02 December 2022, The Tablet

How a new research centre plans to raise the profile of victims of Christian persecution worldwide

by Martin Parsons

How a new research centre plans to raise the profile of victims of Christian persecution worldwide

File photo of the religious complex with churches in Doha, Qatar
Joerg Boethling / Alamy

There is a deafening silence in Qatar. Hidden by the competing competitions in football and virtue signalling engaged in by the various teams, there is a subject which simply isn’t even being mentioned: Christians in Qatar. In fact, you would probably struggle to find anything at all said about freedom of religion in the country currently front and centre in the news.

You could perhaps be forgiven for even wondering if it is an issue at all. Well, yes there are Qatari Christians. not many but there are some and they are nearly all former Muslims who have converted to Christianity or the children of those who did. But, here’s the sting in the tail, the very first article of Qatar’s Nenal Code states that apostasy from Islam is a “hudud” crime. In other words, one for which it is obligatory for a court to impose the penalty set down in the Qur’an or Hadith. In this case, execution for any sane adult who leaves Islam for another religion. And in the Hanbali school of Islamic law (shari’a) which uniquely exists in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, that applies to women as well as men.

Yet, Google human rights and Qatar and you will find a deafening silence in current media comment about freedom of religion generally, let alone Christians. How is it that can happen when only six years ago it was worldwide news that Islamic State was committing genocide against Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, with even the Obama administration recognising this? How is it that only four years since UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt commissioned a Foreign Office sponsored review of support for persecuted Christians, a genuinely once in a lifetime event, that it has already dropped off the media’s attention? And how come when Christians in Nigeria are facing what are unquestionably widespread crimes against humanity and may actually meet for the technical definition set by the Genocide Convention, that collective amnesia has so thoroughly gripped the world’s media?

Yet, it is not just the world’s media, the disturbing truth is that it is human rights NGOs as well. A recent report by one of the most highly respected human rights organisations in the world (whose social media managers had promoted it under the heading “Everything you need to know about human rights in Qatar”) made no mention of Christians. In fact, freedom of religion for those of any faith was not even judged to merit the merest mention. 

Nor is it just NGOs that focus on certain minorities and certain issues and ignore others. In July this year, the UN produced a major human rights report on Afghanistan since the Taliban came to power the previous August. Shockingly, there was no mention of the plight of Christians, conservatively estimated at several thousands, almost all of whom face execution under the country’s apostasy laws if they are discovered. Nor was there any mention of any non-Muslim religious minorities, despite the fact that the Hindu and Sikh communities, numbering around a quarter of million only a generation ago, now face total extinction in the country.

Contrast that with the situation only a generation ago in Britain. Those of us who grew up during the Cold War knew about Soviet dissidents. Ordinary people had heard about the persecution of Christians behind the Iron Curtain. Much of that was due to people like the late Canon Michael Bordeaux, who with virtually no money set up Keston College. Keston not only collected detailed information on the persecution of Christians in Communist controlled Eastern Europe, it provided a rigorous academic analysis. Its research was of such calibre that it became trusted by both the Foreign Office and the BBC and by doing so it helped bring about a major cultural change in understanding of what was really happening to Christians in Eastern Europe.

So great was that cultural change that when Margaret Thatcher wrote the epilogue to the second volume of her autobiography, she made clear that she regarded her greatest achievement as Prime Minister as having stood shoulder to shoulder with the peoples of Eastern Europe and helped to bring about freedom for its Christians. It is difficult to think of today’s politicians making such claims for their greatest political achievements.

What is clear from the deafening silence today concerning persecution of Christians, of which the World Cup is but a symptom, is that there is a need for a similar cultural change.  Radical interpretations of Islam, whether by state or non-state actors have now replaced atheistic communism as the most significant driver of the persecution of Christians in the world today. Not only that, it is spreading both in intensity and geographical extent.

That is why we have recently established the Lindisfarne Centre for the Study of Christian Persecution. We aim to do something similar for Christian minorities in the Islamic world as Keston College did for Christians in Communist controlled Eastern Europe. Our aim is to produce research that has both academic rigour and is readable and accessible to anyone who reads a quality newspaper. The centre will seek to explain the “why” behind the persecution Christians face and look to forecast how persecution in different countries might develop.

The name Lindisfarne is used to highlight the crisis of church life and theology precipitated by the 793 AD Viking attack on the monastery at Lindisfarne, which was immediately afterwards followed by attacks on other major monasteries and churches in Britain and Ireland. According to the twelfth century church historian Symeon of Durham, so extensive were the attacks on churches that they almost totally eradicated Christianity in parts of Northern England. In particular, the name highlights the broadly similar situations of violence, persecution and attempted eradication faced by Christians today in a number of Islamic contexts. That is not just Iraq and Syria, it is also ongoing places like northern and central Nigeria and North Sinai province in Egypt.

Dr Martin Parsons is CEO of the Lindisfarne Centre for the Study of Christian Persecution which was launched at the end of November.

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