Red Wednesday: Remembering the Persecution of Christians

Paul Sapper details Red Wednesday, a date on which awareness is raised of the persecution of Christians around the world

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Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world. I’m sure many will find that shocking. I did when I first heard it, but it’s true: 75% of all acts of religious discrimination are directed towards Christians, according to the International Society of Human Rights, a secular NGO.  The statistic is supported by the Foreign Office.

Why is it then that we in the UK, and the West more broadly, have barely heard of the scale of this persecution? A big reason is that the majority of this persecution does not happen in the West today. Instead, it’s the Middle-East and Asia, where Christians are vulnerable minority groups, that are the hotbeds of religious oppression. It can be hard to care about problems that are happening so far away, regardless of how grave they are. Another reason, however, is what Jeremy Hunt rightly called ‘a misguided political correctness – or an instinctive reluctance to talk about religion’. For most (but certainly not all) of its history in the West, Christianity has enjoyed a privileged position of institutional power and has been the majority religion across most nations. Rightly or wrongly, many people today negatively associate Christianity with Western colonialism. It therefore seems absurd for us to speak about Christians as an oppressed group. However, this Western-centric way of viewing Christianity is misguided and dangerous. It leads to an apathy concerning many places in the world where Christians enjoy no such status and are horrifically oppressed on a daily basis simply for simply practicing their faith. 

I will focus this article on Christian persecution in Iraq as I know the most about the persecution of my people. I am an Assyrian. The Assyrians are an ethnic and Christian minority group in Iraq, where both of my parents were born. Christianity has a long and venerable history in the region. The Assyrians and the closely related Chaldeans trace their Christian roots back to the 1st century AD, when according to church tradition, Jude Thaddeus, the Apostle of Jesus, converted the region and established the Church of the East. Despite becoming a minority group after the spread of Islam in the 7th Century, Christianity has endured in the region, and although martyrdom is as common in the history of the Church of the East as it is in any Christian church, up until about a century ago Christians, Muslims and Jews co-existed in Iraq in a relatively peaceable manner.

This all changed in the early 20th century when Britain became involved in the region. In the runup to the First World War, Britain knew that it needed allies in the region in order to combat the crumbling but still formidable Ottoman Empire. The Assyrians were an obvious choice because of their shared Christian faith. The British promised the Assyrians an autonomous Christian state in the region if they sided with them in World War I against the Ottomans; a promise that was never fulfilled and the consequences of which have left Christians vulnerable in the region ever since. Siding with the British led to Christians in Iraq being viewed as traitors to their countrymen, who had sided with a foreign invading power. The consequences of this were devastating beyond belief. Between 1914 and 1924 a genocide was carried out against Christians in Iraq by Turkish and Kurdish militias. Somewhere between 150,000 and 300,000 innocent men, women and children were slaughtered indiscriminately simply because of their ethnicity and religion, in a genocide which, like the Armenian one, still has not been recognised by the Turkish government. My maternal great great grandmother was hurriedly born on the road while her family was escaping the genocide on donkey back and by foot. Immediately after she was born her whole family had to continue escaping for fear that the militias would catch up and murder them. Their fears were justified; she had lost 14 brothers and cousins in the genocide and her own son was murdered in the 1930 Simele massacre at the hands of the Arab forces of the newly independent Kingdom of Iraq.

Fast forward to the end of the Second World War and things were better for Christians in Iraq. But they still horrendously inhospitable by any objective standard. Between 1945-1960 many villages in northern Iraq were under the control of Turkish organised crime syndicates, not dissimilar to how the Italian mafia controlled cities in the United States in the early 20th century. These Turkish gangsters did not like Christians. In Kirkuk, where my paternal great grandfather lived, Christians were not allowed to own property. If they tried to buy or build a house, it would be robbed and they would be dragged out and beaten in front of their families. If a Christian was seen wearing nice clothes or jewellery they would be beaten and robbed. As a successful businessman, my great grandfather bought a Western car which was promptly stolen and destroyed. My grandmother had to stop attending school from the age of 13 for fear that she would be kidnapped, raped and forcibly married off as many young Christian girls were.

Between 1968-2003 things were better for Christians as the nationalist Ba’athist Party, lead by Saddam Hussein, brought some stability to Iraq through the ruthless implementation of law and order that often accompanies ideological authoritarian regimes. Christians were still persecuted at this time, because of their non-conformity to the Arab national identity that the Party wished to establish. Ali Hassan al-Majid was a military commander in Saddam’s regime, nicknamed ‘Chemical Ali’ by Iraqis for his fondness of using chemical weapons to systematically wipe out Christian (and other non-Arab) villages.

After the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq, things became the worst that they had been for Christians since the genocide. The lack of stability in the country led to the rise of Islamic extremism, culminating in the formation of ISIS which made terrifying territorial gains in the country in 2014. When ISIS invaded the Nineveh plains, the historic homeland of Iraqi Christians, they marked the doors of Christians with the Arabic letter N for ‘Nazarene’. This was designed to single them out similarly to how the Nazis singled the Jews out in World War II by forcing them to wear a band of the Star of David. The Christians were then given an impossible choice: convert to Islam, pay a tax that was impossibly high or die by the sword. This led to over 125,000 Christians fleeing the region as refugees, as their churches were burned and their property and possessions were stolen.

Before 2003 there were about 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, about 6% of the country’s population. According to one estimate, there are about 150,000 Christians left today- in 16 short years the population has shockingly decreased by nine-tenths. Most Christians fled the country but thousands were put to death or sold into sex slavery by ISIS. It is very hard to get an exact number because of the persistent chaos in the region, but it is certain that Christians are hazardously close to extinction. ISIS tried to eliminate Christianity from Iraq once and for all, and they have come incredibly close.

This story of Christian persecution is horrific and I hope that it has been moving, but it is important to remember that it is not unique. Today there are millions of Christians throughout the world who are silently suffering the same fate or worse- in countries like Egypt, Syria, North Korea and China to name just a few. The international community and the UK are not doing enough to help prevent this persecution. A big reason why is because not enough people are aware that it is even going on.

That is why Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) started Red Wednesday in 2016. ACN is a Catholic registered UK charity whose sole mission is to help persecuted Christians around the world. They do incredibly important work: for example, in Iraq, they are helping Christians move back into the Nineveh plains now that ISIS has been eradicated, rebuilding schools, houses and churches. They are giving Christians a fighting chance of enduring in the region, as they have for the past two millennia. Red Wednesday is a day to acknowledge and raise awareness for modern-day Christian persecution. This year it falls on Wednesday 27th November, and churches and buildings around the UK, such as St Paul’s Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament, will be illuminated in blood-red for persecuted Christians around the world. Mosques and synagogues throughout the country will also be illuminated as a sign of solidarity.

The phosphorescent blood serves as a reminder for the actual blood that is poured out by modern-day Christian martyrs across the world, whose sufferings would otherwise go forgotten and without commemoration. Regardless of your religious convictions, or lack thereof, all reasonable people can agree that the freedom to express one’s religious beliefs in a peaceful manner is a fundamental human right that ought to be protected. Please do not forget those who have had this right violently stripped from them this #RedWednesday.