Paying A Price For Belief – the Assyrian Christians abducted by ISIS and face execution. Also, recent parliamentary interventions and the paltry sum we set aside to promote freedom of religion and belief

Mar 8, 2014 | Uncategorized

Also see: July 1st 2015 article on the targeting of Christians worldwide:
8.01 pm: Thursday June 25th, 2015 
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB):⁠
My Lords, Syria is the worst humanitarian catastrophe of our time, generating the largest movement of displaced people since World War II. We are all grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, for giving us this brief opportunity to turn a spotlight on these events. In my brief remarks, I will say something about the plight of minorities in Syria.
All faith communities and minorities, such as the Yazidis, have suffered, but the fate of the country’s Christians, already referred to, is catastrophic. The Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo, Jean-Clément Jeanbart, asks:
“What are the great nations waiting for before they put a halt to these monstrosities? Let me cry with my people, violated and murdered. Allow me to stand by numerous families in Aleppo who are in mourning. Because of this ugly and barbarous war, they have lost so many loved ones, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters and cherished children”.
ISIS has murdered, plundered, raped and abducted, including whole villages of Assyrian Christians. Now that joint Kurdish and Assyrian forces have recently recaptured a number of villages, can the Minister tell us whether we are going to provide teams, especially in the Khabur River Valley area, to find and dispose of mines and make homes and villages safe again? Where ground has been recaptured, will we be supporting the proposal of my noble friend Lord Dannatt to enhance their military capability? Do we accept that more training and support are needed for the Kurdish-led alliance, which can likely even seize Raqqa, with the result of crippling ISIS in both Syria and Iraq?
Does the Minister agree that the Kurdish-Assyrian democratic self-administration governmental structure and its commitment to civil society and the rule of law should be the model for a post-Assad, post-ISIS Syria and possibly for the entire region? Will the Minister consider practical support for Bassam Ishak, the president of the Syriac National Council of Syria, who has a vision of a Syria in which rights are based on citizenship; where all people, regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender, are treated equally; and where women have a prominent role in the structures? These pillars of the DSA system should surely be the pillars of a post-Assad, post-ISIS Syria.
The overall goal must be to enable all Syrians who have left, including Christians, to return to their homes, to be safe when they return, and to participate in rebuilding the Syrian infrastructure and Government on the basis of social and political equality, with religious freedom and human rights being safeguarded. It is not perfect but the Kurdish-Assyrian coalition is the best example in this fractured region of hard-headed bridge-building and what the West should want to see in the Syria of the future.
8.04 pm
Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench – June 9th 2015 To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the circumstances of the more than 230 Assyrian Christian hostages taken by Da’esh in the north of Syria in February; (2) the capture by Da’esh of around 35 predominantly Assyrian villages along the Khabur river in the Hassake Governorate; and (3) how many people remain unaccounted for following those captures. Hansard source Baroness Anelay of St Johns Conservative We understand that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are still holding more than 200 Assyrian Christians who were abducted in February from villages along the Khabour river in Hassakeh Province of North-East Syria. We believe that, in another act of appalling barbarity, ISIL executed at least 15 of the hostages, and that 23 Assyrian Christians have since been released following the payment of ransom money by the families, and another two freed when the area was liberated at the end of May. We remain concerned for the remaining hostages, most of whom are women, children and elderly people. We support the UN Security Council Statement condemning the abductions and demanding the Christians immediate release. The UK is committed to defeating ISIL, an organisation that has no place in today’s world. We will continue to work with the Global Coalition of more than sixty countries to ensure that ISIL no longer poses a threat to the people of the region, to international stability or to our own national security. ————————————————————————————————————————————- Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the successful removal of Da’esh from the 35 villages along the Khabur river that had previously been captured, what steps they are taking to assist the clearing of mines and unexploded ordnance, to consolidate stability, and to create safe havens to enable the return of residents. Hansard source Baroness Anelay of St Johns Conservative While the UK is not carrying out any mine clearance operations in Syria, we fully recognise the widespread and severe civilian suffering caused by the conflict. The UK has given over £800m to the humanitarian response, more than we have given to any previous humanitarian crisis. Some of this has been targeted to provide humanitarian support to the Hasakah Governorate as and where security constraints have allowed. Although safe havens can be effective in some situations, they are not currently feasible in Syria. Without all parties agreeing on their establishment there would need to be sufficient military capability to guarantee the safety of individuals. That is not currently present in Syria. ————————————————————————————————————————————– June 11th 2015 –  – The Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe (FOREF) today highlighted the plight of 207 Assyrian Christians still in captivity after their abduction by Islamic State terrorists in February, and expressed deep concern for the safety of the hostages. “The Islamic State has demanded