Why has the Western world, and its churches in particular, been so slow to wake up and do something about one of the greatest international human rights tragedies of the 21st century? This is the murderous persecution of tens of thousands of Christians across the Middle East. In the last three years it has intensified on a scale that is becoming alarmingly reminiscent of the persecution of Jews in Europe during the 1930s.
Just as Kristallnacht and other early Nazi outrages failed to rouse the conscience of the civilized world 80 years ago, so the spilling of the blood of today’s Christian martyrs is similarly underreported by the media and ignored by the public.
Yet as the annus horibilis of 2013 rolls into what is predicted to be an even worse new year of persecution, it is becoming clear that the attacks on Christian communities are becoming sustained and systematic. They spring largely from the coordinated hatreds of militant Islamists, from which governments of the region and the world tend to avert their eyes.
ABSENT FROM THIS column all summer, I have been walking, in the words of the 23rd Psalm, “through the valley of the shadow of death.” It has been both a dreadful and a wonderful experience.
The ancient power of prayer, allied with 21st-century neurosurgery, played its part in this particular walk. The heroine, also the patient, was my wife Elizabeth. In the early hours of the morning on July 1st, she woke me up with the words “Don’t panic, Jonathan, don’t panic. I’ve got a terrible pain at the back of my neck.”
Three ambulance rides and three hospitals later, it emerged that Elizabeth had suffered a ruptured aneurysm in her brain. It caused a major bleed, specifically a sub-arachnoid hemorrhage. As her next of kin I was warned that five out of ten such victims die in the first four days. Another two die within the next 14 days. Of the three who survive, most are left with some kind of physical impairment and brain damage. Grim odds indeed.
Margaret Thatcher’s funeral was a memorable, moving, and magnificent occasion. Obsequies for great statesmen can be tightrope walks across the divide between the temporal and the eternal. There are many conflicting pressures: past controversies, political sycophancy, private grief, and religious ritual. But this send-off produced a near perfect mixture of history and spirituality, high ceremonial and human touches. What made the occasion so special was that the great lady had chosen all the key components entirely herself.
There was, however, one moment she could not have controlled. For me and many others in the congregation, it elicited the deepest emotions of the day. As her casket was carried out of St. Paul’s Cathedral on the shoulders of military pallbearers while the choir sang Stanford’s Nunc dimittis in G, the first sight of her cortege by the crowds spontaneously produced a swelling wave of sound. It was so unexpected that those of us still seated beneath the great dome of Christopher Wren’s ecclesiastical masterpiece were startled.
TIMES ARE TOUGH for Christian communities in the Middle East. They are being slaughtered in Syria, persecuted in Iraq and Iran, bullied in Egypt, and frightened by the rising tide of militant Islam in almost every Arab country.
But there is one exception to this depressing trend. It is a Gulf state where the authorities have allowed Christian churches to double in size and in number; where congregations are growing exponentially with their services protected under national law; where the biggest problems facing church leaders are expanding their buildings, managing their crowds, and finding enough parking spaces for their worshippers. Welcome to the United Arab Emirates, a Muslim country that shines as a beacon of freedom and tolerance for other faiths in an increasingly intolerant region.
WE ARE APPROACHING the season of New Year’s resolutions. Alas, for me and many others this ritual is embarrassingly like the old joke that compares keeping the commandments to taking an examination paper: “Ten are set but only four need be attempted.” Even so the endeavour of making resolutions is usually worthwhile. Less enduring, perhaps, in areas of physical denial such as “drink less scotch; cut out desserts,” but more so in personal disciplines of the spiritual life.
So on a wing and a prayer one of my resolutions for 2013 will be: to bring God into work. This is not a generalized call to evangelize the workplace. It is a quest of personal exploration to see if the path of God-centeredness can be followed as one goes about the often mundane task of earning a living. What has encouraged me to search for this path is that no fewer than four friends of mine have recently produced writings or set examples in this unusual field.