THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS
As the Arab Spring turns to an Arab Autumn, one story amid the trauma is not being told
The shocking murder of more than one hundred and forty Christians in a double suicide bombing of the congregation of All Saints Church, Peshawar in Pakistan on September 22, 2013 was the worst attack on the Church in Pakistan since the country was founded in 1947.
Christians form a tiny minority in Pakistan and wield little political influence. Peshawar itself is located in the semi-autonomous tribal area of the country, bordering Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taleban, which has admitted responsibility for the bombings, claims it is in reaction to the use of American drones in the region. In a devastating sleight of hand, they have murdered innocent Pakistani churchgoers as retaliation for US policy, thus showing how closely, and unfairly, Christians in the Muslim world are identified with western governments rather than with their indigenous populations.
The Pakistani Taleban’s actions may have been in direct response to drone strikes on their number but their murderous assault is part of a wider story unfolding across the Muslim world. The Arab Spring is increasingly being spoken of in the past tense: in Tunisia and Libya, fragile gains are at serious risk; in Egypt, military rule is once again in place; in Syria, there is a cruel and unsparing civil war, suggesting the arrival of an Arab autumn in place of a long dreamed for summer. Under the fallen leaves of this unfolding autumn lies the grimy and congealed story of the Christian Church, which is enduring terrible suffering and displacement.
Great narratives of history, like the Arab uprisings and 9/11, often contain narrower stories which are lost amid the cacophony of noise emanating from civil unrest and trauma and it is only years or decades later that these stories are interpreted and placed in context. The story of the Church in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia is one of them.
The bombing of a family church picnic after the Sunday service in Peshawar has garnered more media attention than other assaults on the Christian Church recently, though much less than an attack at the same time on a shopping mall in Nairobi. This is partly because cameras were more freely available to cover the siege in Kenya and the trauma unfolded over several days rather than several minutes. Nevertheless, there has been reluctance on the part of western media to pay much attention to the escalating suffering of the global Church. Why is this?
There are probably several strands that have knotted together which need unpicking. The first has been alluded to, that the bigger stories of toppled governments, civic protests and chemical weapons have obscured other dimensions. There may be an unconscious reluctance to broadcast much in the way of Muslim on Christian violence lest it unsettle community cohesion in the UK, allied to an assumption that not all Christian communities are free of guilt (the tiny Church in Syria has been politically aligned with the Assad regime). Others may argue the contrary, that declining belief in the UK means there is not as much involved community interest in the suffering of Christians elsewhere.
A more disturbing challenge to the western Church, rather than to the media, is that it does not perceive Christians in radically different cultures as intimate brothers and sisters, spiritually joined by Christ. This would be a sad paradox, given the spiteful association by radical Islamists between Christians in the Muslim world and everything western. The events of 9/11 further divided existing views of the relationship between nationhood and religion and the secular west clearly prefers adherence to the nation over a religion. For Christians there is a subtle relationship between the two, where patriotism is informed by trust in the only Power who endures and whose character inspires both pastoral care and prophetic voice in a nuanced conversation.
It is possible that some Christians in the west see only nationality and the indecipherable politics of other countries when they look at persecuted Christians and so fail to grasp the deep calling to identify with the suffering Church. Taking a lead from an indifferent, cautious or distracted media only reinforces this trend. Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, observing western passivity, recently quoted Martin Luther King over the fate of Christians in the Middle East: ‘in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends’.
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