an unreasonable ransom, providing an excuse not to negotiate further,” according to Dr. Aaron Rhodes, president of FOREF. “As a result, the victims, who have been targeted because of their faith, are left in a state of limbo and in danger of being slaughtered.” Over 233 Assyrians were seized on 23 February 2015, from the villages of Tal-Hormez, Tal Gwran, Qaber-Shameh, Tal-Fieda, Tal-Shameran, and Tal-Jazera in Al-Hasaka Province. Following intervention by Arab tribesmen from south of the Alkhabour River in Al-Hasaka Province, the IS demanded about $100,000 for each kidnapped Christian, or about $23,000,000 total. Of the 207 Assyrians in captivity, 83 are men, 87 are women and 37 are children. They are held in the community of Al-Shadade, Al-Hakasa Province. The IS has set several of the hostages free. The Assyrian Christian community has suffered massive displacement as a result of the IS terror. Thirty-four (34) villages, where Assyrians have lived since Biblical times, have been evacuated, and reports from local residents suggest some of their inhabitants have been killed. According to information received by FOREF, over 1380 families have been displaced. See also: ————————————————————————————————————————————– Also see: Power Point presentation to accompany a talk given at Brentwood in March 2014 entitled “Paying a Price for Belief.”: Paying A Price For Belief Brentwood 2014 The lecture is also now on the Brentwood Cathedral website twitter feed a Price For Belief Brentwood: March 12th 2014. David Alton Barely a day passes without reports of some new atrocity being committed against Christians. These are four stories from the last few days from just one country – Egypt: 1. Arabic media has reported the murder of a Syrian Christian family who had been living in Alexandria. A 44-year-old man, his 35-year-old wife, their six-year-old son and the wife’s brother were stabbed to death at their home on 17 February. The attackers set the house on fire. 2. In a separate incident, a 30-year-old Christian woman, Madline Wagih Demian, was killed in an attack on a Christian community in Kom Ombo, Upper Egypt. A knife-wielding Muslim man went on a rampage, targeting two Christian-owned pharmacies. 3. Over the past two years, there have been more than 150 reported kidnappings of Christians in Minya Province in Upper Egypt, Criminal gangs have been able to operate with impunity. Payments extorted from families in exchange for their loved ones’ release range from US$7,000 to US$500,000. 4. Christians were the victims of a terrorist attack in Sinai where the Jihadist group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis carried out a suicide bombing on a tourist bus carrying 31 South Korean Christians who were visiting historical Christian sites. Four people were killed and 14 injured. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has threatened further attacks on tourists and also to topple the interim government. Yet, in the face of reports like these, from all around the world, the West, including some Christian leaders, seem to be in a state of complete denial about the existence of religiously motivated persecution in countries like Nigeria or Syria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Sudan, Iran, Egypt, China and North Korea. Even in the UK we see examples of religious intolerance and discrimination – such as the dismissal of two Catholic midwives for refusing to take part in an abortion or the sacking of a Christian woman for refusing to remove her cross. And from Yorkshire where a college was told to remove Easter and Christmas from the calendar in case it offended people; to a Perth Hospital told to remove Communion Table or the attempt in Devon to force Bideford Council to ban prayers at the beginning of their meetings we see depressing examples of intolerance. A poll showed that more than four out of five churchgoers (84 per cent) think that religious freedoms, of sp
eech 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. But tonight I want to highlight the systematic killing and outright persecution of Christians which takes place without hardly a murmur of protest – and also challenge the mistaken belief that somehow this has little or nothing to do with us. Unless we lay bare the ideology which lies behind radical Islamist thinking – and which too often reduces God to the status of a faction leader or tribal chief – and challenge the conspiracy of silence which surrounds the question of religious persecution, at the hands of radical Islamists and atheists alike – we will sleep-walk into a tragedy which has implications well beyond the ancient biblical lands or East Asia. The two greatest fault lines of our times are the fault lines between Christianity and secularism and Christianity and Islam. Yet, religious illiteracy amongst policy makers in Western nations means that the way we view these conflicts has led to serious mistakes being made and unless we are very careful those same mistakes will come to have consequences in our own back yard. Policy makers, intelligence services and the media need to have a much more considered understanding of religious radicalisation and intolerance. The first thing we must do is ensure that we examine events through the lens of the frequently overlooked and neglected Article 18 of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18, “the orphaned right”, was fashioned in the aftermath of the annihilation of millions of Jews in Nazi concentration camps. It boldly states 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.” Yet, for millions of people this right to believe, or not to believe, is not worth the paper on which it is written – and like the United Nations’ much celebrated doctrine of “a duty to protect” creates the fiction that something promulgated will be championed and upheld. And what does a society lose when it fails to uphold the right to religious belief and fails to promote toleration and diversity? In 1965 the Second Vatican Council, in Dignitatis Humanae, put it succinctly: “A society which promotes religious freedom will be enlivened and enriched; one that doesn’t will decay”. And, speaking at Westminster Pope Benedict Emeritus said: “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.” In