H.A. Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Atlantic Council in Washington.
Last week, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that he has ordered a review into what the U.K. government could practically do to protect persecuted Christians worldwide. It would be tempting to see this as an isolated move from within Britain to combat persecution, a genuine and broad problem that definitely affects Christians.
But that would be somewhat inaccurate. This is a trend in the United Kingdom and in Europe more generally, and a profoundly problematic one, too; at best, it apologizes for autocrats overseas, and at worst, it leads to condemning non-Christian refugees to die in boats in the Mediterranean Sea, while airlifting Christian ones to our lands.
There are certainly Christian communities that need dire assistance; I myself have written about sectarianism against Christians across the Arab world many times. In Iraq, for example, Christian populations have faced barbarous atrocities at the hands of Islamic State. But even in Iraq, if one is talking about terrible conditions, the Yazidi population faced a genocide – yet, there is no talk about appointing a special review led by a Yazidi cleric in this regard.
Rather than prioritizing persecution of religious minorities per se, reports The Guardian, the “unprecedented Foreign Office review” is “specifically directed at the persecution of Christians.” Why? Because this reflects “the foreign secretary’s view that since Christianity is the established faith in the United Kingdom, it is legitimate for the state resources to be devoted to the review.”
Of course, there is no established faith in the United Kingdom. England, alone among the four constituent British nations, has an established church. Even if that were not the case, it is deeply troubling that the government of a multireligious liberal democracy would argue that its co-religionists overseas deserve privileged treatment – especially, one might add, when the country’s ruling party has not dealt with bigotry against religious minorities sufficiently at home.
But there are deeper issues still: Western figures, including British ones, have supported unjust policies by claiming that they are offering succour to oppressed Christian minorities. For the past few years, for instance, we’ve seen high-profile British Christian figures visit Syria to express support for Bashar al-Assad’s government, under the pretense of maintaining “solidarity” with Christians. Lending legitimacy to one of the world’s most murderous regimes due to his perceived support for the Christian minority in his country is disturbing.
Likewise, the Archbishop of Canterbury recently wrote about the issue of Christians in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, but inexplicably failed to mention that the Palestinian Christian community of the West Bank and Gaza are militarily occupied by Israel. That, according to Palestinian Christians themselves, is the single largest factor of the departure of Palestinian Christians (and non-Christians) from the occupied territories. Ignoring that reality is deeply unhelpful.
Herein lies another irony: These minority populations often proclaim they do not want to be treated by the West as some kind of suspect “other" community among their neighbours. Rather, they want – and deserve – respect and dignity under the rubric of fundamental rights for all individuals and all communities.
Another European country offers an example for what can happen if this fundamental goal is missed. Under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary has a State Secretary for the Aid of Persecuted Christians who insists “Hungary is a Christian democratic country,” that “Christians are the most persecuted religious/belief group in the World,” and to deny that is “inhumane.” Mr. Orban’s regime, meanwhile, is infamous for policies that promote anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic discourse around Europe.
There is another choice, however: Recognizing that, where Christians face problems overseas, they invariably do so in the context of autocratic rule, repressive policies and war. All of those issues are deeply felt by all in those regions – and that while there are specific challenges faced by minorities, including Christians, it is important to address them within the framework of addressing the lack of fundamental rights writ large.
The rights and freedoms of Christians in those areas cannot be segmented away from other citizens living under repressive conditions, and it should be those conditions that define how we as a country respond. If we are selective about which vulnerable groups get our support, the likely end results range from ignoring other groups, to supporting repressive regimes. After all, that is one of the main arguments of autocrats in the region: “Support us, because we support those you care about – and don’t worry about the rest.”
We should be wary of any road that points in that direction. The result is hardly befitting of any sound ethic, Christian or otherwise.