The Neglect of Freedom and the Persecution of the Church
The Neglect of Freedom and the Persecution of the Church

The Neglect of Freedom and the Persecution of the Church

Mgr Michael Nazir-Ali examines the traditions of religious tolerance and their neglect, as well as possible ways forward in assisting those being persecuted.

In exploring the topic of religious tolerance and freedom, first let us look at the good news. There is plenty of bad news, but let’s start by discussing some good things. There are, historically, some traditions of tolerance in many countries with their various cultures, and it is worth considering these.

Let’s look at Cyrus of Persia in the 6 th century BC. He is mentioned in the Scriptures in the book of Isaiah. When he became emperor – replacing the Babylonian Emperor – he allowed many of those in the Babylonian exile to go back to their homelands, including of course the people of Israel. They were able to return and rebuild their temple, as recorded in the Old Testament. I happened to be in Tehran when the “Cylinder of Cyrus”, which notes all of this, was on loan from the British Museum to the National Museum of Tehran. I was at a dialogue with some Iranian political and religious leaders and I said how wonderful it was that this cylinder of Cyrus was there and what a great tradition of tolerance in the Iranian people it exemplified. Sadly, one of the people opposite me at the gathering said that he did not think it was relevant – “We are not interested in the past but in the future”, he said. I regretted that sentiment because unless we understand our past it is very difficult to plan for the future…

Then there is Ashoka in India – this is a couple of centuries later. He conquered many parts of the country and unified the territory. Then he gave up his military activities and adopted Buddhism, promulgating decrees of religious freedom for his subjects of any faith. These decrees are inscribed on the Pillars of Ashoka which are still standing. So the question worth asking is why those who admire Ashoka do not follow his principles of tolerance in countries where Buddhism is the majority, such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

Then of course there is Constantine in the Roman Empire – he promulgated freedom of belief for all in the Edict of Milan, which also emancipated the Church and brought to an end the persecution of Christians. It is important to remember, though, that the Edict was about religious freedom for all and not just for Christians. Only a few years later, in historical terms, the Emperor Yazdigard of the other great super-power, the Persian Empire, also promulgated an edict which allowed freedom for Christians under a system of governance which was later imitated by the Ottomans to accommodate religious diversity.

Then in Islam there is the Constitution of Medina. This was the famous Constitution which allowed for a certain amount of equality for the different communities – Jewish and Christian and the pagan tribes and so on. When people want to argue for a certain amount of freedom under Islam this allows them to do so. So when people call for an Islamic State, one can ask them if it would be like that first Islamic state, with the Constitution of Medina. Unfortunately, the experiment did not last long and there was, in due course, a terrible persecution, particularly of the Jewish tribes in and around Medina. But the point is that there is a tradition that can be used.

Now let us look at the history of Britain. It includes the laws established by King Alfred in bringing together his various people, and accommodating their traditions, provided they were in consonance with the Bible and the teaching of the Church. Stemming from this and the St Anselm-promoted Charter of Liberties, we have Magna Carta. This was supported by Archbishop Langton – I think perhaps he led because was the only one among all the barons who could write! – and he held Rochester Castle against King John. I lived opposite that Castle in Rochester for 15 years and sometimes looked at it and thought that if we had not had Archbishop Langton we might not have had our tradition of freedom.

The background to personal liberties in Magna Carta is the idea of personhood that came into prominence because of the Christian faith. Larry Siedentop, an academic at Oxford, in Inventing the Individual, places the responsibility for the Western understanding of
personhood squarely on the shoulders of St Paul. It was Christianity that introduced the idea that religion has something to do with an individual’s relationship with God. Before that, religion had been only something familial, something tribal, handed on within a group, or, at most, imperial.

Christianity established ideas about personhood, marriage and community life, and taught the idea of personal rights and responsibility, whether in the debates about the freedoms of the indigenous peoples in South America or about human rights in the universities of Europe. It was this background that gave us the UN declaration of human rights – the relationship of a person to society and of society to the person. We can be grateful for this.


The problem is that in spite of these traditions of tolerance we are living at a time when there is a great deal of persecution. And the question is why.