country after country, all of this has been ignored. And what has happened to the duty to protect, or Article 18, in a country like Syria, where Christians, some of whom fled from the persecution in neighbouring Iraq, have been caught in the unremitting cross fire and targeted by radical Islamist groups? In October 2010, 58 Christians were killed during evening mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad: 1.4 million Christians reduced to 150,000. Little wonder that Pope Benedict on his visit to the Holy Land remarked: “Churches in the Middle East are threatened in their very existence” Or consider the daily bombardment by the Sudanese Government of mainly Christian populations in Blue Nile and South Kordofan. Or, there is the plight of Egypt’s Copts. Think of the murder of two little girls at a recent Coptic wedding and the orgy of violence which I have described as Egypt’s Kristallnacht. Take Nigeria where, as February ended, Boko Haram – which means eradicate western education and influence – murdered, in cold blood, twenty nine students of the Federal Government College in Buni Yadi, Yobe State, while they slept in their student hostels . Days later Boko Haram began the month of March with two explosions in Maiduguri leaving at least 50 people dead. The north-south conflict in Nigeria 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.” When their depredations are reported at all, Boko Haram are simply described as a terrorist group. What analysis is made of what motivates them to drive a jeep laden with explosives into a packed Catholic church in Kaduna or to kill students whose crime is to embrace Christianity?. Turn the tables for a moment and ask yourself what reaction there would be in the Islamic world if, heaven forbid, Christian gun men stormed a student dormitory and murdered dozens of sleeping teenagers; or if mosques in Bradford, Marseilles or Dusseldorf were burnt to the ground and believers praying there were car-bombed by suicide bombers. Or imagine the consequences if your daughter, on her way to study at school, was abducted and decapitated; or if your Christian family or friends who could trace their antecedents across two millennia, joined the exodus, now of biblical proportions. Although religious persecution can affect people of all faiths and none (a young atheist has just been released in Indonesia after serving two years in prison for stating on Facebook that he did not believe in God), in every single country where there are infringements of Article 18 Christians face persecution. For instance, Rohinga Muslims face persecution in Burma, Bahais face persecution in Iran, Tibetan Buddhists face persecution in China, but in every single country where persecution occurs because of religious belief Christians are in the front line. Congressman Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who, last month, chaired a Congressional Hearing on religious persecution, said that Christians “remain the most persecuted religious group the world over.” This echoes a recent remark of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who also said that she believes Christians are the most persecuted group in the world today. Giving evidence to Congress, Archbishop Francis A. Chullikatt, permanent observer of the Holy See Mission at the United Nations described “Flagrant and widespread persecution of Christians rages in the Middle East even as we meet.” Experts warned Congress that many Christians around the world are facing serious persecution that often goes unreported and undeterred. Other speakers at the hearing testified about violence against Christians in India, Nigeria, Myanmar, Sudan, Eritrea, and Indonesia. According to a Report by the Pew Centre between 2006 and 2010, Christians were harassed in 139 countries around the world. Tonight I am going to talk in more detail about three countries where being a Christian requires you to pay the ultimate price for your faith: North Korea; Pakistan and Syria; and I will conclude by both recalling the price which was paid in our own country that we might have the freedom to be Catholic and to ask whether we use our freedoms to defend those rights and to champion those who are denied them. North Korea. Last week, as Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, I hosted a visit to Parliament by Hea Woo, a Christian survivor of a North Korean labour camp. In her testimony to the meeting, Hea Woo gave a graphic and powerful account of her time inside a the camp – where torture and beatings are routine, and where prisoners were so hungry they were reduced to eating rats, snakes, or even searching for grains in cow dung. In such places the dignity of human life counted for nothing. “Sometimes we had soup with nothing in it, just full of dirt,” said Hea Woo. “In some places whole families w
ere put into camps. They separated the men from the women and even if they saw each other they couldn’t talk to each other. The guards told us that we are not human beings, we are just prisoners, so we don’t have any right to love. We were just animals. Even if people died there, they didn’t let the family members outside know. “
Becoming an illicit Christian in North Korea, worshipping in one of the country’s underground churches, is a serious crime with terrifying consequences. Some believers, one of whom stayed with my family over Christmas last, and who have escaped from North Korea, say that they had never seen a church or a Bible before leaving the country. Any of those caught in illegal church services or found with religious artefacts are sent to the numerous camps and prisons, where they are kept in horrific conditions. Fed on starvation rations and routinely deprived of sleep, they are crammed into overcrowded cells where there isn’t even enough room to lie down. Two years ago there were reports of a further campaign of execution against Christians in North Korea. At least 20 Christians were arrested and sent to the Yodok Political Prison Camp for their faith. In several meetings, I raised this and other cases with North Korean officials, but was told that these reports were “lies” and that the execution of Christians was “impossible.” It’s not execution – as Kim Jong Un’s uncle recently discovered – that is impossible, but meaningful dialogue about religious freedom which is impossible. This is because the role of the officials is to control and not enable. Nevertheless, Christian organisations have been able to get through the closed border and bring food and medicine into the country. These include a Catholic priest who has brought tuberculosis medicine into the country on over forty occasions and food relief which has been provided by Caritas and the Sant.Egidio Community. But as I have seen for myself, on four visits to North Korea, the suffering of its people is of a very high order. If you were to bench-mark the findings of the recent United Nations Commission of Inquiry into the abuse of human rights in North Korea, against the thirty articles set out in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it would be difficult to find a single article which Kim Jong-un’s regime does not breach. That Declaration was born in the in the criminality of twentieth century totalitarianism and the gas chambers of Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. Michael Kirby, the eminent Australian jurist who chaired the Inquiry, told me that he believes that the network of gulags and camps, where over 200,000 North Koreans are incarcerated, bear direct comparison with Hitler’s camps and Stalin’s gulags. In a damning indictment, the COI concludes that egregious crimes against humanity are being committed and are of an order which makes them sui generis: “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”. These “unspeakable atrocities” , include “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation” and warrant a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Although Article 18 of the 1948 Declaration is often, given lip service, not so in Michael Kirby’s report. In paragraphs 26-31 the COI state: “there is almost a complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”; that religious faith has been supplanted by a cult of “absolute obedience to the Supreme Leader” and “the State considers the spread of Christianity a particularly serious threat.” The report cites the presence of four “official” churches – which I have visited, and all of which bear the marks of Grigory Potemkin fakery, built to deceive visitors into believing that the situation is better than it really is. These four churches are, of course, closely controlled by the state and overseen by the DPRK’s tame ‘church’, the Korean Christian Federation. These show churches exist to create an illusion of religious freedom. On my third visit to North Korea I was allowed to speak to the congregation at the Changchung Catholic church and met with members of the congregations at the other churches. The Changchung Catholic Church dates from 1988 but for sixty years no priest has been permitted to minister and in none of these churches is there anything that resembles true religious freedom. At Changchung I met Jang Jae-on, the Communist Party official who regulates religious belief. He produced a congregation of around sixty people, almost all women, mostly covered with mantillas. A picture of Pope Benedict was pulled out of a cupboard and put at the side of the sanctuary. After a hymn, three men, in deacon’s vestments, proceeded to read the liturgy of the word – and we passed seamlessly from the Gospel to the Lord’s Prayer and dismissal. Without any priest for six decades there is no Eucharist but knowing our own history of Penal Times it is impossible to believe that in Pyongyang, a city once known as “the Jerusalem of the East” that Faith has been completely eradicated. Who knows what was in the hearts of those who were worshipping at Changchung? Ironically, another of these Potemkin churches, Chilgol church was where Kim Il Sung’s mother, Kang Pan-sok, was a Presbyterian deaconess and in another ironic twist, a Russian Orthodox church was opened in 2006 – at the request of Russian diplomats no longer wrapped in the Stalin’s flag and anxious to worship God. Beyond the show churches Judge Kirby says that “Christians are prohibited from practising their religion and are persecuted. People caught practising Christianity are subject to severe punishments in violation of the right to freedom of religion and the prohibition of religious discrimination”. As if to graphically underline Kirby’s verdict, the day after the publication of the COI Report, John Short, an Australian countryman, was arrested in Pyongyang for being in possession of Scriptures. In North Korea Article 18 is not worth the paper on which it is written. Jang Jae On, the Communist Party official who regulates religious belief, is scornful when you point him to its provisions. However, just occasionally an official will quietly mention that their family were Christians and, in the town of Anju, the mayor told me that every week for sixty years, since the Korean War, Catholics have met in the rubble of their church. That believers are persecuted and suffer grievously is indisputable. Just over ten years ago I met Yoo Sang-joon, a North Korean Christian who had escaped after his wife and children had died in the famine. Routinely, Yoo has been going back and forth helping others get out. Some escapees, like Jeon Young-Ok and Shin Dong Hyok, have appeared before the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea. Jeon Young-Ok told us that she was “put in a camp where I saw and experienced unimaginable things. We were made to pull the beards from the faces of elderly people. Prison guards treated them like animals. The women were forced to strip. A group of us were thrown just one blanket and we were forced to pull it from one another as we tried to hide our shame. I felt like an animal, no better than a pig. I didn’t want to live.” She added that “they tortured the Christians the most. They were denied food and sleep. They were forced to stick out their tongues and iron was pushed into it.” Shin Dong Hyok was born in the notorious Camp 14. After a failed escape attempt, he was made to watch the execution of his mother and brother. The guards then tortured him, roasting him over a fire. Shin describes how today the Christian faith has give
n him healing, the ability to forgive and the strength to strive for fundamental change.
