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I CAME TO England in 1979’, Dr Ibrahim Habib told me, ‘after all the Christian students in my year at medical school were marked down.’
We got to know each other after I visited the Coptic church in West London, where Ibrahim worships regularly, even though he lives and works in the Midlands. Originally from Minya, near Asyut in Upper Egypt, where about a third of the population is Christian, he is a stolid, soft-spoken figure with an eager smile. But his professional success and blithe manner were belied by the melancholy tale he told me:
Christians were either passed or failed; not a single one was placed in the ‘Good’, ‘Very Good’, or ‘Excellent’ categories. This meant that none of us Christians would achieve a high-flying career. The modern phase of anti-Christian violence in Egypt really began in 1972, with the establishment of the Gama Islamiya, a militant group. They started attacking Christian students on the university campus at Asyut, barging into our rooms and tearing down pictures of the Virgin Mary and other religious materials. A fight ensued. I and other Christians were expelled from university accommodation, but the Muslims who caused trouble were allowed to remain.
The upsurge in militancy can be blamed to a great extent on President Sadat. After the assassination attempt on Nasser in 1954, many fundamentalists were rounded up and sent to prison. Sadat, faced with heavy challenges from the Left, indulged the Islamists and let many in from Saudi Arabia. He also called Egypt a Muslim country, even though 15 to 20 per cent of the population were then Christian. That figure has now fallen to 12 per cent, because of all the emigration.



About the Book
On October 29, 2005, three Indonesian schoolgirls were beheaded as they walked to school – targeted because they were Christians. Like them, many other church members around the world face violence or discrimination for their faith. Why is this tragedy so widely ignored?
In Christianophobia, Rupert Shortt investigates the shocking treatment of Christians on several continents, revealing that they are oppressed in greater numbers than those of any other faith. The extent of official collusion in the onslaught is also exposed. Even governments that have promised to protect religious minorities routinely break their pledges, with life-shattering consequences.
Unlike their Muslim counterparts, young Christians don’t easily become radicalized but tend to resist non-violently or keep a low profile. This has enabled politicians and the media to play down a problem of huge dimensions.
Shortt disentangles social and cultural strands in conflicts sometimes wrongly blamed on religion, and demonstrates how freedom of belief is the canary in the mine for liberty in general. Published at a time when the fundamental importance of faith on the world stage is at last being recognized, this book will be essential reading for anyone interested in the rights of people to believe what they wish, no matter where, or among whom, they live.
About the Author
Rupert Shortt is a journalist and writer whose books include Rowan’s Rile: the Biography of the Archbishop, God’s Advocates and Benedict XVI: Commander of the Faith. He is Religion Editor of The Times Literary Supplement, contributes to The Guardian and The Times, and is a Visiting Fellow of Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford.
Also by Rupert Shortt
Rowan Williams: An Introduction
God’s Advocates: Christian Thinkers in Conversation (ed)
Benedict XVI: Commander of the Faith
Rowan’s Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop
1/2. Copts encamped outside the headquarters of Egyptian state television (Rupert Shortt).
3. A demonstration in Detroit, Michigan in November 2010 calling for greater protection for Iraqi Christians (AP Photo/Paul Sancya).
4. Pakistani Christians mourn over a coffin during a funeral for a family killed in the twin suicide bombings in Karachi in 2010 (Getty).
5. An angry mob throws rocks at St. Saviour’s church in Sukkur, northeast of Karachi (AP Photo/Pervez Khan).
6. Pakistani Christians demonstrating against the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti (Getty).
7. A Catholic church in Jos, central Nigeria, attacked by a suicide bomber in January 2012 (Baroness Caroline Cox).
8. The congregation at a church in Jos maintain their witness after an attack caused major structural damage to their place of worship (Baroness Caroline Cox).
9. Sudanese Christians at a camp for internally displaced people in Joborana, north of the capital Khartoum (AP Photo/Abd Raouf).
10. A Protestant church in the village of Sepe in Indonesia, which was attacked by Islamists in August 2002 (Christian Solidarity Worldwide).
11. Sunday service taking place outside the church at Bogot, West Java, Indonesia in 2011 (Christian Solidarity Worldwide).
12. One of 170 churches and chapels destroyed by Hindu extremists in Orissa, India, in 2008 (Rupert Shortt).
13. An encampment for some of the 50,000 Christians displaced from their homes by violence (Rupert Shortt).
14. An elderly Christian woman receiving shelter in rural Orissa (Rupert Shortt).
15/16. Syriac Orthodox Christians at worship in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, and in Seidnaya, near Damascus (Giulio Paletta).
