Christianophobia: an interview with Rupert Shortt

Strasbourg, January 2011. Members of the European Parliament condemn violence against Christians in the Middle East. European Union 2011 PE-EP/Pietro Naj-Oleari

Rupert Shortt is the author of Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack and religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Alan Johnson is the Editor of Fathom.

Part 1: Christianophobia

Alan Johnson: Let’s start with some big questions about the word ‘Christianophobia.’ First, what does it mean?

Rupert Shortt: It covers a multitude of sins really. I grant you that the word ‘phobia’ implies something rather passive, unlike the more active evil of antisemitism. But ‘anti-Christianism,’ just like ‘anti-Muslimism,’ hasn’t really caught on as a term, so I thought I would adopt a coinage used by other people – I can’t claim a monopoly on it or on its meaning. But it is something I hoped would be reasonably eye-catching and would draw people’s attention to what I see as a neglected human rights issue.

AJ: What is the extent and nature of the persecution faced by minority Christian groups in the Middle East?

RS: It’s very widespread. In a vast belt of land from Morocco to Pakistan there is scarcely a single country in which Christians can worship entirely without harassment. Now, in some of those countries, the Christian presence is very small; in Morocco, for example, I think there are only a few baptisms every year. But in a country like Egypt, where the Christian population is over 10 per cent and the country has ancient Christian roots, over the past 30 years or so, something like 60,000 Coptic Christians have left Egypt. To put that in perspective, it’s a population the size of Manchester. It’s horrifying, really.

Now, am I saying that every one of those people who left Egypt was at risk of violence? No I’m not. But some of them were. Many Christians have been killed in Egypt and many churches have been bombed, including on occasion when people have been worshipping inside them. And there is also a great deal of discrimination against businesses and educational institutes.

When I embarked on my research I went to the Coptic Church in Kensington in West London. A doctor I interviewed there told me that at his medical school in Upper Egypt during the 1970s, not a single Christian was placed in the ‘excellent’ or the ‘very good’ or the ‘good’ categories. So he knew very early on there would be a glass ceiling to his career and that was what prompted his emigration to the UK.

My book isn’t by any means confined to problems in Muslim majority countries. There is a great deal of Hindu extremism – in India in particular. There is even Buddhist-tinged chauvinism in societies including Burma and Sri Lanka, and of course there are still Communist countries where the situation for not only Christians, but other religious groups is severe. Where possible, I have flagged up the problems faced by other religious minorities, not only Christians.

AJ: What motivates Christianophobia? Is it theology, or is religion really a fig-leaf for other motivations?

RS: I think that’s a really important question. One of the things that you discover when you investigate this area is that religion is so often used as a fig leaf or, to change the metaphor, a sort of flag of convenience for what are basically political and social problems. That’s very clear in a country like Nigeria where a good 80 per cent of Christians dying violent deaths are dying because of a very severe confrontation between Islamists who are mainly based in the north and Christians in the south. They meet in the central belt of the country which is much more fertile and where a lot of people want to migrate. So we’re talking about turf wars here, tribal conflicts.

There is a sense that you can convert to whatever faith you like in many of these societies, as long as it’s Islam.

Of course religion plays into the mix as well; there is a theological element to the question. In Nigeria, the Islamist group that is fomenting a great deal of violence at the moment is influenced by Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia, so there’s a sort of geo-political element to the whole problem there. When we’re talking about other parts of the Muslim world, the difficulty concerns apostasy, so-called, and blasphemy. It’s relatively easy for a Christian woman to marry a Muslim man. It’s very, very difficult for a Muslim woman to marry a Christian man because of the assumption that a wife will take on her husband’s religious identity. There is a sense, alas, that you can convert to whatever faith you like in many of these societies, as long as it’s Islam. The whole notion of religious freedom is very, very problematic in Muslim countries. Of course, there are certainly very intolerant Christian majority countries particularly in the Eastern/Orthodox world – I’m thinking about Russia in particular of course, but also Belarus which still has the form of a sort of Soviet-era dictatorship. There are also highly tolerant Muslim societies such as Senegal. But by and large, religious toleration is not high in many Muslim countries. And this has knock-on effects in other aspects of life; countries which allow freedom of religion tend to prosper in other ways, including economically.

