The Palm Sunday attacks by the so called Islamic State or Daesh on Coptic churches in Egypt is the latest manifestation of the unrelenting war against Christianity in the Middle East.
Islamist terrorists attacked a Coptic church in the town of Tanta and St Mark’s Cathedral in the city of Alexandria. The Coptic Church’s leader, Pope Tawadros II, had attended a Palm Sunday mass in the cathedral.
The forthcoming visit of Pope Francis to Egypt serves as a reminder that Catholics are also targets of jihadists in the Middle East and North Africa along with other Christian denominations.
What we are witnessing is the Islamisation of the region. It is estimated that about a million Jews were driven from Arab and other Muslim nations between 1920 and 1970. Today few Jews live in the region outside Israel. However, about 20 per cent of the Israeli population is Muslim. There is freedom of religion in Israel for Sunni and Shia Muslims alike of a kind not replicated in many majority Muslim nations with respect to their own Muslim minorities.
It’s much the same with Christians. In recent decades, the number of Muslims living in what were once described as Christian Western nations has increased substantially. Muslims in democratic Western societies enjoy untrammelled freedom of religion.
The move of Muslims to the West has gone hand-in-hand with an exodus of Christians from Muslim-majority nations. It is estimated that Christian communities in the Middle East comprised about 14 per cent of the population in 1910. A century later the figure was 4 per cent. The jihadist attacks on Christians in nations such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria are leading to an acceleration of the exodus.
The way the process is proceeding there will be few Jews or Christians in the Middle East by the middle of the century — outside Israel. Yet this was the birthplace of both religions. The physical attack on Christianity in the Middle East is driven by Islamists, a minority of Muslims who believe they are acting in accordance with the wishes of the Prophet Mohammed and in accordance with the teachings found in the Koran.
It so happens that Christianity in the West is also under attack, of the verbal kind. The drivers of this move are not religious believers but those who preach a fundamentalist secular creed, atheism.
For much of the 20th century, citizens of the West who were not religious believers tended to be pragmatic agnostics. That is, they had not engaged in an act of faith to embrace a religious belief but they had not ruled out the possibility that there might be a God. This invariably ensured that agnostics approached believers with tolerance. In recent decades the most prominent nonbelievers have been atheists, not agnostics. Believers, through an act of (religious) faith, maintain that there is a God. Atheists, through an act of (secular) faith, believe that God was created by mankind — not the other way round.
In contemporary Western societies the certitude of atheists in the correctness of their cause exceeds the certitude of most believers in the correctness of their faith. This has led to the kind of sneering smugness popularised by Richard Dawkins, directed at Christian but not Muslim believers.
Sneering secularists such as Dawkins run a line that has the perhaps unintended consequence of dismissing the intelligence and judgment of all who come before them. They also discredit the basis of Western civilisation.
Melvyn Bragg is not a practising Christian. Addressing the Sydney Institute in 2012, Bragg said in the period between the publication of the King James Bible in 1611 and modern times, “practically all people, for all intents and purposes, absolutely believed that the Old Testament was the history of the world … Isaac Newton believed that, Shakespeare believed that, Francis Bacon believed that.” Bragg added that the likes of Newton also “believed that, in the New Testament, God had sent his only son to redeem the world”.
Shakespeare and co may have had a mistaken belief. But they were not fools, and they and others helped to build Western society in which so many, believers of all faiths and nonbelievers alike, want to reside today. Yet today believers — or suspected believers — are often regarded as incapable of independent thought.
Take this week’s Q&A on ABC television, for example. I have no idea what presenter Tony Jones believes. But I do know he was educated at a Christian school. Q&A last Monday included a discussion on euthanasia following the publication of the book After by Nikki Gemmell, who was on the panel.
Euthanasia is a contentious issue in most Western societies. It appears to have increasing support alongside residual opposition. Some of the brightest men and women in the land support euthanasia, while others in the same category oppose it. Yet Jones tended to treat those who oppose the euthanasia cause with a degree of contempt.
First up, Jones put to Labor’s senator Penny Wong, who is supportive of euthanasia, that “Labor’s got numerous Roman Catholics” in its shadow cabinet “who strongly oppose this very idea”. The implication is that all Catholics in the Labor Party do what they are told by their bishops. This is incorrect.
More seriously, Jones overlooked the fact some nonbelievers oppose euthanasia on medical and legal grounds alone.
Jones then put it to Margaret Somerville, a professor at Notre Dame University, that her “ethical position” opposing euthanasia was “informed by religious belief” — hinting at Catholicism.
Somerville rejected the proposition. But Jones did not believe her and went on to ask: “Are you a religious person?” The fact is that there is no automatic causal connection between Somerville’s religious belief (if any) and her attitude to euthanasia.
It seems that Christianity is on attack on many fronts. There are those in the Middle East and elsewhere who want to kill Christians. And then there are those in the West who believe that Christianity is incompatible with rational thought.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.