17. A house church bulldozed in Zhejiang, eastern China, in July 2003, because the congregation had not obtained official permission to operate (China Aid).
18. Seminarians training to minister in China’s underground Catholic Church, worshipping at a secret location in Hebei province (Aid to the Church in Need).
Dedicated to all who suffer for their beliefs
In the video he made in early 2005 before committing suicide and mass murder, Mohammad Sidique Khan, ringleader of the 7 July London bombers, justified his action as revenge for the recent killing of Muslims by Western armies. Much has been said since about the moral vacuity of this statement, but far less made of its sheer incoherence. Looking beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, and on a time frame stretching back well before 11 September 2001, we can see innumerable Christian communities on the defensive against rampant forms of intolerance, both religious and secular. The problem has worsened dramatically since the turn of the millennium: about 200 million Christians are now under threat,1 more than any other faith group. This ought to be a major foreign policy issue for governments across a vast belt of the world. That it is not tells us much about a rarely acknowledged hierarchy of victimhood.
Sidique Khan and his associates were allowed to practise their religion openly in Britain, yet there is scarcely a single country from Morocco to Pakistan in which Christians are fully free to worship without harassment. Muslims who convert to Christianity or other faiths in most of these societies risk harsh penalties. There is now a severe risk that the Churches will vanish from their biblical heartlands in the Middle East. The suffering is no less acute elsewhere. Before the partition of Sudan in 2011, for example, the regime in Khartoum was responsible for the deaths of 2 million Christian and other non-Muslim civilians over a thirty-year period. Before East Timor gained independence from Indonesia, 100,000 Catholic non-combatants were killed by agents of the Suharto government during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. As I write, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Amdullah, has officially declared that ‘it is necessary to destroy all the churches’ on the Arabian Peninsula,2 and 50,000 Christians are thought to have been ousted from the city of Homs in Syria.
Christians in parts of Nigeria live in regular fear of violent attack; what is more, there is clear evidence that the attitudes underlying such aggression are fomented through official channels. One reason why Western audiences hear so little about religious oppression in the Muslim world is straightforward: young Christians in Europe and America do not become ‘radicalised’, and persecuted Christians tend not to respond with terrorist violence. Another explanation is linked to the blind spots that can affect bien-pensant opinion-formers. Parts of the media have been influenced by the logical error that equates criticism of Muslims with racism, and therefore as wrong by definition. This has further distracted attention away from the hounding of Christians, helping to cement the surprisingly widespread idea that Christianity is a ‘Western’ faith.
But this book is emphatically not based on polemics about a supposed clash of civilisations, still less on an uncritical attitude towards my fellow Christians. The Church’s past record of violent intolerance – a record that persists in Russia, the Balkans, and other parts of the Eastern Orthodox world – is obviously shameful, too. And although the view that Muslims have been the perpetual victims of Christian aggression down the ages rests on a falsification of history, I reject the equal and opposite fantasy that holds Islam to be a uniquely violent religion. Misconceptions of this sort usually spring from a failure to distinguish between Islamic piety on the one hand, and Islamism as a religio-political ideology on the other.
My argument, rather, is shaped by two sorts of awareness. First, that much anti-Christian prejudice and violence – in China, India, Vietnam, North Korea, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cuba, or Israel, among other places – has nothing to do with militant Islam; and second, that a number of grievances felt by Muslims are reasonable. For example, I believe (in line with the clearly broadcast views of most church leaders around the world) that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a serious mistake, and I have a keen awareness of the West’s role in promoting the sense of injustice felt by many Arabs in particular. More broadly, it seems equally clear to me that Christian mission in nineteenth-century Africa was often politicised, and geared to undermine the spread of Muslim influence; that Western (above all Anglo-French) adventurism in the Middle East during the twentieth century played into the hands of Arab nationalists and watered the seeds of Islamic revivalism; and that al-Qaeda drew strength from the West’s indulgence of dictators in the region before the Arab Spring – and still now. These factors supply context to my case. They do not, however, invalidate it. (Statistical evidence on religious freedom around the world, collated by the Freedom House think tank, is set out in Appendix A.)
