A Shining Light Amid the Flames
At the start of this year, the pastor of a church located around 5,500 miles from St Michael’s woke up to find the fence around his house in flames. Attacks on clergy are not unknown in Britain, but are thankfully rare—by contrast in Sri Lanka, where this assault took place, violent crimes against the church last year tallied at 114. Most are carried out by radical Buddhist mobs who want to eradicate Western influence from the country. Buddhism, so often synonymous with peace, has been perverted here into a form of rabid nationalism, and pastors are regularly subjected to ordeals that have included stoning, vandalism of churches during worship, and death threats.
The arson attack in southern Sri Lanka is one of a wide range of atrocities reported on the website for the Barnabas Fund, a mission partner for St Michael’s that supports Christians persecuted abroad. Buddhist hostility is obviously a small part of the problem—in the Middle East, Africa, and even in parts of Europe it is the surge of Islamist sentiment that poses the greatest threat. It is difficult to pin down statistics on exactly how many Christians are killed a year: one widely quoted but disputed figure is 100,000. This tally—produced by the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity—has been challenged by organisations including the International Society for Human Rights, which revises it to the more modest, but still shocking estimate of between 7,000 and 8,000.
What is certain—in the huge gulf between those estimates—is that each week seems to reveal a new and chilling angle on the modern phenomenon of what the religious historian Rupert Shortt has described as Christianophobia. At the beginning of June, 100 Eritrean Christian refugees were abducted by ISIS militants in Libya and Sudan, while in northern Kenya hundreds of schools closed in fear of renewed attacks by al-Shabaab, the jihadist group based in Somalia. Even Christians in France have been under threat—this April police arrested a French Algerian, Sid Ahmed Glam, when he called an ambulance to treat a bullet wound to his leg. When they traced the blood back to his car, they discovered loaded guns and plans to attack nearby churches in Paris.
An attack on Saint Mina Coptic Church (Imbaba, Cairo) in May 2011 leaves 15 dead and at least 200 injured.
One of the key issues, of course, is that the perception of Christianity has become distorted so that it is seen as synonymous with Western imperialist ambition. Peter Hill-King, St Michael’s church rep for the Barnabas Fund, concurs this is a huge problem: ‘That’s an image it’s got to shed. The West isn’t very Christian really compared, say, to South Korea, where there’s a huge growth in the number of churchgoers or Latin America [where 90% are Christians]. So the Church really should be perceived as global rather than western. At the end of the day Jesus wasn’t born in Croydon, he was born in Israel.’
Peter also points out that violent campaigns against Christians flared up frequently in the twentieth century: ‘There was the Armenian massacre of 1915, and extensive persecution under the communist regimes of Eastern Europe.’ It was only at the end of the Cold War that there seemed to be a lull in the atrocities. He cautions against seeing the new surge of persecution as purely connected with the Islamist threat. Though a lot of the Barnabas Fund’s current work involves helping Christians caught in the crossfire of Muslim violence (especially in Syria and Iraq), it is currently dealing with Christians in trouble in 80 places including Ukraine and China. According to Open Doors, another charity that supports persecuted Christians, the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian is North Korea.
So how do churchgoers in the West begin to help tackle Christian oppression abroad? Many at St Michael’s have already contributed generously to the Barnabas Fund, which prides itself on working with organisations already on the ground in different countries in order to understand members’ material and spiritual needs. Donations can go towards something as basic as food and hygiene packages in times of natural disasters to providing training for church leaders that will help them deal with persecution. No, the multiple issues underpinning Christian suffering won’t be resolved for many decades, if ever, but this is a positive and constructive way forward. From building churches to microfinancing new businesses for women, it systematically sows small seeds of hope in an increasingly unstable world.