AJ: There is significant Christianophobia even in ‘progressive’ Muslim-majority states, such as Turkey and Morocco. If we look at the Freedom House index, of the 41 countries judged ‘free’ in religious terms, 35 are traditionally Christian, while Muslim majority societies are 12 of the 20 ‘unfree’ states and of the 7 getting the lowest possible freedom rating, 4 are Muslim states. So, is there a problem with Islam as such?

RS: That is a difficult question, but a very interesting and important one. As a Christian, I would be the first to say that the churches have hardly covered themselves in glory in the past, and of course there is the absolutely unspeakable record of antisemitism and its theological ugly sister, anti-Judaism – these are terrible stains on the record of the church. I also think it’s important to say that there’s nothing really that corresponds to that in the history of Islam. There’s nothing that corresponds to the pogroms or the Holocaust in Muslim majority countries. I would also be among the first to point out that 70 or 100 years ago when Christian heartlands in Europe were witnessing unparalleled levels of violence, the Middle East was a comparatively calm place. So we need to put this in perspective; Christian societies have become a great deal more tolerant and self critical over the past 50 to 100 years, but go further back and Jews and Muslims were being expelled from European countries, while religious minorities were living – for example in the Ottoman Empire – not necessarily under conditions of complete equality, but in relative comfort.

The American Center hosts Jewish, Christian and Druze women to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the interfaith activities of Trust/Emun, a Jerusalem-based NGO offering alternatives to conflict and violence

The American Center hosts Jewish, Christian and Druze women to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the interfaith activities of Trust/Emun, a Jerusalem-based NGO offering alternatives to conflict and violence. US Embassy, Tel Aviv

I’d suggest, generalising very broadly, that the treatment of minorities in Muslim societies has been neither as bad as that of Christian countries at their worst nor as good as Christian countries at their best. I think we can take pride in the fact that a place like the United Kingdom is now a very major Muslim centre and that would apply to quite a few other Western countries as well.

Now, moving onto the really tricky question of whether there is a problem with Islam as such, I would say that it is a matter of record that Christianity, alone among the monotheistic faiths, originates in an explicit rejection of religious violence. Like it or not, Judaism and Islam both originate in the conquest of land. I think it’s also worth pointing out that although there are some very bloodthirsty passages in the Christian scriptures, Christians don’t look on the Bible as a Christian Koran. That’s to say, from a Christian point of view, the fullest revelation of God comes with Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit, so although Christians look on the Hebrew Bible as holy scripture, it’s always read in the light of the revelation of Christ. And one incontrovertible fact about the career of Christ is that he shuns the sword Only later did Christians become very violent and intolerant after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Islam evolved very differently, spreading by the sword from a very early moment. At the same time, I think that one could argue that there were particular imperatives for the early Muslim community, starting with the fact that they were under threat militarily, and might have perished completely if they hadn’t responded with what they saw as a just war. And, it’s also worth pointing out that the Koran of course is saturated in the language of peace and forgiveness and there is an enormous overlap between the three monotheistic faiths.

It’s also worth pointing out that Muslims have used great theological pragmatism and discrimination over the centuries. I’ll give you one telling example, dating from the period of the Mughal empire when a small number of Muslims were ruling an enormous population of Hindus in India. You see, according to the Muslim understanding, you have a concentric pattern with Muslims at the centre, and then, a little bit further out, the other ‘People of the Book’ so-called; that’s Jews and Christians by virtue of their scriptures. And then, a lot further out, the polytheists. You might say that Hindus count as polytheists par excellence because of the nature of their faith. But actually what the Mugal rulers did was re-designate Hindus as ‘People of the Book’ on the basis of their Scriptures. That, it seems to me, was partly pragmatism and partly theology. But also an interesting sign of the way that Muslim teaching can evolve.

I think it would be very rash to predict just how Islam will unfold. It could develop in all sorts of interesting and exciting directions. What’s tragic at the moment is simply that the Salafist extremist ideology, originating in Saudi Arabia, has acquired enormous influence, prestige and power by dint of the discovery of oil in that part of the world. I offer you a parallel. Supposing a Christian fundamentalist sect suddenly discovered that it was sitting on the largest supply of oil on the planet, and was then able to export its own version of Christianity across the globe and foment all kinds of mischief. Then people might be saying that the Christian churches are a much less positive force.

