age”, providing English language studies which will link its coming generation to global society. They are giving their services for little or no recompense – Dr.Kim’s idea of love in action.
PUST is a window on the world and PUST is a window for the world into Korea. Many “fantastic” tales emerge from North Korea – but this story is fantastic, miraculous even, in the true sense of those words.
Dr. Kim says “tell about the eagerness and hope for the future among the young people here. Tell about the great talent, about the bright enthusiastic students studying here and who will be among the leaders for tomorrow. If we outsiders demonstrate our own peaceful ways, it will make it easy for the people of the DPRK to reciprocate these peaceful efforts.”
PUST and Dr.Kim’s story is a small story of hope and further details and a full account appear on my web site.
Pakistan; the Middle East and North Africa; North Korea.
These are only snap shots but they give a glimpse of the scale of the challenge and underline the importance of each of getting involved and doing what we can.
3. Finally, let me say something about our religious liberties in the UK and give some examples of creeping intolerance in our own back yard.
There is growing apprehension about the systematic erosion of religious freedom and disrespect for the rights of conscience. We are witnessing creeping discrimination.
Last month the Scottish courts told two senior Catholic midwives that they have no right of conscience in refusing to oversee mid and late term abortions. This judgement represents dictatorship. It’s an attempt to corall us into a cattle pen where we are all forced to be complicit in the deliberate taking of innocent human life. But it only the latest example among many.
In January 2009 a poll showed that more than four out of five churchgoers (84 per cent) think that religious freedoms, of speech and action, are at risk in the UK. A similar proportion (82 per cent) feel it is becoming more difficult to live as a Christian in an increasingly secular country.
It was obvious from the vitriolic and fanatical language used during the run up to pope Benedict’s 2011 visit that there are some in Britain who have a visceral hatred of Christianity.
Under the nomenclature and language of equality, this intolerance has led to countless, ludicrous examples of risible things which public and private bodies have done in recent years, all under the guise of equality. In 2008, two years after we first outlawed religious discrimination in goods and services, under the pretext of not causing offence, Oxford Council officials dropped “Christmas” from the title of the city centre celebrations. Instead of “Christmas”, they substituted “Winter Light Festival”. The banning or dilution of Christian festivals has been criticised not only by Christian leaders but also by Muslim and Jewish religious leaders. I enjoy the celebration of Hanukkah or Diwali, and I know of no Rabbi or Hindu leader who feels offended by my enjoyment of Christmas or Easter. Their complaint is usually about aggressive ideological secularisation.
In 2008, it was reported that a Yorkshire college had removed Christmas and Easter from its staff calendar in case they offended people. Instead, senior managers at Yorkshire Coast College in Scarborough in north Yorkshire said that the holidays would be referred to as “end-of-term breaks” in order to “increase inclusion and diversity”. What next? Must we refer to the Sabbath as “the day that dare not speak its name” or the parish as “the collective”? Will we have to remove the names of saints from all the streets, towns or colleges that bear them? Before a public outcry, Perth Royal Infirmary was told to remove the communion table from its chapel after the NHS trust warned that it could offend non-Christians.
Earlier this year a councillor in Bideford, not far from where we are meeting, went all the way to the High Court to prevent prayers being said before meetings of his council. Like prayers in Parliament there is no compulsion to attend and they had been said for centuries. Now we are told that it will be illegal to wear a cross on a necklace while you are at work in case it might cause offence.
Surely, in a truly tolerant and diverse society, we would not have to contend with such ideological hatred. You do not have to be religious to recognise this country’s rich inheritance.
Along with many others, I was outraged to read about the case of Nadia Eweida, a British Airways employee who was told to conceal a small silver cross which she wore around her neck. Shami Chakrabarti, the admirable Director of Liberty, under the headline “Freedom must apply to all faiths and none”, said in an article in The Times:
“The Christian’s right to wear a cross must be defended as fiercely as any other religious liberty”,
Miss Chakrabarti adds:
“the employment appeal tribunal found no discrimination, because ‘Christians generally’ do not consider wearing a cross as a religious ‘requirement’. This fundamentally misunderstands the idea of individual rights and freedoms, which do not depend on how many people agree with your conscience or speech. It also opens up secular courts to lengthy arguments as to what is a theological necessity. Making windows into men’s souls is as pointlessly complex as it is dangerous”.
I wholeheartedly agree with her and particularly her assertion that “Here the struggle for religious freedom has been strongly connected with the struggle for democracy itself”,
A Liberty-ComRes poll found that
“86 per cent of British Christians polled disagreed with BA’s treatment of Ms Eweida and 80 per cent agreed that her case sets a dangerous precedent. Even more encouragingly, 96 per cent think that everybody should have freedom of thought, conscience and religion as long as they do not harm others; 85 per cent say that regardless of your faith, the law should protect the right to wear its symbols as long as they do not harm others”.
We need to realise what is at stake and that millions quietly share our apprehension that Britain is becoming a cold place for Christians.
Our Judaeo-Christian ideals are woven into the nation’s fabric: its laws, its charitable endeavours, its schools, hospitals and hospices, its art and architecture, its culture and its spirituality. It is in all our political traditions. After all, faith in politics gave us Wilberforce, Shaftesbury, Gladstone, Keir Hardie and many others. This makes it all the more perplexing for me to encounter an ideological intolerance that seeks to marginalise religion and Christianity in particular, not least because the majority of people in this country-almost three-quarters-still call themselves Christians. I am not arguing that we should force the Christian faith on those who do not hold it; I am simply arguing that evidence of the Christian faith in society, such as Bibles, prayers and the wearing of a cross, should not in itself be classed as discrimination.
We live in a society that in the recent past has been known for its religious tolerance. We should be proud of this. If instead of learning to celebrate our country’s Christian story and its heritage, we try to deny it, we will be doing nothing to create a genuinely more plural or tolerant society and will probably only succeed in offending the Christian majority.
It is particularly significant that leaders of minority faiths argue for the importance of preserving this country’s religious heritage. The Chief Rabbi-probably the greatest of our spiritual leaders in Britain today-in his magnificent book, The Home We Build Together, makes the case with much better clarity and eloquence than I am capable of. Speaking of the marginalisation of Christianity, the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, said this:
“Marginalisation not only shows how deeply British elites are alienated from the national religion”.
However, he also said that:
“This is not yet, but it comes close to, self-hatred … It represents the breakdown of an identity, and nothing good can come of it”.
He perceptively writes that Britain set out with a commitment to value all cultures,
“then it became valuing all cultures equally, a completely different proposition. Then it became valuing all cultures except your own. That is when it becomes pathological. You cannot value all cultures but your own”
Our problem is that with attacks on church schools, adoption agencies, as well as beliefs about everything from abortion to marriage, we are ditching who and what we were without putting anything in its place.
In the public square atheism is held out to be neutral, whilst Christians are told to keep their beliefs private and not to bring them into public life. They are being told to keep their Christianity at home or at church and never bring it to where they work or into public contention; and increasingly shrill voices demand the dilution and ultimately the end of our church schools.
Far from being the armour of protection laws designed to promote equality and oppose discrimination are being used to discriminate against people with religious faith and to undermine their right to legal protection.
When it comes to applying equality and diversity laws, Christians
Seem to be the first to be punished and the last to be protected. This
prejudice and intolerance must end.
Let me end:
I have directed my remarks to three area – historic persecution; contemporary persecution; and increasing erosion of religious liberty in the UK.
Although the horrors outlined in the first two sections are clearly of a different order to religious discrimination in the UK, we would be deluded if we did not see a connection.
Our task must be to assert the importance in all places of rooting religious freedom in the dignity of the human person. The claim for religious freedom becomes a universal one, securing the freedom of all people of conscience-Christian or not-to embrace the religious belief of their choice. In turn, the elevation of religious freedom brings great bounty to society in the working out of charitable endeavour and the deepening of the common good. Perhaps-in the context of the challenges to which I have referred-this denotes the greatest benefit and the reason why all Governments should be seized by the importance of promoting freedom of religious belief.
Speaking, appropriately enough, in Cuba’s Revolution Square (Homily, March 2012) Pope Benedict reminded us of two things: first that religious freedom solidifies society

