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LONDON: But, Archbishop, this is the bleak mid-winter for many Christians

LONDON: But, Archbishop, this is the bleak mid-winter for many Christians

By Charles Moore

'The Koran is the Muslim Bible" is something that most Westerners would say by way of a shorthand description. Although Koran and Bible are the most sacred scriptures of their respective religions, the comparison may be misleading.

Last month, Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, visited Pakistan. He went to the Islamic University in Islamabad, and told his audience what he thought Christianity was. He did this with scholarly, scrupulous fairness. Part of his speech, naturally, was about the Bible. He pointed out that it was composed by "ordinary human writers" over hundreds of years, and could therefore err about minor facts. The Bible was inspired by God, he said, but, "We do not think that God dictates the Bible to its writers, but that he works with and in their human minds to communicate his purpose". It "tells one story in different voices".

I am looking at a book called What Every Christian Should Know about Islam, published by the Islamic Foundation. So far as I know, it presents an orthodox account of Muslim belief. It says that Mohammed was probably illiterate, and that the Koran was therefore dictated by him from memory after he had received it in visions. It is not his teaching: it is the unmediated word of God: "The Holy Koran differs from any other religious text in that it was not written or edited by any human author; no word has been added to it or subtracted from it."

What this means is that all Muslims are what we call "fundamentalist" in a way that no Christian, not even the most literalist, can quite be. One man, the Prophet, was given the perfect truth in one form, and so the truth, and the form, are absolute. To question the status of the Koran as described above is to insult God.

Certain consequences flow. Because Islam sees itself as imposing a political order on the world, it makes enforceable law, including the law of blasphemy. In Pakistan, where Dr Williams was speaking, Article 295-B of the country's Penal Code makes it an offence - punishable by life imprisonment - to desecrate the Koran. Article 295-C forbids any defiling of the name of Mohammed. The penalty for this is death.

There are about three million Christians in Pakistan, and they are at the bottom of the social pile, low-caste street sweepers and cleaners of sewers - "untouchables". Nowadays, they are constantly persecuted, a persecution effectively, though not explicitly, sanctioned by the Penal Code. In the summer, according to the Barnabas Fund, which monitors these things, one of these Christian cleaners working in a military hospital was ordered to burn some papers: he was then accused of burning the Koran. Riots ensued, and Christian homes were destroyed.

Last month, in a town called Sangla Hill, a Christian man was playing cards with some Muslim friends. He won, and they resented this. The story was put about that the Christian had set fire to a copy of the Koran. Thousands of Muslims rioted, burning churches, schools, a convent and several Christian homes. The authorities did nothing to stop it, though they subsequently expressed regret that it had happened.

The Archbishop arrived in Pakistan not long after these outrages. In the wake of the regret expressed, he said: "I am immensely encouraged that the problems caused by the blasphemy laws are being recognised by very senior politicians." I wonder how immensely encouraging that news really is. There was no suggestion that the blasphemy laws should be done away with or even modified. They won't be, because President Musharraf would regard such change as literally more than his life was worth. If I were a Christian living in Sangla Hill this Christmas, rather than Dr Williams with a return ticket to Lambeth Palace in his cassock, I would not be feeling immensely encouraged.

The Archbishop asked two questions in Pakistan, which he linked. "Are we, ... as Christians," he wondered, "in thrall to an uncritical support of a Western political, geopolitical agenda?" Then he asked Muslims: "Can those who live in Muslim states create the conditions in which a Christian can be fully a citizen?" Perhaps he was just trying to be polite, but the Archbishop was setting up a moral equivalence that is quite false. The answer to his first question is blatantly "No". Have you ever been to an Anglican (or indeed Catholic) church where the sermon offers "uncritical support of a Western political, geopolitical agenda"? I calculate that I have heard more than 1,000 Anglican and 500 Catholic sermons in my life and I have never heard such a message preached.

The other problem Dr Williams raised, however, is as real as real could be. There is no declaredly Muslim state which offers full civil rights to Christians. In Saudi Arabia, it is an offence to hold a Christian service in public. In Iran, the new president has said, "I want to stop Christianity in this country", and in the past month, a Protestant pastor has been murdered there because he himself converted from Islam and was converting others (all five schools of Islamic law agree that the penalty for conversion - "apostasy" - is death).

In Indonesia, three women have been given prison terms for taking Muslim girls to an after-school Christian club. In Egypt, Christians face increasing restriction on what they can build, as well as harassment in the form of rapes, kidnappings and forced conversions. And so on. Even in our own country, Muslims who convert to Christianity are often threatened by their own community and offered little help by the Church of England.

There is no doubting Dr Williams's sincere concern, but isn't it sad that his protests - and those of most Western Christian leaders - are so muted? If you read the Acts of the Apostles, you see that Christianity spread, perhaps only survived at all, because its disciples travelled to teach it and risked their lives doing so. St Peter and St Paul were both martyred in the persecutions of Nero. How many people would have signed up to the faith if the two saints had instead professed themselves "immensely encouraged" by the protestations of a few Roman senators that all this crucifixion business was going a bit too far, and sailed back home to Judaea?

It occurs to me that the Archbishop, and other Western church leaders, are indeed promoting a Western political agenda, but it is almost the opposite of the one he described. The agenda - and, in the case of the Anglican Church, this is very closely co-ordinated with the British Government - is to try to placate. Sorry about the Crusades, sorry about George Bush, sorry, sorry, sorry, they say, in the hope that Muslims will start to say sorry, too. But where is the evidence that this pre-emptive self-abasement is working? The grim fact is that the development of Christian/Muslim official dialogue has coincided with much greater Muslim persecution of other faiths than 30 years ago.

It comes naturally to Anglicans - the product of an imperial structure, still known in the Gulf as "the Queen's Church" - to want to have talks with the potentates of other religions and polities. But these jaunts remind me of peace delegations to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. They create a structure of unreality and leave millions of the victims of persecution where they were before the delegations arrived - frightened and alone.


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