I’m sorry to say there’s a bit of a hierarchy of victimhood here. It’s just not very fashionable to be a persecuted Christian.

AJ: Our society is usually sensitive to oppression and discrimination, and we are increasingly willing to take a stand against it. Yet when it comes to anti-Christian hatred and violence we have not responded with any kind of urgency at all. Why is that?

RS: I’m sorry to say there’s a bit of a hierarchy of victimhood here. It’s just not very fashionable to be a persecuted Christian. To give you an example, a few years ago a church was bombed in Kathmandu. The culprits might have been Maoist insurgents but were probably Hindu extremists. A friend of mine who is a human rights monitor went out there sometime later, and a local person who wasn’t actually a Christian said to him ‘if this had been a temple, if this had been a synagogue, if this had been a mosque, all hell would have broken loose, but it was a church.’ In other words, members of the congregation dusted themselves down and got on with their lives. I want to stress there’s something deeply admirable about that on one level. I think that ‘an eye for an eye’, ‘tit for tat’ mentality is only going to make matters worse and at some point in a conflict, the cycle needs to be broken. And although there are some parts of the world where I think Christians give as good as they get, Nigeria would be an example, by and large, Christians, while they may not always turn the other cheek, have a much more forbearing attitude than many other religious groups towards those that oppress them. And it’s a sign that they’re taking the teaching of Jesus seriously. So one level I take that as a source of pride, but at the same time I don’t see why news of these sufferings should be muffled.

I’m also rather concerned that we’re suffering from a bit of a liberal blind spot if you like. We’re very, very sensitised to the perceived sufferings and complaints of Muslims, many of which I will be the first to say are justified. I opposed the Iraq war, to give an example from very recently, and I’m acutely conscious of the way that the history of Anglo-French colonialism in the Middle-East has had many negative consequences. But at the same time, I want to warn against swallowing whole, what I see as a highly questionable victimhood narrative of certain Islamists. The lie at the heart of the al-Qaeda narrative is that Muslims are targeted and persecuted like no other group. That to me rests on a falsification of history and that needs to be resisted.

Part 2: Christianophobia and the Holy Land

AJ: Let’s talk about the position of Christians in Israel and the Territories. You have described Christians as being ‘caught in the middle: mistrusted and disliked by the hard men among Israelis and Palestinians alike.’ And you write about the nasty so-called ‘price-tag’ attacks aimed at Christians by Jewish extremists in Israel. I can imagine a lot of Israelis reacting sharply to this equivalencing. Israel has historically sought to portray itself as far friendlier to its Arab Christian minority than its Muslim-majority neighbours. How far is that representation justified, in light of your findings about the problems facing Israeli Christians?

RS: Well, I think it would be a mistake to say that I see an equivalence between a tiny country like Israel with a small population and for example, the communist world, which includes some of the most oppressive states on earth and covers a vast area. And the same would be true of Hindu majority societies and Muslim majority societies. But given that there is a fairly major focus in this book on Muslim majority countries, it didn’t seem to me completely out of place to shine a light around corners of the Middle East and talk about the problems faced by Christian Palestinians – problems which involved relations with both their Muslim counterparts and the Israelis. We’re dealing with a very complicated question here and I’d be the first to say that in cases where there is anti-Christian discrimination it probably has a political element to it, more than a theological one.


AJ: Can we talk theology for a while? You praise Rowan Williams 2004 lecture ‘Holy Land and Holy People’ as providing a ‘grid for recognising the integrity of the state of Israel without giving unconditional support to its every move.’ That lecture also contains the notion that Israel, precisely because it remains a special nation by grace of God, is a ‘paradigm nation’ with special responsibilities to ‘live up to biblical expectations – including the thrust of the prophetic critique.’ Williams then issues a warning: ‘A “chosen people” that has become not only powerful but oppressive in its practice has made nonsense of God’s calling to them…’

My questions are these: Isn’t there a political danger in this language of exceptionalism? Does it not hold Israel to a uniquely high standard? Does it not lay the foundation for what some call ‘double-standards’ when it comes to Israel? Might it not even provide a kind of liberal version of the supersessionist claim: the covenant is superseded, not by the appearance of Christ as such, but by Israel’s policy in the West Bank?