Strengthening religious freedom consolidates social bonds, nourishes the hope of a better world, and creates favourable conditions for peace and harmonious development, while at the same time establishing solid foundations for securing the rights of future generations.

And secondly, that we must beware of intolerance and prejudice in our own lives:
There are those who wrongly interpret this search for the truth, leading them to irrationality and fanaticism; they close themselves up in ‘their truth,’ and try to impose it on others. These are like the blind scribes who, upon seeing Jesus beaten and bloody, cry out furiously, Crucify him! ( Jn 19:6). Anyone who acts irrationally cannot become a disciple of Jesus. Faith and reason are necessary and complementary in the pursuit of truth. God created man with an innate vocation to the truth and he gave him reason for this purpose. Certainly, it is not irrationality but rather the yearning for truth which the Christian faith promotes.
This yearning for truth is the antithesis of homogenisation that implies a one size fits all vacuous western modernity to be imposed throughout the world. In Catholic thought, subsidiarity and universality sit happily alongside one another; so do reason and faith – the domains of secular rationality and religious conviction. These domains are interdependent and to be civilised we need them both.
Never forget that religion is the single most important factor in giving: in the United States 85% of giving comes through charities inspired by their religious faith. In Europe, our great universities, schools, hospitals and modern hospices and many charitable foundations were created through Christian impulse.
I end with a sentence from the historic document Dignitatis Humanae, the great declaration for religious liberty which emerged in 1965 from the Second Vatican Council and which forcefully sets out the case for religious freedom. It includes this telling admonition to lawful authorities:
“A society which promotes religious freedom will be enlivened and enriched; one that doesn’t will decay”.

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

Social Media

Subscribe to Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Site Search

Recent Posts

Share This