The courageous decision of so many North Koreans to tell their stories and the presence of several hundred North Korean refugees in England, and around 30,000 others now living in free countries, is a game changer. Of course, Korea is no stranger to suffering and the story of Christian witness graphically illustrates this. In the twentieth century the Church was a major opponent of Japanese occupation and the bravery of Cardinal Stephen Kim, and the Catholic convert, and future President, Kim Dae Jung, in opposing the south Korean military dictatorship ushered in South Korean democracy. From the nineteenth century the Church’s martyrology lists a representative group of the thousands who have died for their Catholic Faith. In 1984, at their canonisation, celebrated on the flat sands of the Han River, where many had been executed, Pope John Paul II described a community of Christians “unique in the history of the church” It was Korean lay-men, led by Yi Sunghun, who, in 1785, had brought the Faith to the country, not missionaries. Among the canonised were thirteen-year-old Peter Yu, tortured on fourteen occasions, and twenty-five-year-old Andrew Kim, the first Korean priest, executed in 1846 – killed as a traitor for fraternising with foreigners. Andrew Kim was stripped naked, and decapitated, proclaiming as he died: “This is my last hour of life, listen to me attentively: if I have held communication with foreigners, it has been for my religion and for my God. It is for Him that I die… God has eternal chastisements in store for those who have refused to know Him.” Their fate was a foretaste of what, one hundred years later, would await Christians in the post-Korean Communist State. In a vivid account, recorded in “March Till They Die” by an Australian Columban priest, Fr.Philip Crosbie, seized in 1950, with two Irishmen, Monsignor Thomas Quinlan and Fr.Frank Canavan, and an American Maryknoll priest, Bishop Patrick Byrne, he described how they were put on starvation rations. They were then force marched with captured Carmelite nuns and sisters from the French Community of St.Paul of Chartres. For fifty years their provincial superior, 76-year-old Mother Beatrix, had worked with the sick, the poor and Korean orphans. When she could walk no further and lay by the roadside one of the guards shot her dead. Bishop Byrne also succumbed and Fr Crosbie wrote of his roadside burial: “The only sign of his rank was a light cassock of black silk, with red buttons and piping. The buttons under their covering of red cloth were of metal. Some day they may help to identify the remains.” Fr.Crosbie ended his account with a prayer for those who did not live to see freedom; and a prayer for those who had captured and abused them: “May there be none of us who will not find Him at the end!” Perhaps on reading Michael Kirby’s contemporary account of the continued suffering in North Korea, it is a prayer we can all echo. Pakistan: Let me turn to my second country study: Pakistan – responsible for some of the worst religious persecution in the world. At its foundation its first President, Jinnah, said:“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.” In a population of over 172 million people, only about 1.5% (3 million) is Christians -half Catholic, half Protestant. And, for them, the reality is rather different. March 2nd marked the third anniversary of the assassination of Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, murdered in cold blood and in broad daylight in Pakistan’s capital, and still no one has been brought to justice. Bhatti was the only Christian cabinet member and although a suspect has now been brought to trial that trial has been jeopardized by death threats to the lawyers and witnesses. Aged 42, the life of Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities, was cut short by self described Taliban assassins. His murderers scattered pamphlets describing him as a “Christian infidel”. The leaflets were signed “Taliban al-Qaida Punjab.” A devout Catholic, Shahbaz Bhatti stands in a long tradition – from Thomas Beckett to Thomas More, Maximilian Kolbe to Oscar Romero – of men willing to lay down their lives for their friends and their faith. Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder also ranks alongside assassinations which stirred consciences, precipitating change: Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr.Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy. Shahbaz Bhatti once said: “I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of the cross, and I am following the cross, and I am ready to die for a cause.” Bhatti knew his outspokenness against appalling discrimination would make him a target. He insisted 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.” Following his death, local Catholics in Bhatti’s diocese of Faisalabad fasted, prayed and venerated his legacy. Archbishop Saldanha of Lahore and the Pakistan Bishops Conference then wrote to Pope Benedict asking that Bhatti’s name be listed among the martyrs of the faith. At the time of the murder Pope Benedict Emeritus entreated the faithful to reflect on Bhatti’s death contrasting Christian suffering with the tepid way we take our religious liberty for granted: “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.” Bhatti’s death recalls other shocking assassinations – those of Mahatma Gandhi, who was shot at point blank range in 1948; Dr. Martin Luther King, then aged 39, who was gunned down, twenty five years later, in Memphis, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter and then, two months after that came the killing of Robert Kennedy. Kennedy had a profound belief in the importance of individual actions;, that each of us is made in God’s image (Imago Dei), is, therefore, of inestimable worth; and that we should neither be discouraged by seemingly impossible odds or by the intractable nature of the challenges we face: “Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one person can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills, misery, ignorance, and violence. Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of a generation.” The anniversary of Shahbaz Bhatti’s death challenges should stir us to see politics differently: as sacrificial service: paying a price – perhaps even the ultimate one – for our beliefs.. Bhatti knew that he would lose his life. Yet, it did not deter him from insisting on justice for religious minorities in the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim nation. He did not run away or recoil from his calling, even sacrificing his personal life, by never marrying, which is explained was to spare a young family his anticipated fate. Bhatti’s last breaths were uttered in defence of Asia Bibi, the illiterate Christian mother of five, jailed in 1999, for alleged b
