The world recoiled in horror as images of armed extremists attacking the office of satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine were widely broadcast. Commentators condemned the murder of a dozen journalists as observers from outraged communities the world over declared ‘Je suis Charlie’ in a show of solidarity with the stricken magazine.
But days after the Paris attacks, churches in the capital of Niger were torched during riots protesting against Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. This was hardly mentioned in the media.
Millions of Christians are persecuted every day because of their faith. In Syria, it is believed that 40% of the Christian population has fled the country*. In Nigeria, Boko Haram militants are attacking Christian communities, with up to 2,000 people feared dead after a massacre in the northeastern town of Baga in January.
Defending Article 18
The persecution of Christians worldwide has become such a vast issue that the Evangelical Alliance, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Open Doors (UK) and Release International have collaborated to form the Religious Liberty Commission (RLC). Church leaders, politicians and the media are all being called to action to defend Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the freedom of religion or belief.
The RLC has the backing of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who warned of the dangers of a ‘creeping climate of fear and animosity’ at the commission’s launch in London on 4 February.
Speaking to an audience of church leaders at the Palace of Westminster, he said: ‘Rights spring from the ineradicable dignity that we are given in creation, and we have a responsibility before God, as those who trust in him, to protect them.
‘We must speak out in solidarity. Silence is not an option if we are to stay true to our faith. If our religious beliefs are a core part of our humanity, then treasuring the dignity of each and every human must mean we treasure their right to religious belief – even when we disagree.’
The Most Reverend and Rt. Hon. Justin Welby pointed to the New Testament examples of the rich young ruler (Matthew 19) and the two thieves’ response to Jesus on the cross (Luke 23) as biblical examples of free choice.
76% without freedom
According to the RLC, Christians are subject to violence, intimidation and discrimination in more than 50 countries for trying to exercise that free choice.
‘A staggering 76% of the world’s population live in countries with high restrictions on religious freedom’, said Mervyn Thomas, CEO of Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
‘The vast majority of those facing persecution are Christians. In the very birthplace of Christianity, the Middle East, the Christian faith is in danger of extinction.
‘The situation is simply too important for the world to ignore. Our purpose [for the RLC] is to amplify the cries of the persecuted so the world can no longer ignore them.’
The RLC is calling on church leaders to urge every Christian in the UK to stand alongside their persecuted brothers and sisters through regular prayer and practical action. Churches are being asked to formally adopt November’s International Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians (IDOP) as an annual event in the congregation’s calendar.
Special envoy for freedom
Politicians will be pressed by the RLC to make religious freedom a strategic priority. Calls are now mounting for a special envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to report back on persecution worldwide.
The media is also being urged to give greater importance to persecution issues – especially where there is evidence of religious cleansing.
Voice from Eritrea
A victim of persecution in Eritrea, one of the world’s most repressive regimes, described the attacks there against Christians at the RLC’s launch.
The Revd Dr Berhane Asmelash said: ‘Today in Eritrea, Christians are being persecuted. Many are imprisoned and regularly subjected to starvation, heavy labour and solitary confinement.
‘Prison could be an underground pit or a metal shipping container. Torture is frequent. People are tied by both hands and legs and hung on trees for hours or days. One form of hanging is the ‘Jesus Christ’ which looks like a crucifix.
‘I was arrested and tortured with ‘Number 8’: they tie your arms and put a log under your knees. Many years later, I still feel a numbness on the back of my hand. We strongly call for the international community to put pressure on Eritrea for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience.’
Founder members of the RLC have been working for decades to raise awareness of persecution issues, and will be collaborating under the banner ‘One voice for the persecuted church.’
To read more about the RLC, visit www.eauk.org/church/networks/religious-liberty-commission.