Religious Persecution Can Both Unite and Divide Religious Communities 13 December 2015

Religions in JerusalemIn a moving homily delivered in June 2015, the Pope described the persecution of Christians by the Islamic State and others as being reminiscent of the persecution faced by the early Church under King Herod.

“How many forces in the course of history have tried, and still do, to destroy the Church, from without as well as within, but they themselves are destroyed and the Church remains alive and fruitful.”

For many Christians, this is not simply a description of current affairs or global politics, but part of the struggle of being a Christian. There can be a view that it is the destiny of true believers to face oppression: “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” wrote St Paul in the Second Epistle to Timothy.

Some Muslims too interpret scripture in the same way. It’s narrated the Prophet Muhammad taught: “Greater rewards come from greater trials. Verily, when God loves a people He will try them” (Tirmidhi 2396) – a teaching that is succour to many Muslims.

Naturally then, it is common to find Muslims and Christians both identifying strongly with the oppressed. There are charities such as  Action for the Church in Need, which launched a report in November 2016 on persecuted Christians.  It is no surprise either that many of the world’s largest humanitarian charities, such as Christian Aid, CAFOD, Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid, emerged out of religious communities and rely on a large and generous religious donor-base.

Christian and Muslim solidarity with their co-religionists across the globe is also an important facet of religious identity. Paul taught “in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5). The Prophet Muhammad uses a similar analogy, “the example of the believers in their affection, mercy, and compassion for each other is that of a body. When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever” (Bukhari 5665).

These teachings begin the first step towards a deep rooted empathy for others, not only through religion but a shared humanity. They contextualise the lives of believers. What is a flat tyre compared to an Iraqi Christian who has lost their home? How significant is a failed job interview compared to the plight of a Rohingya Muslim, stranded at sea?

These in turn can lead to very practical ways forward. Not only through charity, as has been mentioned, but also through campaigning and political lobbying. Aside from these tangible results that stem from a religious commitment and identification with the oppressed, there is a very deep-rooted way in which such commitment shapes the worldview of those who hold it.

Those who consider that there is a link between being ‘Godly in Christ’ or ‘loved by God’, and persecution or oppression, tend to be sceptical of all political power. They are conscious, more so than most, of the way in which power corrupts, and of the abuses fellow men inflict upon their equals, convinced of their superiority through position and access of resources.

Considering the value of believing in the idea of a ‘persecuted Church’ then, not only in its real-world impact but also in the way it shapes religious belief and outlook, it is concerning that it is sometimes blithely attributed to having a ‘victim mentality’, or even the potential of becoming a violent extremist. Clearly, identifying with the oppressed and considering your religious community to be subject to particular oppression and persecution is not the same as having a ‘victim mentality’. The two are subtly different. The former can lead to great change and positive social action and is often linked with a sense of selflessness and altruism, the latter is more commonly associated with negative thought processes and is often accompanied by a dose of narcissism. Likewise, a desire to help those who share your faith in other parts of the globe does not mean a person will turn to violence to do so.

That isn’t to say that there are no dangers in believing yourself to be part of a persecuted Church. Muslims and Christians can both forget that aside from being victims of religious persecution, they are also sometimes culprits.

Muslims, drawing on not-yet-distant memories of colonialism, witnessing brutal modern wars by the West against Muslim-majority countries that claimed over 2 million lives by some estimates, facing growing anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe, America and Australia and a violent underbelly of a Christian far-right, can too quickly view things as a modern crusade by imperial Christians who refuse to see Muslims as humans – whether it is Orthodox Serbs in Bosnia, or anti-Balaka gangs in the Central African Republic. This is sometimes coupled with examples of religious persecution against Muslims in places like Burma, where the Rohingya are treated as a stateless people, or China, where fasting in Ramadan is banned. The danger is of course that some Muslims forget that Muslims too are equally capable, and guilty, of persecuting religious minorities.

Likewise, Christians can view violent extremism committed by Muslims in the West, the atrocities of the Islamic State, and religious intolerance in Pakistan, and see it as evidence that Muslims are violent and oppressive enemies of Christianity. There are countless examples of places in which Christianity is persecuted, and many examples where Muslims are responsible – whether it is the killing of Nigerian Christians by Boko Haram, the imprisonment of Meriam Ibrahim in Sudan for her Christian faith, or the attack on Garissa University in Kenya by al-Shabaab. Christians too face significant oppression in places such as China and North Korea, with deeply repressive laws on religious freedom, as well as India and Israel. The danger here, just as with Muslims, is that Christians can forget when members of their own faith are violent, especially through the military  actions of Western nations.

What all of the above examples teach us is that religion and politics are closely embedded, and that a faith community can be persecuted in one place but culprit of persecution elsewhere. The danger is that if a narrative of persecution is entrenched, and the victimhood of others forgotten, it can create bittnerness, division and suspicion between communities.

A Pew survey on religious harassment found Muslims were persecuted in 109 countries across the globe, and Christians in 110, a strikingly similar figure.

Too often, I have seen Muslim and Christian communities split apart on the basis of a mutual suspicion. What the Pew survey on religious harassment show us however is that Christians and Muslims share experiences of religious persecution – and opposing it, no matter who is responsible – is a value both can unite upon. In a recent radio discussion on the BBC’s All Things Considered, I discussed religious persecution with members of the Christian faith to mark #redwednesday.  General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, Anba Angaelos, very eloquently put it that Christians and Muslims (and indeed other groups) must “speak for each other” when it comes to religious persecution – speaking for each other could not be more important today.

This article is from Issue 11 of On Religion. We’re committed to providing informed and intelligent journalism about religion, and we need your help to keep publishing – subscribe to our print magazine for just £19 a year.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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