Bishop Martin: Sri Lanka shows that Christians are being persecuted - here’s how we should respond
- Credit: AP
Christians are facing unprecedented levels of violence, says Bishop Martin Seeley following the Sri Lankan bombings, but Christianity itself also holds the key to how to deal with it
We had glorious weather last Sunday, seeming to echo the hope-filled message of Easter. Temperatures rose as we marked the resurrection of Jesus, overcoming death and evil with love.
But our weather belied the horrific events half-way round the world, where Christians who had gathered to celebrate Easter in churches in Sri Lanka were being massacred, and hotel guests brutally killed by a series of planned, co-ordinated bombs. Christians intentionally cut down on their most holy day of the year, to make a point, to send a message, to wreak fear in place of love, panic in place of hope.
It was unclear at first who had perpetrated this barbarous act, killing 359 people with more than 500 injured as I write. The death toll is sure to rise.
As suspected accomplices were rounded up, it seemed a little-known extreme Islamist group, the National Thowheed Jamath, may be responsible, but with outside help. IS, Islamic State, had claimed responsibility and that was being taken seriously this time. IS had in the past claimed responsibility for atrocities it had not been involved in.
What also emerged was that Sri Lankan intelligence services had ascertained that an attack was possible, but it seems the prime minister and his colleagues may not have been informed.
It is very hard for us to imagine what it must be like to be a survivor or a relative of those killed. The level of hatred where one group sets about trying to eliminate another in the most brutal and calculated way, is beyond comprehension.
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But if religious extremists, fuelled by a relentless pursuit of religious and cultural “purity,” lie behind this, then tragically this is the latest in a mounting list of such atrocities just this century.
We look back on the 20th century and see with incredulity the “purification” agenda of the Nazis, systematically murdering six million Jews, as well as Gypsies, homosexuals, people with mental and physical disabilities, and numerous other groups deemed not to “fit”.
Looking back earlier in that same century we see the 1.5million Armenians, the great majority Christian, eliminated in the Armenian Genocide.
And in the closing years of the last century, thousands of Bosnian Muslim men were massacred in Srebrenica.
All of these events had been preceded by persecutions where one group controlled through threats and fear, the behaviour, opportunities and livelihoods of another. And now in this century the same continues, and in this first two decades it seems that it is Christians who are the most targeted.
That may seem unlikely to us in England, where we are more aware of the threats to Muslims and Jews – threats expressed by relatively small groups, often nationalists, seeking to assert their own misguided claims to purity. Attitudes rooted in ignorance and suspicion can seep into communities, and we must always be ready to call these out.
But around the world, Christians have become the most targeted faith group, and the Pew Research Centre in the US reports that Christians are persecuted in 144 countries, a rise from 128 in 2015. Pew reports Muslims are currently persecuted in 142 countries, and Jews in 87. The Christian persecutions across the world can take violent and deadly forms, or they can be less obvious to outsiders, through discrimination in employment, access to opportunities, harassment, or restrictions on worship.
In December Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, set up a review led by the Bishop of Truro to look at how the British government could better respond to Christian persecutions around the world, recognising that some 250 Christians were killed each month because of their faith.
He observed that the persecution of Christians is often an early warning sign of the persecution of other minorities.
All forms of religious persecution, including that by Christians, of which there are many examples, are driven, I believe, by hatred bred from fear. The fear is of being tainted or corrupted by people who are different and therefore seen to threaten one group’s way of thinking and living.
But I do believe Christianity, despite its history and some present extremist Christian groups, holds up a vision that is the opposite of hatred and fear.
Christianity is about living together, with difference, seeing the God given humanity in everyone, seeing that we are all connected and share in each other’s wellbeing. That is what “loving your neighbour as yourself” means.
We can counter the dangerous steps to hatred and fear by first rooting out our own tendencies to the fear of people who are different. And by challenging these tendencies when we see them in others, including in public life.
We should have no qualms to stand up for those who are persecuted, including Christians around the world, and challenge the forces that perpetrate persecution.
This is not just for the sake of Christians, or people of other faiths, but for the sake of everyone – we all are different from someone, and faith is only one reason people find to persecute others.
I believe this is what the faith I share with those who were murdered in Sri Lanka means. Jesus’ overcoming evil and death even in the midst of horror.
Easter means people living together where love has overcome fear, and hope is shared by all.