Addis Ababa: Pervasive persecution of Christians, sometimes amounting to genocide, is ongoing in parts of the Middle East, and has prompted an exodus in the past two decades, according to a report commissioned by the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt.
Millions of Christians in the region have been uprooted from their homes, and many have been killed, kidnapped, imprisoned and discriminated against, the report finds. It also highlights discrimination across south-east Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and in east Asia - often driven by state authoritarianism.
“The inconvenient truth,” the report finds, is “that the overwhelming majority (80 per cent) of persecuted religious believers are Christians”.
Some of the report’s findings will make difficult reading for leaders across the Middle East who are accused of either tolerating or instigating persecution. The Justice and Development (AK) party of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoan, for instance, is highlighted for denigrating Christians.
Hunt described the interim report - published on Thursday, based on a review led by the bishop of Truro, the Rt Rev Philip Mounstephen - as “truly sobering”, especially since it came as “the world was seeing religious hatred laid bare in the appalling attacks at Easter on churches across Sri Lanka , and the devastating attack on two mosques in Christchurch”.
Hunt, an Anglican, has made the issue of Christian persecution one of the major themes of his foreign secretaryship.
“I think we have shied away from talking about Christian persecution because we are a Christian country and we have a colonial past, so sometimes there’s a nervousness there,” he said.
“But we have to recognise - and that’s what the bishop’s report points out very starkly - that Christians are the most persecuted religious group.”
He added: “What we have forgotten in this atmosphere of political correctness is actually the Christians that are being persecuted are some of the poorest people on the planet. In the Middle East the population of Christians used to be about 20 per cent; now it’s 5 per cent.”
“We’ve all been asleep on the watch when it comes to the persecution of Christians. I think not just the bishop of Truro’s report but obviously what happened in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday has woken everyone up with an enormous shock.”
The report shows that a century ago Christians comprised 20 per cent of the population in the Middle East and north Africa, but since then the proportion has fallen to less than 4 per cent, or roughly 15 million people.
In the Middle East and north Africa, the report says, “forms of persecution ranging from routine discrimination in education, employment and social life up to genocidal attacks against Christian communities have led to a significant exodus of Christian believers from this region since the turn of the century.
“In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage. The Arab-Israeli conflict has also caused the majority of Palestinian Christians to leave their homeland. The population of Palestinian Christians has dropped from 15 per cent to 2 per cent.”
The report identifies three drivers of persecution: political failure creating a fertile ground for religious extremism; a turn to religious conservatism in countries such as Algeria and Turkey; and institutional weaknesses around justice, the rule of law and policing, leaving the system open to exploitation by extremists.