The oppression of Christians is especially worthy of note given the so-called return to religion over recent years. Whether you view this development with relief or unease, it has become increasingly obvious that Christianity and Islam are the two most formidable systems of belief in the world. Whatever the extent of secularisation in Western Europe – and even here the evidence is ambiguous, as various traditions experience revivals – almost all other societies on earth display high levels of religious belief and practice. Three-quarters of humanity professes a religious faith; that figure is projected to reach the 80 per cent mark by 2050.3 The scale of the turnaround has been extraordinary. Thanks to the so-called third wave of democratisation during the 1970s, as well as smaller waves of freedom since then, millions were enabled to shape their public lives in new ways. In country after country, politically empowered groups began to challenge the secular constraints introduced by the first generation of modernising, post-independence leaders. Often, as in Communist societies, secular straitjackets had been imposed from on high; in other cases, such as Turkey, India, and Egypt, secularism retained legitimacy because the elites considered it essential to national integration and modernisation – and because of the sheer charisma of these countries’ founding fathers. In Latin America, right-wing dictatorships, sometimes in cahoots with the Catholic Church, imposed restrictions limiting grass-roots religious influences, particularly liberation theology and Protestant ‘sects’.
As politics liberalised in nations including India, Mexico, Nigeria, Turkey, and Indonesia in the late 1990s, religion’s influence on political life increased steeply. Even in the United States, Evangelicals exercised a growing influence on the Republican Party during the 1980s and 1990s, partly because the presidential nomination process came to depend more on popular primaries and less on the decisions of party elders. Nowadays, where political systems reflect people’s values, they usually also reflect people’s strong religious beliefs. An inventory of faith-based political groups would include Vishva Hindu Parishad in India (which sowed the seeds of Hindu nationalism reaped by the BJP during the 1990s), the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Hahdlatul Ulama in Indonesia, Pentecostals in Africa and Latin America, and in the Catholic world, an array of forces including European Christian Democrats, Opus Dei, and the newer religious movements. Faith communities are also developing remarkable transnational capabilities, appealing to foreign governments and international bodies deemed sympathetic to their cause.
Again, whatever one’s opinion of the merits or coherence of religious belief, or the truth of one creed vis-à-vis others, the conclusion reached by two prominent American sociologists, Timothy Samuel Shah and Monica Duffy Toft, is hard to resist: ‘The belief that outbreaks of politicized religion are temporary detours on the road to secularization was plausible in 1976, 1986, or even 1996. Today, the argument is untenable. As a framework for explaining and predicting the course of global politics, secularism is increasingly unsound. God is winning in global politics. And modernization, democratization and globalization have only made him stronger.’4
This should not surprise us. Atheism feeds off bad religion, especially fundamentalism, whose easily disposable dogmatic certainties now form one of atheism’s main assets. On the other hand, it is much harder for atheism to replace the imaginative richness of a mature religious commitment, and the corresponding assurance that life is worth living responsibly, because it has an ultimate meaning. Yet faith is like fire, to cite a sobering analogy. It warms; but it can also burn. As the Jewish thinker Jonathan Sacks and others have pointed out,5 people lived in self-contained spaces before the modern era – physically and therefore intellectually. It was possible to believe that ‘our’ truth was the only truth. That is naturally no longer possible in a globalised world. So while the twentieth century was marked by clashes of political ideology, there are strong grounds for thinking that interfaith relations, and the politics of identity that they betoken, will be one of the dominant challenges of the twenty-first.
In some ways, harmony between the religions remains a remote goal. Good religion promotes conflict resolution; bad religion fosters discord. As many commentators have pointed out, the destabilising effects of fanaticism can be seen far from Iraq and the ruins of the World Trade Center. Formerly secular challenges such as the confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians have taken on an overtly religious cast. Religion has played a role in recent and ongoing civil wars from Sri Lanka to Chechnya to Sudan. Along or near the tenth parallel of latitude north of the equator, between Nigeria and Indonesia and the Philippines, religious fervour and political unrest are reinforcing each other. This point should be granted even if one accepts religion’s status as an immense – perhaps the pre-eminent – source of social capital in existence. On the positive side, faith-based conviction has mobilised millions of people to oppose authoritarian regimes, inaugurate democratic transitions, support human rights, and relieve human suffering. In the twentieth century, religious movements helped end colonial rule and ushered in democracy in Latin America, Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia.