Sometimes, as in Eritrea, it is just simple old fashioned tyranny and there are other examples of that. Today Christians in China still face a great deal of persecution with the demolition of churches and the imprisonment of bishops, and more. The cause of this particular persecution is ideological, a Marxist ideology which is now, with the programme of Sinicisation, also becoming nationalist. We should note, however, that despite this the number of Christians in China has grown and grown – there are possibly a hundred million Christians in China and the country is on target to become the country with the largest number of Christians in the world!

Then – Hindu nationalism. The RSS is an Indian nationalist right-wing group with the fascist idea that to be Indian is to be Hindu (The swastika is, after all, an ancient Aryan Hindu symbol). The RSS has unfortunately very close links with the present government in India, I am sorry to say, and the persecution of Christian and Muslim minorities in India has increased exponentially.

The Islamic world

And then there is the rise of extremism in the Islamic world. A Muslim member of Parliament – he is a friend, I have known him since he was a schoolboy – recently noted that 80 per cent of the persecution of Christians takes place in the Islamic world. Why is this the case? There has been a great resurgence of Islam in the last 50 years. Some of this could be good – an awareness of their traditions, their learning, their history and so on. But a lot of it has been explicitly backward-looking and that is what has caused much suffering. This has much to do with the idea of the restoration of the Caliphate. The agenda for an Islamic state is deeply embedded in the minds of many extremists, whether they are violent or not. Then there is the programme to restore the Sharia in its original form, including the treatment of non-Muslims, of women and even of Muslims, in certain circumstances.

This has, unsurprisingly, in many places, brought about a restriction of people’s basic freedoms. Iran is an obvious example where freedom of expression and worship is seriously curtailed. In some other parts of the Middle East, there are prohibitions on even allowing non-Muslims to practice their faith, to witness to their religion or to wear, for example, Christian symbols in public. Elsewhere, they can have churches but they must not look like churches from the outside! Then there is the whole business about ‘apostasy’ and ‘blasphemy’: This has been a dead hand on fundamental freedoms within the Islamic world and, in Pakistan, has caused a great deal of suffering with people accused of blasphemy to settle personal scores, with many killed extra-judicially and scores having to spend years on death row before being released as a result of international pressure. Some Islamic organisations are saying that they are non- violent or have renounced violence. But if they have renounced violence, who is responsible for the burning of churches and of priests’ houses and of mobs attacking Christian communities?

Democracy is a great thing but what is the test of democracy? Is it taking power through the ballot box or is also it giving up power through the ballot box? In the end a crucial difference between Christianity and Islam is about power. Christianity teaches that you change the world by giving up power – that’s the message of the Cross. The Islamic idea is that you change the world by taking power. So what is the ground for giving it up once you have it? This is why Bills of Rights are so important because mere democracy can so easily become a tyranny of the majority. A beginning has been made in this area in Egypt, for instance, but
much remains to be done.

The secular West

And this brings us to today and the secular West. When I began my work with Oxtrad, looking at religious freedom, I thought my work would be mainly overseas. But then people in Britain started asking about what is happening here. Christians can lose their jobs in medicine because of their opposition to abortion, or have lost the right to sit as magistrates, because of their commitment to their religious beliefs. Council employees have been demoted or sacked for manifesting their faith in public or upholding two millennia of Christian teaching on marriage and chastity.

I began to see what the reasons were: The first thing that struck me was that many of the values that the West holds are pale shadows of what Christians believe. The secular West holds these but without knowing the reasons for doing so. For example, why do we believe in human dignity? If there is no grounding in transcendental principles about human origins, there can be little rational defence for upholding such dignity for the most vulnerable, at the earliest and latest stages of life or in the case of those in alleged ‘vegetative states’. Free-standing values, like the smile of the Cheshire cat which eventually disappears, will also fade
away, if detached from the beliefs that undergird them. Inalienable dignity has mutated into radical views about autonomy whether in the hot debate about a woman’s right to abortion or the whole argument about assisted suicide. But the authentically Christian idea is about relationship – a person’s bond with family, neighbours, society.

The basis of our values

I was invited to speak to the equality commission…wonderful people, all beavering away at equality, but with no idea why human beings should be equal. On the face of it humans aren’t equal: they have different skills, abilities, gifts, and so on. So how did we come to believe in human equality? Of course, the answer is that human beings are equal because they have a common origin and are created in Gods image. This leads to the idea of the equality of persons. But again this has mutated into the equality of all kinds of lifestyles and preferences for living. A lot of what the ‘equalities industry’ is doing has little to do with equality of persons but much to do with the equality of lifestyles, preferences and socially constructivist identities.

