The trees and decorations have just been taken down and the joys of the Christmas break are receding for us here though diets will persist for some time.
But let’s remember that there are many parts of the world where Christians suffer great discrimination and death at the hands of extremists. For them happy Christmases are either a very distant memory or a mere aspiration.
Over 200 million Christians face persecution and about 3,000 were killed last year – 250 people each month. Such persecution is like the canary in the mine – an alarm signal for non-Christians too. Persecution of one community often leads to it being repeated with other groups as order collapses.
The Open Doors organisation puts North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and Pakistan. Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Nigeria, Libya and India in the list of countries where Christians are most endangered.
The Pope highlights what he calls a new era of martyrdom and says that “It seems that the cruel and vicious persecution of the Roman empire has not yet ended.”
As a Christian myself and a democrat, I am, therefore, pleased that the UK Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has asked the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Rev Philip Mounstephen to advise the government on what it could do to help those under threat and to report back by Easter.
The Bishop’s review will have to answer some tough questions for British foreign policy given that we have some influence in many of those countries.
And the Bishop could also reflect on a government failure – that the UK didn’t offer sanctuary to the Pakistani Christian, Asia Bibi, who was recently released from eight years on death row on false charges of blasphemy. She could be slaughtered along with her family by extremist mobs anytime if she weren’t still in protective custody.
I am sure the report will focus heavily on the Middle East, the birthplace of religions but where Christianity is facing extinction. In Iraq, the number of Christians has dwindled dramatically.
But all is not lost there. Many Christians who have fled from Iraq have settled in its autonomous Kurdistan Region, which is a beacon of religious moderation and tolerance that could be emulated elsewhere.
The Kurds have long suffered themselves as a persecuted ethnic minority. They are mainly Sunni and Shia Muslims but also include the pre-Christian Yazidis as well as Christians. And they see themselves as primarily Kurdistani and largely secular in their institutions.
I have attended several meetings at the Commons and heard Kurdistani representatives and MPs who have been there outline the deep and natural pluralism in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Their parliament consists of 100 MPs but there is an additional list of 11 MPs elected by Christian and ethnic minority groups. Churches and cathedrals are visible and active, with the main Cathedral in their capital dating back to the first century. It is said that the three wise men began their journey to Bethlehem from the Kurdistani city of Amedi.
The Kurds did much to look after Christians who fled from Mosul to avoid being murdered by the extremist jihadist group, Daesh. They and many displaced Arabs remain in Kurdistan even after Daesh has been defeated in battle because they have so far nothing to go back to. Kurdistan’s public services have suffered massively but they are all welcome and are being treated with generosity and humanity.
The Kurdistani story of aid to Christians and others is manna from heaven for those who strongly believe that faith communities can and should work together for the common good of humanity.
I will ask the Bishop and the Foreign Secretary to visit Kurdistan, see all this for themselves, and praise this in the review. You don’t have to be a Christian to understand that protecting Christians also promotes peace, democracy and prosperity for all. Happy new year.
This article originally appeared in the Newcastle Journal on 8 January 2019.