RS: I got into this theological territory in the first place because I think that people need to be answered in their own way. There is a fundamentalist Protestant strand in Christianity that takes a very literalistic view of the book of Revelation. On that basis it is strongly Zionist, believing that Jews must take over the land as a prelude to their conversion and, then, the Second Coming of Christ. I thought that it was interesting and important to quote a sane Christian voice like that of Rowan Williams because of the way that passages from Leviticus can be wrenched from their context by some Jews as well as by some Christians to justify what I would see as a land grab. Theologically, what is meant by the text in question? Rowan Williams, as you have indicated, talks about the way that the land is lent or leased from God, who is its ultimate owner. The prohibition about selling off the land in Leviticus 25 should be understood in this light, I suggest. It should not be a means of building up private wealth, but rather a conduit for maximising equal provision for all. Take away this vocation, the Archbishop suggested, and the history makes no sense.

As you say, Williams argues that when the Jewish people ‘become not only powerful but oppressive’, then they have ‘made nonsense of God’s calling to them.’ So I view with alarm the spread of settlements in the West Bank and also the way the Christian presence in Jerusalem has been whittled down substantially over the past decades. It’s difficult writing as a Christian, given the horrors to which Jews have been subjected during other eras, especially in the West. I write that their right to call Christians to account should be taken for granted. The challenge arises when Christians and Muslims, in their turn, hold Jews to account. But this is simply treating them as responsible equals and not as permanent victims – I did feel the need to say that.

AJ: Let’s talk a little bit about the territories now. Let’s start off with Jerusalem itself – you’ve written of the increasing ‘Palestinianisation’ of the churches in Jerusalem. What do you mean?

RS: Well the main problem with Jerusalem is that land is bought up by the government. Quite a lot of it is Church-owned land, and the Christian presence is being eroded. It’s become increasingly hard, because of the Security Fence, for Palestinian Christians to get into Jerusalem, to get to work or to visit their holy sites. It’s become very difficult for a new generation of Christians, particularly seminarians, to get visas. I quote one example from Holy Week in 2010. The Israeli authorities limited the number of permits for Christians in the West Bank and Gaza who wanted to travel to Jerusalem. There’s a Catholic Priest from Taybeh in the West Bank who said that he could only get 200 permits for members of his congregation, a third of the allocation for the previous year.

Just to give you some statistics; the Christian presence in the Holy Land has fallen from 20 per cent of the population in the 1940s to a mere 2 per cent – that’s under 150,000 people today. Christian villages in 1948 were evacuated and then razed to the ground by the Israeli authorities. It’s a very melancholy picture. I was taken aback by how many Orthodox Jews, Hasidim in particular, there were in Jerusalem when I returned in 2011 after a long interval. Some, by no means all, are very bigoted and take a very dim of other Jews, let alone the Christians. It seems to me that the religious ecology is suffering. I went to Bethlehem and my trip was very difficult –a very short journey took a very long time.

Across the world, secular conflicts have taken on a more religious tinge, partly due to the spread of freedom. As people have been allowed to express their private views, the religious basis of their convictions comes out.

AJ: Is the situation in Gaza deteriorating for Christians? You write that ‘attacks on Christian owned homes, shops and churches have become regular events.’

RS: The struggle is being Islamised. Palestinian nationalism used to be more of a secular phenomenon, and included Christians among its leading figures. It’s a sign of the melancholy turn of events that Palestinian politics has taken on a much more strongly religious tinge, meaning that, for example, even Christian girls in the Gaza strip have been obliged to cover up and dress in the Muslim style. As you’ve just indicated, Christians have been squeezed in various ways. They have been prevented from selling alcohol, and even men have been told to cover up on the beach. So, Christian Palestinians are facing heavy pressure from both sides.

Part 3: A Religious Age?

AJ: You argue that ‘while the 20th century was marked by clashes of political ideologies, there are strong grounds for thinking that inter-faith relations and the politics of identity that they betoken will be among the dominant challenges of the 21st century.’ Can you talk a little about this huge geopolitical shift and its implications?

