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Carrying their cross

Why the United Kingdom should start acting on behalf of religious minorities in the Middle East
– By Lord David Alton of Liverpool


UNITED KINGDOM – On Good Friday, Christians will pray and – in many churches – also walk the way of the cross – the Via Dolorosa – a tradition dear to those who attend the Easter services. Each year I am profoundly moved as I watch my sons shoulder our own parish cross as they, and other parishioners, carry it to a joint Good Friday Service with Christians from other denominations. The Via Dolorosa – the way of sorrows, the way of grief, the way of suffering – is commemorated in the fourteen stations of Jesus’ suffering. Pausing at each we try to understand what was happening on the way to Mount Calvary – the place where the most inspiring figure in history was executed. To more than a billion believers, He is more than just an inspiration. Having suffered greatly Himself, the Son of God represents redemption to all of mankind.

Over the centuries, Christians have lived in the knowledge that they are subject to persecution for their faith. Today, Christians are the most persecuted faith group in the world. However there is one particular region of the world where the suffering of Christians has reached levels of persecution comparable to what the early Christians experienced under the Roman Emperor Nero – where their existence is under threat of eradication.

The cross is not just something Christians in the Middle East under the reign of the so-called “Islamic State” or Daesh will be remembering when they will join their brothers and sisters in faith around the world during this year’s Easter celebrations. They may be facing it themselves – as they have done for the last two years.

There is no need to endlessly recount the atrocities Christians in the Iraq and Syria have been subjected to. Abundant evidence is accessible to everyone online. All major newspapers, radio and television stations have reported on the beheadings, the rapes, the crucifixions, the abductions, the intentional targeting of Church leaders and strategic destruction of Church buildings. There are very few instances of such crimes against humanity being committed where the perpetrators have been so outspoken about their goals and objectives to the global public.

Modern technology has enabled all of us to become eye witnesses

Daesh have issued countless statements, video-messages and official declarations clearly stating that there is no room for any religion other than Islam – and only their particular version of Islam – in areas under their control. In fact, there might be hardly anyone who is yet to be confronted with the reports of extreme violence carried out against Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in the Middle East. Modern technology has enabled all of us to become eye witnesses, in a way, to what is happening.

And yet despite our awareness we react like the Apostle Peter on the night Jesus was arrested: we claim to have nothing to do with what is going on. We refrain from officially recognising that the ongoing plight of Christians and other religious minorities in Syria and Iraq is a genocide, even though all the criteria defined under international law that determines the “crime of all crimes” appear to be met. We rather vaguely defer the matter to the judgment of the international judicial system, wash our hands and remain silent, while Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities are being forced to shoulder their own cross and continue their march towards Calvary.

Of course, use of the term genocide should not be made lightly. Its recognition sets into motion legal obligations to “prevent and punish” acts of genocide. If we take human rights seriously, we would be obliged to start acting and to actively seek ways to bring this genocide to an end. As a permanent member to the UN Security Council, the United Kingdom could play a highly influential role in referring the ongoing situation in Syria and Iraq to the International Criminal Court.

Alternatively, the U.K. could use its influence to call upon the UN Security Council to establish a commission of fact-finding experts, which could lead to the establishment of an international tribunal, as was the case with the genocides committed in Bosnia and Rwanda. Either option would ensure the prosecution of the perpetrators and bring justice to the victims. However, the main objective would be to bring an end to the killings.

A recent ComRes poll commissioned by legal organisation ADF International showed that just under two- thirds of the British public support not only an official recognition of genocide, but also believe that the U.K. should use its international influence to bring the genocide to an end. 69% of the public was of the view that the U.K. should be looking to raise the issue with the United Nations Security Council with the aim of referring the situation to the International Criminal Court – a proposition that only 7% opposed. The Government however seems to be of a quite different opinion, as it has not yet engaged the UN Security Council on either of the aforementioned fronts.

Standing up for religious minorities in the Middle East may come at a cost. France has always been very clear on its concern about the ongoing atrocities being carried out in the Middle East, and the European Parliament recently condemned the Daesh atrocities as genocide in early February. Both have paid an incredibly high price for their courage. The appalling bombings in Paris, and more recently in Brussels, could well be perceived – at least in part – as retribution for open opposition to Daesh. Courage provokes consequences. But to quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as Baroness Cox did in a recent debate on the topic in the House of Lords; “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

For Christians, the cross has always been a sign of hope. At Easter, we remember that after death comes life; that after having carried the cross, resurrection awaits. It is my hope that this Easter, we all keep our persecuted brothers and sisters in the Middle East firmly in mind, and that we do not neglect them as they continue to carry their weighty cross along their Via Dolorosa.

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