Given the durability of faith, though, we can draw an equally certain lesson for today and tomorrow: that if religions – especially the six so-called global fellowships: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism – are not part of the solution, they will almost certainly be part of the problem. This much, perhaps, is common sense. (Another valid inference is that religious leaders function better as sources of influence at some distance from political leaders, not as wielders of direct power themselves.) To bring much-needed texture to the discussion, we should disentangle fair and tendentious accounts of the terrain, and be aware of how it gets hijacked by hotheads at either extreme of the divide between religion and secularism. It is above all unscientific to single out ‘religion’ (what religion? which manifestation of it?) for criticism, while ignoring both the colossal violence of twentieth-century anti-religious regimes, and the strife associated with other forms of social bonding, such as nation or ethnic group. In Northern Ireland, to cite an obvious example, religion is deeply interlaced with the legacies of British imperialism and Irish nationalism. In other parts of the world, religious affiliations often shade into ethnic differences, which in turn merge with claims to land, water, and oil. The tenth parallel is a case in point. Geography forms a major source of tension in several of the countries in this region, so faith differences can be exploited to intensify what are basically turf wars and other geopolitical conflicts. The subject also needs to be placed in the broader context of nineteenth-century and postcolonial nationalism. The imperial project of Russia from Peter the Great onwards – and especially Russia’s conflict with the Ottoman Empire – brought waves of nationalism in south-east Europe and western Asia, often involving the redrawing of frontiers in ethnic or ethno-religious ways; population exchanges; and the subsequent persecution of minorities that were seen as being not truly Turkish or Bulgarian or Greek and so forth. Analogous processes later took place in the Indian subcontinent.
A powerful account of the population movements that unfolded continuously from the nineteenth century onwards is supplied by Tony Judt in Postwar,6 his history of Europe since 1945. He charts how the consequences of events such as the Armenian genocide and the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were eventually held in check by the consolidation of the Soviet Union. The twilight of Soviet power then saw new homogenising pressures, including the impulse to ensure that people’s political leaders belonged to the same group as themselves. Many factors came into play: economic, political, ethnic, linguistic, and religious: these combined with one another in what seemed to Judt and others a predominantly nationalist postcolonial framework. There are always local histories to make sense of particular contexts, of course, but the general processes round the world share broad common characteristics.
Determining the place of religion in conflict is therefore a matter of patient elucidation. Yes, faith can be put to corrupt use, largely because it is practised by fallible human beings. (The same applies in many other spheres of life.) But attacks on religion drawn from hit-and-run raids on history are callow and can be dangerous. The Churches are often on the receiving ends of such attacks, though as it happens, the classical critique of Christianity rested not on its violence, but on its rejection of armed conflict in the defence of a fragile social order. In what is plainly a perversion of Jesus’s teaching, some Christians have ended up believing in saving conflagrations ushered in by war (just as, correspondingly, secular revolutionary bodies have had violent and non-violent wings). But by and large, as the sociologist David Martin has insisted, ‘the Christian hope of a righteous kingdom “on earth, as it is in heaven”, feeds into and is part of the hope of a secular transformation, and one has to understand that the good and the ill, like the religious and the secular, are mutually entangled.’7 (This provides but one reason why President George W. Bush’s division of the world into black and white wasn’t authentically Christian.)
The complaint that church life outside Europe is somehow compromised, because Christianity often spread on the coat-tails of empire, forms a further instance of how a complex discussion can be short-circuited by ideology. These days, historians are more ready to acknowledge the substantial part played by indigenous people in Christian expansion. In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, many local Christians have long been critical agents in missionary work, given the small number of expatriate missionaries in relation to the size of these continents and their populations. The nurses, medical assistants, and compounders in mission hospitals, the teachers in the mission schools and colleges, the evangelists and ‘Bible women’ who go into villages and homes across vast areas of the world – these people are not only physical intermediaries with vastly varied local societies, but also ‘translators’, in a deeper sense, as they help interpret Christianity in local languages and cultures.
Anti-Christian feeling can regularly be premised more on envy than on fear. Indian Christians in Kerala, for example, are often more prosperous than their Hindu neighbours, and resented for the same reasons as prompted historic prejudice against Jews in Europe. In other parts of India, Christians are loathed by Hindu extremists for opposing the caste system. Sometimes Christians are disliked as well as admired for their enormously influential work in education. In Taiwan, only 3 or 4 per cent of the population is Christian (Nationalist Chinese persecuted the Churches as much as their Communist counterparts), but the Taiwanese educational system was largely founded by Canadian and Scottish Presbyterians. Taiwan itself is not noticeably hostile to Christians, but the climate is less benign in other countries where the Christian educational legacy is also strong. Sometimes, as in China, Christians are feared with reason, because they are heralds of a more open society. Nearly 9 per cent of China’s population belongs to one denomination or another, and the journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, authors of God is Back (2009),8 are among many observers who forecast that a third of Chinese will be Christian within a few decades. That the Churches have faced large-scale persecution in China and elsewhere says much about their remarkable strength, as well as their vulnerability.
