Sri Lanka shows attacks on Christians worse than in Roman and ...

Ideas

Sri Lanka shows attacks on Christians worse than in Roman and Soviet times

They are the most persecuted group of believers on Earth, but it's particularly grim in North Africa and the Middle East

Catherine Pepinster


The death and destruction in Sri Lanka was particularly shocking given that it took place on Easter Sunday, the holiest feast of the Christian year. However, it was also horribly familiar, for we are now living through an unprecedented era of Christian persecution.
Most people associate persecution of Christians with the Roman empire and martyrs facing the lions. Others may recall the Soviet regime and the repression of believers during the time of Stalin. But this century is fast becoming a rival to both of these eras.
According to the respected Pew Research Centre, they are the most targeted body of believers in 144 countries, up from 128 in 2015. And there is barely a country from Saharan Africa to Pakistan where Christians worship freely without intimidation.
The persecution takes various forms. The bloodshed of Sri Lanka was of a particular kind; it was well organised, with four churches bombed, as well as Western-style hotels, and well planned. A religious holiday was the date underlined in the bombers’ calendar. Elsewhere, in countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christians are tolerated but suffer employment discrimination, and in many countries there is state oppression.
The future of Christianity is particularly grim in North Africa and the Middle East, the very cradle of Christianity. In Egypt, the Copts, who belong to one of the most ancient Christian traditions, have been targeted repeatedly, after centuries of living peacefully with their Muslim neighbours. In Libya in January, a mass grave was found containing 34 Ethiopian Christians killed by Islamic State fighters. The destruction of Christianity in Iraq, after Islamist groups emerged in the wake of the war in 2003, has been so overwhelming that there are barely any Christians left in cities such as Mosul.
But it is further east, in Asia, where persecution is at its worst, according to a report from the Open Doors organisation earlier in 2019.
As in the Middle East, the assailants are often members of other religions, such as Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan. Its forms include terrorist atrocities but also harassment, such as in Pakistan where Asia Bibi spent eight years on death row for blasphemy. In China, the government attempts to monitor and control the practice of religion through the state-sanctioned Patriotic Catholic and Patriotic Protestant churches, but most of the country’s 100 million Christians belong to unregistered churches, which are regularly closed down and members detained in camps.
The communist regime in China insists it will tolerate Christianity, if it undergoes “sinicisation”. In other words, it must be at its heart Chinese and not an import.
Similar demands are made in Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal, with nationalists accusing Christianity of being alien. Others claim that Christianity is a religion of the West, imposed by colonialists. The Sri Lankan bombers, by targeting Western-style luxury hotels and churches, also appeared to want to convey this message. But inside those churches were ordinary Sri Lankans.
These latest attacks come at a time when UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt is awaiting a review of the British government’s response to Christian persecution. According to the Bishop of Truro, the Right Reverend Philip Mounstephen, who is conducting it, post-colonial guilt about Christianity has affected attitudes in the UK. With attacks like those in Sri Lanka, greater attention may now be paid by UK politicians to the plight of Christians. Church leaders will want to see if the review leads to concrete change, such as a block on trade and aid to countries that tolerate the targeting of Christians.Forgiveness is part of the Christian creed. But so is solidarity with those who suffer for their faith.• Catherine Pepinster is a former editor of The Tablet and is currently writing a book on martyrdom.– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)

This article is reserved for Times Select subscribers.
A subscription gives you full digital access to all Times Select content.

Times Select

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Questions or problems?
Email helpdesk@timeslive.co.za or call 0860 52 52 00.