Crisis for Christians
The UK should do more, says the senior parliamentarian Sir Gerald Howarth MP
Palm Sunday marked the start of Holy Week: when Christians remember Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, prior to suffering and dying on the cross on Good Friday, before rising from the grave on Easter Sunday. It is meant to be a day of rejoicing for Christians worldwide, the start of the most important week in the Christian Calendar, as we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. Yet Christians in Egypt were left mourning after attacks on two Coptic churches last Sunday left at least 44 dead. IS claimed responsibility for both attacks. The first occurred at 9am at George’s Church in Tanta, 60 miles north of Cairo, where at least 27 people were killed and 70 wounded. 4 hours later a second suicide bomber was refused entry to St Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria by a policeman, detonating his bomb outside, killing 17 people in the process, including the vigilant policeman.As Chairman of the All-Party group on Egypt I am encouraged by the seriousness with which President Sisi of Egypt has taken the recent atrocities by declaring a three-month state of emergency. Furthermore, the President has shown his commitment to a pluralist Egypt by attending Midnight Mass on the Coptic Christmas Eve for the last three years. Sadly however, this has not been repeated across the Arab world, where the persecution of Christians is either abetted or ignored by political leaders, in stark contrast to the Christian world where we recently witnessed the Pope welcoming Muslim leaders to the Vatican.
Iraq is one such example; and last Sunday the town of Qaraqosh, near Mosul, celebrated Palm Sunday for the first time in more than two years following liberation from the tyranny of IS rule. However, a mass exodus of Christians as a result of persecution under IS, meant that attendance was a quarter of what it was several years ago. Indeed, the Christian population of Iraq has fallen from 1.5 million 14 years ago to fewer than 250,000 today.
Persecution of Christians is nothing new, but Open Doors (a charity which studies the persecution of Christians) have calculated that ‘Christians are being killed for their faith in more countries than ever before’. Of Open Door’s list of the 50 countries where Christians face the most severe persecution, Egypt is number 21, whilst Syria and Iraq are at numbers 6 and 7 respectively. This goes to show that despite the Middle East being the birthplace of Christianity, and having contained sizeable Christian populations for the past two millennia, the survival of the world’s largest religion in the Middle East is now at grave risk.
Theresa May and David Cameron have both reiterated the fact that the United Kingdom is a Christian country. Yet, at home we increasingly find Christian festivals downplayed ‘for fear of upsetting other faiths’, with Cadbury’s and the National Trust coming under fire for the egg policy which downplayed Easter. Abroad, it is a sad fact that there are many, many people suffering in the Middle East and across the world in places like Pakistan, regarded as ‘home’ by so many people living in the UK yet free to observe their faith here. I am convinced that we, as a Christian country, must do all we can to help our fellow Christians. In 2014 the Government committed the UK to taking 20,000 Syrian refuges by the end of 2020. This commitment made no distinction between Christians and non-Christians, an issue which I raised in Parliament with the then Home Secretary, now Prime Minister, and which has just been raised again by former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey. As seen above, IS in Syria and Iraq and suicide bombers in Egypt do make this distinction; I agree with Lord Carey that our refugee policy must therefore take account of this because the fact is that Christians in the Middle East are far more vulnerable to persecution than their Muslim neighbours.
We have a noble tradition of providing safe refuge for those suffering persecution, from French Huguenots in the 1700s to the Jewish Kindertransport children in 1938, and more recently to Ugandan Asians and Vietnamese boatpeople. It is to our discredit that we haven’t added Christians from the Middle East to this list as the Government defends a policy of indifference to the plight of our fellow Christians.
*Sir Gerald Howarth MP is Member of Parliament for Aldershot and Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Egypt.