I hope it will be clear from the necessarily piecemeal material in this section that I do not assume the truth or falsity of any creed, merely that freedom of belief and association are unqualified goods. Nor am I seeking to offer either a comprehensive survey, or a grand narrative about an alleged global campaign against the Church. I am aware that ‘Christianophobia’, like ‘Islamophobia’, is an elastic term, perhaps implying a passive attitude, unlike the more active ‘anti-Semitism’; and that prejudice should be distinguished from more overt forms of ill will manifested in state ideology or various sorts of behaviour. However, neither ‘anti-Muslimism’ nor ‘anti-Christianism’ has caught on, so Christianophobia seems to me a valid term.
Another point (clear from a glance at the Contents page) is that I have not set out to give a comprehensive account of my subject. There are no detailed discussions of the fast-changing situation in Sudan and South Sudan (though the two countries are covered briefly in chapter 13); of Malaysia and the Philippines, where a surge in Islamist militancy has caused widespread strife in recent years; of the Solomon Islands, where seven members of the Melanesian Brotherhood, an Anglican order, were martyred in 2003 while promoting peace talks with separatists; or of several other significant areas. My more modest aim has been to give the reader an overview of the landscape by turning the soil in twenty or so representative places.
The victims of Christianophobia can have more in common than the perpetrators. And among these shared characteristics is a reluctance – by turns admirable, understandable, and heartbreaking – to tell news of their respective Calvaries. Some brave souls, in obedience to the Sermon on the Mount and St Paul’s appeal in Romans 12:12–14 (‘Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation…. Bless those who persecute you’), accept their suffering as a source of unity with Christ. But that does not mean that news of their plight should be suppressed. Nor, of course, does it exonerate the perpetrators.
This perspective calls for a brief sketch of shifting understandings of martyrdom held by Christians themselves. On the face of it, the subject is unpromising territory to anyone who does not share a cluster of faith-based assumptions. Before the crucifixion, Jesus himself represented his coming death in sacrificial terms. A distillation of the scholarly consensus about his mission is supplied by Andrew Chandler and Anthony Harvey in their study of Christian martyrdom in the twentieth century, The Terrible Alternative.9 Jesus proclaimed the arrival of the Kingdom of God, ‘with all that it entailed in terms of the remission of debt, the espousal of the poor and the marginalized, the casting out of evil spirits and the release of those resources of love, generosity and compassion which are so easily repressed by social convention and misguided religious scrupulosity.’10 This mission led to Jesus’s death, which he freely accepted, sensing that it would have redemptive power for the community of believers he inaugurated.
The opposition to Christianity voiced by the Jews and, later, the Romans led to protracted official persecution of Jesus’s followers until the conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century. This seismic event caused anti-Christian sentiment to change shape for predictable reasons. Rome was the enemy to huge areas of Asia, including China, India, Persia, and Syria. As Constantine prepared to do battle with the Persians, Christians who had long been sheltered by Rome’s enemies were now viewed as fifth columnists. Around AD 340, the Emperor Shapur II of Persia unleashed a campaign against Christians even bloodier than anything experienced during the previous three centuries. Those who refused to take part in Zoroastrian worship were killed; hundreds of bishops and priests were publicly executed. In total almost 200,000 Christians may have died.
But Shapur did not persecute Christians because he was offended by their beliefs. He acted from a sense that the Church was politically significant. One consequence of this was that the definition of martyrdom would in due course be tightened up, and the Vatican (to cite one of several examples) would declare that to qualify as a martyr, a candidate had to have been killed because of odium fidei – hatred of the faith as such. Sometimes, though, politics and theology cannot be disentangled. Chandler and Harvey are thus right to judge that we have come full circle in important respects: during the twentieth century, many Christian groups became progressively more identified with support for democracy and human rights – purportedly Enlightenment values which in fact originate in the Hebrew prophetic tradition and the teaching of Jesus. Models of martyrdom have thus been refreshed. The Jesuit liberation theologian Jon Sobrino has summed up the matter from his Central American context: ‘The Church is being persecuted because it defends the life of the poor, denounces the unjust destruction of life and promotes the … practice of justice.’11
This is the light in which the discipleship of many recent Christian martyrs can be seen – there were more of them in the twentieth century than during the previous nineteen put together – figures as varied as Grand Duchess Elizabeth in post-Revolutionary Russia, Maximilian Kolbe in Nazi-occupied Poland, Lucian Tapiedi in Papua New Guinea, Esther John in Pakistan, Martin Luther King in the United States, Wang Zhiming in China, Oscar Romero in El Salvador, and the seven French Cistercian monks from Tibhirine in Algeria, whose lives were dramatised in the award-winning film Of Gods and Men. Since these people were in no doubt that values such as human dignity and equality are part of any account of Christian belief worthy of the name, it is not hard to see why they are sources of inspiration beyond as well as within their respective folds.
