Earlier this month, British parliamentarians spoke passionately about the lack of concern exhibited by the Foreign Office on behalf of persecuted Christians.
They were, of course, right to voice their concerns and I am deeply grateful they did so. But Western governments need to go beyond words. They need to act.
Increasingly, parts of the Middle East region are becoming “no go zones” for Christians. Despite Christianity’s immeasurable contribution to civilization in the region for the past two millennia – not least in terms of religious freedom – it’s no exaggeration to say that Islamist extremism is doing its best to hound us out.
But where is the anger in the West – a region once a bastion of religious freedom thanks to its Christian heritage? Where is the political action? Did the founders of the United Nations have it in mind that Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be blatantly disregarded by so many countries, peoples and communities in the name of a religion’s supremacy?
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” the article states. “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.”
And yet many Western governments now not only disregard it, they are even actively supporting some of those for whom these principles are anathema. How can so-called democracy-loving nations – the most influential nations on the international scene – close their eyes to nations discriminating against religious freedom and the freedom of conscience in the name of an amalgam of religion and state such as practiced by Islamist extremists? How are they able to convince their electorates of their honesty when they tighten alliances with countries that still forbid other beliefs to exist on their soil?
True, discrimination and persecution against Christians by Muslim-majority nations is not new. For fourteen centuries, this has been taking place, leading to the almost complete erasure of Christianity in North Africa. But this danger of extinction is now becoming all too apparent today in the Middle East. As my brother Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad told a conference on Christianity and Freedom organized by Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project in Rome at the weekend, 850,000 Iraqi Christians have left his country since 2003, leading to an immense loss for those who stay as well as for Iraqi culture and politics.
And this is all the more tragic because Christianity has its roots in the Middle East and North Africa. Christians were the majority and formed the dominant culture in Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and much of North Africa before the arrival of Islam. What is more, they were instrumental in fostering freedom and the rule of law. As the Georgetown conference emphasized, in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries, the North African church father Tertullian became the first thinker in history to use the phrase “religious liberty.” Furthermore, he was the first to argue that religious liberty is a human right belonging to all people regardless of creed. In the 4th-century, the Eastern church father Gregory of Nyssa, based in what is now Turkey, became the first person ever to have opposed the institution of slavery as fundamentally unjust.
The same radical view of freedom that inspired Tertullian and Gregory leads Christians in Egypt, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern countries today to fight for inclusive politics and religious freedom for all people — Christians, Muslims, Jews, and even atheists.
Today, many Muslims do not know about, or do not value, Christianity’s importance in promoting political pluralism, religious freedom, and democracy. But worse, Western governments refuse to uphold or acknowledge these facts and act on them – an approach that not only validates this ignorance but gives succor to Islamist extremists who wish to drive us out.
For us Christians in the Middle East, this approach and the policies of Western countries in general appear as little more than a betrayal. Like so many Muslim-majority nations, you appear to be tragically ignorant of your rich Christian roots and heritage. And this is not simply a benign ignorance: it has its consequences, ones that we in the Middle East are forced to suffer.
I appeal to all people of goodwill in the West to avoid political correctness. Put an end to the economic opportunism that has brought destruction to countries in our beloved region. Resist the oppression of freedom-loving populations on all sides. Act to uphold the freedoms that you yourselves enjoy, and which have their foundations in our Christian heritage.
We are grateful for your sympathy and prayers, but we also need action from our Western brothers and sisters in Christ.
His Beatitude Ignatius Ephrem Joseph III Younan is Patriarch of Antioch and all the East of the Syrians for the Syriac Catholic Church