Christian Orthodox nuns hold candles and flowers as they walk along the Via Dolorosa in the old city of Jerusalem, commemorating the death and the resurrection of Virgin Mary - walking from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the Tomb of Mary in Gethsemane. August 25, 2013

Christian Orthodox nuns hold candles and flowers as they walk along the Via Dolorosa in the old city of Jerusalem, commemorating the death and the resurrection of Virgin Mary – walking from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the Tomb of Mary in Gethsemane. August 25, 2013. Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

RS: Across the world, secular conflicts have taken on a more religious tinge. It’s partly a result of the spread of freedom, I think. Some people think that the growth of democracy and liberty leads inevitably to the eclipse of religion. On the contrary, as people have been allowed to express their private views more openly, the religious basis of their convictions comes out more clearly. If you take countries as varied as, let’s say, Turkey and India, the founding fathers of these countries had a secularist vision, not least because they saw it as a means of uniting the populations. But since the second wave of democratisation during the 1970s faith has come more to the fore. It’s thought that about three-quarters of the human population now profess a religious faith, and that figure is projected to rise to the 80 per cent mark by 2050. Given the durability of faith, I think that if religion is not going to be part of the solution it is going to be part of the problem.

AJ: In the last Fathom I interviewed Dissent co-editor Michael Walzer. His forthcoming book onnational liberation movements in India, Israel and Algeria argues that in each case the secular nation-builders – often social democrats or from some kind of ‘progressive’ political formation – found it difficult to secure the cultural reproduction of secular nationalism. Each was surprised by the rise of various forms of fundamentalism. Are we moving towards a period where we had better learn to talk intelligently about religion or be irrelevant?

RS: Yes. The rather arrogant assumption of many secularists in Europe is that we form the lead society and that it is the job of the rest of the world to catch up. On the contrary, there are very solid grounds for thinking, as I’ve just implied, that secularisation has gone into reverse and that, if anything, Europe is the exception.

I think an atheist polemic can score some easy points by hitting out at some very soft targets – that’s what I think Richard Dawkins and the other New Atheists are doing. But I don’t think that Atheism, for all that I respect it as a reasonable interpretation of the world, can ever replace the imaginative richness of a mature faith which teaches that life is worth living responsibility because it has some eternal meaning.

Religion is providing an enormously rich resource for advancing human society. Whatever one thinks about the truth claims of Christianity, a phenomenon like Pentecostalism, which is the Christian analogue of Islamic revivalism, is producing social change on several continents. Honeycombing about the edge of the global megacity are thousands upon thousands of small communities in which people are putting their lives on track, sorting themselves out and dedicating themselves to their work and to their families and improving their material position as a result. It so happens that Pentecostalism is resolutely non-violent and I think that might offer an explanation of why Western journalists don’t pay too much attention to it. There is this surprisingly widespread, bigoted assumption that religion is ‘dead in the west and violent in the east,’ and that there is nothing in between. I think the left has been rather slow to cotton onto what’s actually going on. But I think that there are changes of attitude afoot.

Western governments are timid about sticking up for Christians. There is a stubborn assumption that Christianity is an import to the Middle East, rather than an export from it.

AJ: How can we tackle the problem of Christianophobia?

RS: I think we’re talking about many strands of action being needed. Western governments are a little bit timid about sticking up for Christians. There is a stubborn assumption that Christianity is an import to the Middle East, rather than an export from it. There are some hair-raising stories I’ve heard about senior church leaders raising the question of Christians in the Middle East with figures in the last Labour government, notably Jacqui Smith when she was Home Secretary, and getting an answer along the lines of ‘well, if Christians are going to march into these Muslim countries and try to convert them then what do you expect?’ Absolutely no sense that most of these societies were Christian long before the rise of Islam!

There is a self-lacerating element in Christian societies, probably born out of guilt over colonialism and also probably connected with the deep splits within Christianity which has meant that Christians in the West have had very little contact for a thousand years with their co-religionists in the Orthodox world. This timidity on the part of Christian governments in the West when it comes to sticking up for their fellow believers is a real problem. I hope more will be done at every level – the UN, NGOs and government-to-government contacts – because religious freedom is the key to all sorts of other freedoms, and societies that practise religious freedom tend to do very well in all sorts of other ways.

Listen to Alan Johnson interviewing Rupert Shortt