lasphemy against Islam, and sentenced to death. Today she languishes in jail, still on death row. Her appeal was due to be heard on February 14th but was cancelled at short notice by officials who simply said it is “a sensitive case.” After Shahbaz’s murder, his brother, Paul, a doctor whom I have met and know, followed him into the government to advise on “national harmony and minority affairs.” He successfully campaigned for the release of Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl who was jailed for blasphemy in 2012 even though she was mentally disabled and only 14 years old at the time. Masih and her entire family then fled to Canada. Paul’s work led to death threats against him and he too has now had to leave the country. In Pakistan there are regular mob rampages through Christian neighbourhoods – last March the Joseph Colony, a Christian neighbourhood in Lahore, saw the torching of 200 homes and churches – and, shockingly, last September the suicide bombing at Peshawar’s Anglican All Saints Church led to carnage and many deaths. If the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Cabinet Minister, who was charged with upholding the rights of minorities, remains unresolved, what faith can ordinary citizens have in the justice system? Why should potential attackers fear the law? What does impunity say about the prospects for a plural and tolerant society where diverse religious belief is honoured and respected? I genuinely am staggered at our indifference to the deaths of men like Shahbaz Bhatti or Iraq’s Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, whose body was discovered in a shallow grave – one of an estimated 600 Iraqi Christians murdered as their churches have been bombed and desecrated. Hundreds of thousands fled – many to Syria – where the horror is being played out all over again. So, let me end by talking about Syria – which starkly reminds us what happens when we fail to find ways in which to live peaceably and harmoniously with one another. Syria. In Syria, where sarin gas has been used against civilians in the suburbs of Damascus; barrel bombs have rained down on Aleppo; and citizens have been under siege in Homs and elsewhere, are being starved to death. I was particularly struck by the death of an unborn child killed by a sniper’s bullet, shown on a scan, lodged in its brain. Vast numbers of people are suffering – and no-one more so than the ancient Christian community caught in the cross-fire. It’s reminiscent of earlier “never again” moments of history – but the chaos has also given some of the radical opposition groups never again happens too often all over again. For some, this has also provided a pretext, a convenient cover for opening a new chapter of religious persecution. I first went to Syria in 1980. I arrived in Damascus on the day war broke out between Iran and Iraq. It lasted for eight years and claimed more than 1 million lives. My visit was three months after the Muslim Brotherhood had made an assassination attempt on Ḥafez al-Assad (the current President’s father). His response was then to align Syria with Iran. King Hussein declared Jordan’s support for Iraq. One week after we met in Damascus, Assad was in Moscow signing a mutual friendship treaty. Depressingly, the lines in today’s conflict are not newly drawn. In 1980, I wrote about the repressive nature of the region’s regimes—repressive then and repressive now. Iran’s human rights record remains appalling. Saudi Arabia, referred to in endlessly as our strategic ally in the region, also commits egregious violations of human rights, including the persecution of Christians, and remains one of the deadliest exporters of global terror. But, the “Afghanisation” of Syria, with vast tracts falling under the control of dangerous jihadist groups, would hardly represent progress. These various factions – all reducing God to the status of a faction leader or tribal chief – are largely at war with one another. Describing them as the opposition conjures up images of a coherent and united group akin to opposition groups in parliamentary democracies. We should be very wary of using such descriptions. Take ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham – which uses suicide bombers; now controls territory in north-eastern Iraq and uses radicalised recruits ( like Anil Khalil Raoufi, a British Afghan who was studying engineering at the University of Liverpool and was recently killed in Syria in fighting between rebel groups). We should reflect for a moment on their ideology and world view. There will be no room in their brave new world for anyone of dissenting opinion or belief. For Muslims, too, a word devoid of minorities, will be a less tolerant place, a monochrome world lacking in diversity or pluralism. It will also have effects on the countries where there was once great co-existence between Muslims and their neighbours. Take a country like Indonesia. The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict identifies the radicalisation of young Indonesian men who have gone to Syria via Turkey. Their director Sidney Jones says: “Jihadi humanitarian assistance teams now appear to be facilitating the entry of fighters as well”. In appealing to hatred, many jihadists cite a seventh-century directive which requires Christians to convert to Islam and pay tribute to Muslim rulers or leave. It is being increasingly enforced by extreme Islamist groups. Their edict states that Christians are required “to pay Jizya tax on every adult male to the value of four golden dinars for the wealthy, half of that for middle-income citizens and half of that for the poor… They must not hide their status, and can pay in two instalments per year.” They are forbidden to renovate or build churches or to display the cross. To underline this, several Orthodox nuns who were abducted by opposition groups have had their crosses removed from their habits. Aymenn al-Tamimi, an academic based at the University of Oxford University and an expert on Iraq and Syrian jihadists, said the imposition of the jizya was derived from a verse in the Quran, which demanded submission by the “people of the Book” – Jews and Christians – who did not follow Islam. On the Syria Comment website, he went on to say: “In case ISIS’s ambitions to a global caliphate were still not apparent to anyone, ISIS’s official Twitter account for Raqqa province had this to say on the imposition of the dhimmi pact: ‘Today in Raqqa and tomorrow in Rome.’” It was the late King Hussein who offered the wise advice to pray for God’s protection against, “those who believe that they are the sole possessors of truth.” These sole possessors of truth represent the biggest stumbling block in finding a peaceful way forward out of this confessional morass and in Syria they also represent the biggest danger to Alawites, Druze, Muslims from other traditions than their own, and Christians, and also the rights of women. Almost 1,500 years ago a wandering monk called John Moschos described the eastern Mediterranean as a flowering meadow of Christianity. That meadow is today a battlefield. Before the war the Christians of Syria accounted for between 4.5% and 10% of the population. What will it be after the war? Forty-seven churches have been closed; two priests and a nun have been murdered; two bishops, three priests and 12 nuns have been abducted. 