A final area of discussion seems relevant to this overview: the growing belief that Christians are persecuted in the West as well as elsewhere. The expression ‘Christianophobia’ has been used by some to designate what they see as a severe and mounting problem in Europe. I did not coin the term and claim no monopoly on its definition. But research for this book has taken me to Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia to meet people who have lost their loved ones, homes, livelihoods or career prospects because of their faith. Many have themselves been victims of unprovoked violence. This is persecution as I understand it.
The situation in Europe is largely another matter. There is no shortage of thoughtful people, liberal as well as conservative in outlook, who feel that employing the ideology of human rights to assault faith communities is very harmful. When a Christian airport worker is banned from wearing a cross, or a nurse sacked after a role-playing exercise in which he suggested praying for a patient, alarm bells ought to ring. Philosophically minded commentators have spotted a French-style, dirigiste impulse behind much recent equality legislation in Europe and elsewhere. Traditionally, the English model of liberalism defined the space in which governments may not intervene. English-style liberty set the limits of the state. French-style liberty, by contrast, has tended to be imposed by the State. Saluting its place in many contemporary democracies, Jonathan Sacks describes religion as ‘part of the ecology of freedom because it supports families, communities, charities, voluntary associations, active citizenship and concern for the common good. It is a key contributor to civil society, which is what holds us together without the coercive power of law. Without it we will depend entirely on the State, and when that happens we risk what J.L. Talmon called a totalitarian democracy, which is what revolutionary France eventually became.’12 It will be evident that Sacks prefers the traditional English way to the French. He has also voiced concern that UK legislation has started to display a worryingly ‘French’ tinge over the past decade. Broadly comparable sentiments to those of Sacks have been repeated by churchmen including Pope Benedict XVI and George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. One does not need to endorse all their views in areas such as sexual ethics to grant that their broader concerns deserve a serious hearing.
Elsewhere in the West today, Christians are mocked or caricatured as soft targets by an irreverent media often much warier about turning its fire on other faith groups, and by an academic establishment sometimes incongruously deferential to political fashion. Anti-Christian blasphemy is common, but public figures who spurn secular multicultural orthodoxies may expect trouble. Campaign groups such as the Christian Legal Council tell us that Christian beliefs are now under threat, because Christian guesthouse-owners and would-be foster parents who disapprove of homosexuality have themselves incurred the disapproval of the state. Some complaints about these (very varied) developments are fair; others overlook the benefits of a free press and a robust public conversation; others again are in my view marks of special pleading. Whatever their status, though, none of the opinions, insults, or laws judged offensive by many Western Christians amounts to persecution as chronicled in the pages ahead.
I CAME TO England in 1979’, Dr Ibrahim Habib told me, ‘after all the Christian students in my year at medical school were marked down.’
We got to know each other after I visited the Coptic church in West London, where Ibrahim worships regularly, even though he lives and works in the Midlands. Originally from Minya, near Asyut in Upper Egypt, where about a third of the population is Christian, he is a stolid, soft-spoken figure with an eager smile. But his professional success and blithe manner were belied by the melancholy tale he told me:
Christians were either passed or failed; not a single one was placed in the ‘Good’, ‘Very Good’, or ‘Excellent’ categories. This meant that none of us Christians would achieve a high-flying career. The modern phase of anti-Christian violence in Egypt really began in 1972, with the establishment of the Gama Islamiya, a militant group. They started attacking Christian students on the university campus at Asyut, barging into our rooms and tearing down pictures of the Virgin Mary and other religious materials. A fight ensued. I and other Christians were expelled from university accommodation, but the Muslims who caused trouble were allowed to remain.
The upsurge in militancy can be blamed to a great extent on President Sadat. After the assassination attempt on Nasser in 1954, many fundamentalists were rounded up and sent to prison. Sadat, faced with heavy challenges from the Left, indulged the Islamists and let many in from Saudi Arabia. He also called Egypt a Muslim country, even though 15 to 20 per cent of the population were then Christian. That figure has now fallen to 12 per cent, because of all the emigration.

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