July 10, 2019
The final report on the persecution of Christians worldwide, commissioned by the British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has just been released. It has a good deal of value, and as scholars and analysts from minority faith backgrounds, who focus on religious minority communities in different parts of the world, we appreciate the concern around religious freedom. But this report has a number of notable failings, which may well do more to damage the discussion around religious freedom for religious minorities in general, and Christians in particular.
We have worked for a combined three decades in the field of understanding religious minority communities, particularly in Europe and the Arab world, within universities and think-tanks, advising government institutions across borders in the West and beyond. One of us is a Muslim Briton of mixed English and Arab ancestry; the other a Christian Egyptian living in Italy. We’re not only concerned with religious minorities ― we live and exist as religious minorities. In other words, we have skin in the game, with friends and family members involved on the ground. This situation matters deeply to us. And this report does not assist us in the work we’ve been doing for years in the field. Rather, it complicates that work, with negative implications.
We recognise that Western Christian solidarity groups, which this report seems to rely heavily upon, care a great deal about this issue. But their concerns do not necessarily mean they speak for their co-religionists ― and, frankly, the report, even while talking about non-Western Christians, didn’t seem to focus on their perspectives. As scholars who have deep roots in the Arab world, and who concentrate a good deal on the phenomenon of extremism, we are fully aware of the problems Christians in the region face. But even as analysts connected to the region, we regard highly the work of domestic specialists ― such as the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights ― and yet there is no mention of such domestic specialists in the report. There is a reference to the plight of Palestinian Christians, but there is no mention of the occupation and siege by Israeli forces, which Palestinian Christians themselves would no doubt highlight as a key cause of their plight. Why? Such an absence is profound.
Beyond the lack of focussing on the experience of Christians themselves in these countries, there is a problematic framing of the issue as being somehow unique within the wider persecution of religious minorities worldwide. That makes for poor understanding of the context, and it also means that few, if any, international bodies that focus on religious freedom more generally are able to inform the report. Of course, Christians in various countries face specific challenges; other religious communities confront challenges of their own. The best way to address such challenges is to address the systemic factors that produce the persecution ― whether directed at Christians or not ― irrespective of locality, and without automatically prioritising specific religious communities.
It means, for example, that the report seeks to claim that Christians across the wider Arab region are possibly being subjected to genocide. ‘Genocide’ has a very clear legal definition, and is one that is easily applied to groups like the Yazidis of Iraq. Describing Christians as under the threat of genocide is rather problematic, and our colleague, Ziya Meral, who is from a Christian minority in the region, quite rightly questions the motivation:
After all, anyone who studies religious freedom issues worldwide would find it difficult to say Christians are the ones suffering the most ― thankfully. Just consider the Rohingya of Myanmar, the Yazidis in Syria and Iraq, or Muslims in Chinese concentration camps.
Meral goes on to express his concern that some of those pushing for the adoption of genocide discourse are motivated as much by anti-Islamic prejudice as by concern about persecution per se, and that the use of such language possibly does nothing but contribute to the deepening of myths around “clashes of civilisations.”
Such an association of the discourse of genocide with the currents of far-right and right-wing populism is not baseless. When asked months ago to justify why the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) was focusing on Christians, rather than religious persecution more generally, the FCO framed its justification in terms of Britain being a “Christian country.” Against the backdrop of widespread anti-Muslim bigotry and identarian populism in the UK and elsewhere, this would seem not to be a very positive basis for the report in the first place ― on the contrary, it has consequences for non-Christian communities in the West.
That same identitarian populism, when expressed in terms of international relations, comes with a lot of baggage. It is bound up, for example, with unethical calls for alignments with dictators and autocrats in the Arab world, who presumably “defend” Christians. But as members of minority communities and scholars that look at the threats facing them from extremist groups, we recognise that the future of Christians in Arab world and the wider region cannot be done independently from addressing the challenges facing the region as a whole ― including, most certainly, anti-Christian sectarianism.
In an interview by one of the authors of the report with a Syrian bishop, the latter revealed how a European official had asked him how the international community could protect Christians in Syria. The bishop replied that they should work to protect all Syrians, not only the Christians. This reaction is idealistic, but it is also rational ― because the bishop knows, as an indigenous Arab Christian, that the future of the Christian minority in Syria is intertwined with the future of the Muslim majority, all as Syrians.
The future of Christians in the Arab world and the wider region is closely connected to the future of other religious and ethnic communities, and it would be naïve to think that the solution to the current crisis confronting Christians involves adopting measures that would protect onlyChristians. What is needed is a wider approach that goes beyond sectarian solutions, with structural reforms to the state aimed at making it more protective of fundamental freedoms for all, and upholding the rights of minorities to be fully recognised and accommodated. We are both involved in an EU-funded project that looks precisely at how that has ― and has not ― happened in about two dozen countries on several continents, with the involvement of 13 institutions. This report does not help our work.
What is certainly not needed is for outside actors to try to instrumentalise the protection of these indigenous Christian communities in the region for their own political agenda. The unhelpful nature of much of that discourse is often stated clearly by indigenous Christians to foreign British diplomats ― and those same diplomats, privately, complain about this discourse for that very reason. FCO officials do not take too kindly to being lectured by unelected outsiders at the best of times. But they also know that these communities do not need the strengthening of a discourse that exceptionalises them. to the contrary, such strategies can even serve to fuel extremist discourse, where extremists will use such “calls for solidarity” as evidence that these minorities are not actually integral to the region at all, but rather are Western ‘plants’ or proxies.
The situation facing Christian minority communities internationally is legitimate cause for concern. Many of our own friends and families live within precisely that situation. But this report does little to remedy the situation; more likely, it will make matters worse where change is most needed.
Dr H.A. Hellyer is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. Dr Georges Fahmi is an associate fellow at Chatham House in London and the European University Institute in Florence.
Source: ABC Religion & Ethics