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. A Jesuit priest, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, who has spent most of his life championing reconciliation, was kidnapped in July 2013 after entering rebel-held territory. Opposition sources from Raqqah said that Paolo Dall’Oglio had been executed by extremist groups. Do we seriously want to see these groups replacing one repressive regim
e with another? I serve on the UK Board of the charity Aid To the Church In Need. I have been looking at first-hand accounts which they have received from Syrian Christians. Typical is this note from Basman Kassouha, a refugee now in the Bekaa Valley area of Lebanon. He says that the militias, “stormed my house, giving me one hour to evacuate or else they will kill me … I’m heartbroken. I’ve lost everything”. The Maronite Bishop Elias Sleman of Laodicea says Christians have been specifically targeted in a number of places. I hope, as we collect evidence of the atrocities and crimes against humanity that none of the evidence will ever be lost to history but will one day be used to bring those responsible to justice. Bishop Sleman says: “There are many events that show that Christians are targeted, such as those of Maaloula, Sadad, Hafar, Deir Atiyeh, Carah, Nabk, Kseir, Rablé, Dmaineh, Michtayeh, Hassaniyeh, Knaïeh, and some villages of the Valley of Christians, Yabroud, Aafrd, the Jazirah region such as Hassaké, Ras El-Ain Kamechleh, and many other areas. Christians are increasingly targeted in horrible and unspeakable massacres”. The mostly Christian town of Saidnaya has experienced repeated attacks by extremists. The fourth attack on the city occurred on 19 January. The ancient site of the Convent of Our Lady on Mount Qalamoun has been frequently targeted by mortars. In Homs, a Dutch priest, Father Van der Lugt, trapped in the old city, described how residents cut off for more than a year developed chronic mental health problems following the breakdown of social order. He says, “Our city has become a lawless jungle”. In the largely Syrian Orthodox town of Sadad mass graves have been uncovered. A total of 45 Christians were killed and 1,500 families were held hostage when Sadad was stormed by the Al-Nusra Front and an organisation called the Grandsons of the Prophet on 21st October 2013. It was taken by government forces a week later. Among those killed by rebels were two teenage boys, their mother and three of their grandparents. The bodies of university student Ranim, 18, and her 16-year-old brother, Fadi were discovered at the bottom of a well, close to their home. Also brought to the surface were the remains of the youngsters’ mother, Njala, 45, and their grandparents: Mariam, a 90-year-old widow, as well as Matanios El Sheikh, 85, and his wife, Habsah, 75. Church sources say 30 bodies were also found in two separate mass graves. At the end of last year Damascus-based Melkite Patriarch Gregorios III of Antioch remarked: “How can somebody do such inhumane and bestial things to an elderly couple and their family?” The Patriarch explained that thousands fled Sadad and initially were too afraid to return in case of further atrocities. Reports from the town described how vulnerable people unable to escape—including the elderly, disabled, women and children—were subjected to torture and some were strangled to death. Churches have been damaged and desecrated, while schools, and government and municipal buildings have also been destroyed. The imposition of Sharia Law in Syria and in vast tracts of the world represents a challenge to Western democracies and human rights. So does the nature of Global Jihad and militant Islam. Our secular society in which we have in the last two centuries, enjoyed religious toleration and increasing religious co-existence is under significant threat but we seem to be sleepwalking into this danger. While we overlook and fail to understand the religious dimension to these terrible atrocities, and the imperative of harnessing thoughtful and moderate religious leaders from all traditions, we will utterly fail to end the persecution and the unspeakable violence. We in the West, who enjoy so many freedoms and liberties, need to ask ourselves some tough questions about the disproportionate nature of the causes which we so readily embrace whilst ignoring the systematic violent ideology of an Islamist “Final Solution” directed at the Christian minorities. Hundreds of parliamentary hours can be spent asserting the rights of foxes or on discussing rights associated with our life- styles but when it comes to the killing of children and students, or the torching of their homes and places of worship, or the destruction of centuries old culture, our political classes have taken Trappist vows. This stems from a misplaced belief that their silence about radical Islamist groups represents “tolerance”. In reality it stems from fear and indifference. Ultimately, parliamentarians are only as good as the people who elect them – so their electorates are also partly to blame for not organising themselves in the way in which pressure groups do. If political leaders have been indifferent, where here are the western churches? Secular society has got its priorities wrong but so have western churches which too easily become intoxicated with their own introspective navel-gazing. If I was sitting in the rubble of a Syrian or Egyptian church, or in a gulag in North Korea, or had just seen my home destroyed or, even worse, my loved ones killed, I would think that our endless self absorbed debates, which often mirror the rights-driven agenda of the secular world, are self indulgence