Earlier this year I launched a report in Parliament cataloguing the systematic campaign targeting Pakistan’s religious minorities, particularly Christians and Ahmadis. Among those targeted was Shahbaz Bhatti, the murdered Catholic Minister for Minorities.
The report is a catalogue of outright persecution. It followed evidence taking sessions, witness statements, and a visit to a detention centre in South East Asia where escaping Pakistani Christians are held in degrading conditions.
But Pakistani Christians are not alone.
In more than 100 countries Christians are persecuted.
And what of outright genocide?
A century ago the world stood by and watched as 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Assyrian Christians were murdered.
Thirty years after the Armenian Genocide of 1915 those horrors were surpassed by the four great murderers of the 20th century—Mao, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot—all united by their hatred of religious faith. Hitler famously asked, “Who now remembers the Armenians?”
So we know precisely what happens when you choose to forget or feign indifference.
Today, in Syria and Iraq, Christians, Yazidis, and other groups that are “different” face the same fate.
In Parliament I hosted a meeting of the charity, Aid to the Church In Need (ACN).
We heard of how a Christian pastor in a village of Aleppo was told to convert or die. He was forced to watch as his 12-year-old son was tortured: the boy’s fingers cut from his hand. Neither the father or son renounced their faith, and both were executed.
Despite Resolutions being passed in the House of Commons, the American Congress, the European Parliament and the Australian House of Representatives, the British Government still fails to name these events for the genocide that they are – or to lay a Resolution before the Security Council.
While ISIS genocide in Syria and Iraq may simply be seen as inhumane butchery, this is fundamentally an attack on freedom of conscience and belief. ISIS work in a consistent manner, not only killing men, women and children, but destroying their holy places, doing their utmost to eradicate any collective memory of a people’s very existence.
Where are letters by their thousands to the Prime Minister, MPs, political leaders – urging them to do more? Where are the spontaneous grassroots campaigns that helped end apartheid and any number of injustices?
Here’s a challenge.
In November, ACN is arranging for Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey to be floodlit in red to commemorate the persecuted.
If every parish in the country did the same it might at last wake up our political classes to the scale of the suffering.
And it’s high time we stood with those who are suffering or dying for their beliefs – with the Christians of the Middle East; with the Iranian, Saeed Abedini, who was imprisoned for 10 years for “undermining national security” by hosting Christian gatherings in his home; with Chinese Catholics like the late Bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang, who died last year at 94 years of age, having spent half his life in prison; with the Chinese Christians who, since the beginning of 2016, have seen 49 of their churches defaced or destroyed, crosses removed and a pastor’s wife crushed to death in the rubble as she pleaded with the authorities to desist; with the Christians targeted by groups like ISIS, the Taliban, Al Shabab, and Boko Haram.
As we ponder on the infamies of the 20th century—from the Armenian genocide to the defining depredations of Stalin’s gulags and Hitler’s concentration camps – recall that they were characterized by endless horrors: from the pestilential nature of persecution, demonization, scapegoating and hateful prejudice; and, notwithstanding violence associated with religion, it emerged primarily from ideology, nation and race.
It was the bloodiest century in human history with the loss of 100 million lives – and continues today in places like the concentration camps of North Korea – a country I have visited on four occasions, where 300,000 are incarcerated in its gulags and where the Catholic Church has been banned for over sixty years.
But, in 1948, out of the ashes of the Holocaust came the promulgation of the 30 Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 18 of which insists 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.”
Our lodestar should be Article 18. It’s an Article of Faith – but one that is honoured daily in its breach, evident in new genocides, concentration camps, abductions, rape, imprisonment, persecution, public flogging, enslavement, mass murder, beheadings and the vast displacement of millions of people.
That the hatred of difference which motivates these depredations is not confined to “far away countries about which we know very little” was urgently and starkly underlined by the execution of the 84-year-old French priest Fr. Jacques Hamel, murdered in his Normandy church of Saint Etienne du Rouvray, after he had celebrated morning Mass.
Neither France nor Britain, for all their faults, are societies in which adulterers are flogged, gays executed, women stoned for not being veiled, churches, synagogues, or mosques routinely burned, so-called apostates (until recently) killed, and non-believers forced to convert or treated as ‘dhimmis’ or second-class citizens.
If Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists want to keep it that way – and are no longer to see one another as an existential threat – we need a new narrative, based on Article 18 – one which is capable of forestalling the unceasing incitements to hatred which pour from the internet and which capture the unformed minds.
Learning to live together in respect and tolerance – whether we have a religious faith or not – is truly the great challenge of our times. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council foresaw this challenge in its prophetic document on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.
Today, scholars, media, and policy makers need to revisit these challenges, promote far greater religious literacy and shape different priorities.
Top of the list should be the proclamation of Article 18 – the right to believe, not to believe or to change belief – which, for many, is literally a matter of life and death.
On their behalf we must use our liberties and freedoms to speak up and protest, remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s injunction that
Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless.
Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Lord Alton of Liverpool is an Independent Crossbench Peer and Professor of Citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University. He has served in Parliament for 37 years – 18 in the House of Commons.