We need to understand the basis of our values. When Pope Benedict XVI was asked about freedom – because at one time the Church didn’t appear to have supported it and had asserted that ‘error has no rights’ – he responded by saying that here we are going back to the earliest form of Tradition; to the teaching of Jesus itself. That is the point. But Christian freedom, which is to be what we have been created to be, persons-in-relationship, has been degraded to mere libertarianism, that is, to do whatever we like to satisfy immediately our licit and illicit desires.

The theme of freedom has run through the Church in its history, from the period of persecution to Constantine and to St Anselm’s hostility to the slave trade. It is true that, like St Augustine of Hippo, the Church has not always been true to its own beliefs and values about freedom but we can continue to find it, for example, in Thomas Aquinas and the Dominicans. It came up in the discussions in Mexico, with the missionaries, about the rights of Indians. According to the great missionary bishop, Bartolome Las Casas, they had rights because they too were made in God’s image and could not be deprived of their property, family life and even religious beliefs with impunity. That thinking was argued about but ultimately prevailed in the West. It became the basis for belief in the importance of human freedom in John Locke and others of the emerging Enlightenment and was influential in the
growing Evangelical-led movement against slavery.

A basis for moral thinking

Today we are losing a securely founded basis for moral thinking in the West and substituting for it a constructivist mentality where we can make reality just what we want it to be rather than acknowledging the objectivity of the world and of human identity as it has been given to us. We have seen, for example, this incredible attack on the institution of the family. Children learn differently from mothers and from fathers. In the strict sense there is no such thing as parenting - there is mothering and there is fathering. Today we are told there are no differences but we know this is a big lie. While single parents are to be saluted for their hard work, they would be the first to agree that all social indicators show children need both parents at home for a rounded upbringing and the best chances in life.

We have lost the idea of personhood, and once you dispense with that, you dispense with conscience. Although Britain has a long tradition of respecting conscience, in recent legislation on equality, conscience has not been recognised and its recognition in other areas such as abortion is being further restricted. There have been cases in Britain of gender-related abortion but those who raised the alarm have been ignored and no prosecutions have taken place.The reason given is that it is not in the public interest! We can expect further constraints being placed on conscience in the areas marriage and family, assisted dying, embryonic research and its application, freedom of speech and other matters.

I have been asked why the West ignores the persecution of Christians in many parts of the world. Sometimes it seems to be because of “imperial guilt” going back to the days of Empire. But this can rest on a misreading of history. Often it was Christians who challenged certain aspects of Empire – for example, it was Christians who resisted forced labour, slavery or exploitative trade.

Then there is the problem today in the West of religious illiteracy. People think that religion is not an important factor in giving account of events. They will see social, economic and political factors but not religion. So for example there is the idea that Islamic extremism is due to social tensions or poverty rather than religious belief. If we address these factors, it is felt, we would be able to eliminate extremism. It has been shown, however, that extremist ideologues are often drawn from professions like medicine or engineering, though they can attract camp followers from the disenfranchised.

And there is a failure of nerve, a resistance to taking up the cause of religious freedom because it may jeopardise good trade or community relations. There you have it – the challenge to us all. What then can we do? We can certainly be advocates for those suffering for their faith: we can lobby our own government and Parliament, embassies of foreign countries and international agencies such as the Council of Europe and the UN Human Rights Council. We should support agencies like Aid to the Church in Need, working with churches overseas where there is persecution of Christians. We can also work with the Alliance for Defending Freedom and other organisations to support Christians under pressure in the Western world. We should be active in our giving to the persecuted Church both directly and through agencies based here. Some of these agencies organise visits to churches living in
difficult circumstances. If we can, we should go. There is nothing like visiting people in their affliction if we are seeking to do Christ’s will (Matt 10:42, Heb13:3, Jas1:27). Above all there is constant, informed and earnest prayer that the Lord will be near his people in their troubles and deliver them from those troubles (Acts12:5). We should also pray for ourselves that we may be able to bear a good witness when the need arises.

Msgr Michael Nazir-Ali is a priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.

Faith Magazine

July-August 2022 2022