of a high order. If, in the face of evil deeds, secularists and Christians need to weigh up their silence and priorities, so do our Muslim brothers. Muslims, who have often settled in our democracies, need to be much braver in breaking the conspiracy of silence and in identifying with those who suffer – among whom are many Muslim victims of visceral hatred motivated by persecution for being the wrong kind of Muslims. Never forget that many of these families came to Europe to escape the intolerance of countries like Pakistan – where a young Muslim girl can be shot for wanting an education or its Catholic Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, can be assassinated for preaching co-existence. Many of our European Muslims are good, law-abiding people, who want the same things for themselves and for their families as the rest of us. They are not, as some foolishly and wrongly caricature them, an enemy within. But if they remain silent it will increasingly be seen as acquiescence. It will, however, require real courage to speak out against forces which have no respect for difference or diversity, or for life itself. As he began the slaughter of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, people with disabilities and many others, Adolph Hitler famously remarked “who now remembers the Armenians?”. Think also of the Poles who were slaughtered. According to the USHMM – “Between 1939 and 1945, at least 1.5 million Polish citizens were deported to German territory for forced labour. Hundreds of thousands were also imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. It is estimated that the Germans killed at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians during World War II. In addition, the Germans murdered at least 3 million Jewish citizens of Poland.“ Poles also constituted the largest proportion of German Nazi SLAVE labour. Approx 1.5 million Polish people were also deported to Siberian slave labour camps by the Soviet Communists. Who now remembers them? In coming eras will our generation similarly ask the question “who now remembers the Christian minorities of the Middle East and North Africa?” Or will we ask the other famous question associated with the failure to speak out for the victims of the Reich “who will be left to speak for me?”. And finally, let us who enjoy the freedom to speak and to act not forget that these freedoms have been purchased by those who have gone before us. From the crucifixion of Christ Himself, to the stoning to death of Stephen; from the execution of Peter, Paul and the early disciples, to the deaths of maybe as many as 100,000 people at the ha
nds of emperors such as Nero and Diocletian; to the executions of Penal times and the mass murders of the bloodied twentieth century – when more people lost their lives for their faith than in all the previous centuries combined – we have a precious narrative entrusted to us and which must be passed to those who follow.
At this time we are thinking a great deal about the Ukraine. I first visited it before the fall of the Soviet Union. In Lviv I met Ivan Gel and Bishop Pavlo Vasylyk – who, between them had spent more than 30 years in prison for their faith. These are simply two of countless men and women who suffered for their faith in the life times of many of us. But remember, too, those great English men and women who gave their lives that we might be free to believe. As T.S.Eliot wrote of the murder of St.Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral: “Wherever a saint has dwelt, Wherever a Martyr has given his blood for Christ, There is holy ground, And the sanctity shall not depart from it.” At London’s Tyburn between 1535 until 1681, 105 Catholic men and women gave their lives for their faith – a sacrifice which paved the way for the religious freedoms and liberties which we enjoy today. The story of Tyburn is not a story calling for revenge or to be used for the stoking of old hatreds but it is an instructive story which the elders fail to tell their children at their peril. As Edmund Campion stood on the Tyburn scaffold, he famously prayed that the day would come when he and those who were sending him to his death would meet in heaven: “I recommend your case, and mine, to Almighty God, the Searcher of hearts, to the end that we may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.” Our faith teaches us to forgive but until we meet in heaven we are not commanded to forget. The moment a nation slips into collective amnesia it risks repeating the old mistakes. Never again happens all over again. Tyburn’s is an instructive and inspiring story which must be told because of the courage, heroism and virtue which it represents. It must be told because of the high price which was paid. We all know that when a faith is worth dying for, it is worth living for – and just as the stories of our English martyrs inspired my generation let us ensure that the sacrifices which others are making for their faith today are widely known so that their blood will not be shed in vain. As Campion stood on the scaffold facing his executioner his blood splattered onto the young Henry Walpole, a graduate of Peterhouse, Cambridge. Walpole was sufficiently inspired to give up his law practice, to become a Catholic, a Jesuit, and in 1595, like Campion, to be hanged drawn and quartered – in his case at York. But unlike Campion, Walpole, Margaret Clitherow, Anne Line, More or Fisher, so often we hide behind our own weakness or inadequacies as an excuse for not speaking up or taking actions. So often we are like Tolkien’s Frodo who said : “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” As for our inadequacies, John Henry Newman once cautioned that: “A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault” “We are not born for ourselves, but for our kind, for our neighbours, for our country: it is but selfishness, indolence, a perverse fastidiousness, an unmanliness, and no virtue or praise, to bury our talent in a napkin” And Dietrich Bonhoeffer remarked that “We have been the silent witnesses of evil deeds.” and that “What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men.” In our own times we must better comprehend the price which is paid for belief and allow the courage and heroism of those who suffer so greatly to shake us out of our apathy and our indifference. —————————————————————————————————- As we approach the 34th anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, you might be interested in the music video which has been produced to honour his legacy. You may view the video at . For more information go to

Share This