Interview: Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali on the persecution of Christians

|PIC1|The Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, was born in Pakistan and is the first non-white diocesan bishop in the Church of England.

In 1986, the then Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie arranged for him to come to the UK when, as Bishop of Raiwind in West Punjab, he found his life in danger.

Since that time, he has taken a keen interest in inter-faith relations and spoken up on behalf of the persecuted church.

Last weekend, he joined hundreds of other Christians at the UNITE event in Birmingham, organised by Open Doors, Release International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Jubilee Campaign to pray for and deepen engagement with persecuted Christians.

He shared some of his thoughts with Christian Today on the reality of persecution today:

CT: You left Pakistan because you were being persecuted. Would you consider going back there again?

BM: Well, I go back there quite often now because the reason behind some of the difficulties I was facing was removed when General Zia was killed - unfortunately for him, and I am now not doing the work that I was doing at the time with the very poor. There are other people doing that work and they are having the same difficulties.

We were experiencing difficulties because we were doing quite specific things that irritated the wealthy or stood in the way of the further Islamisation of society.

But the situation has become much worse. Now people are being persecuted for simply being Christian. That also happened then, but not to the extent that it is happening today.

CT: We heard extensively about Islamisation today. Would you say this is the greatest cause of persecution against Christians today?

BM: I think it is certainly the most important cause, yes. There are other causes of course, and there are political reasons. Christians are sometimes substitutes for others that Islamists can't get at. So, for example, if the United States does something then churches will be attacked in Egypt or Pakistan or Indonesia even though the local Christians have had nothing at all to do with what has happened.

But I think generally there is an ideological programme of Islamisation that is restricting freedom for large sections of people, including Christians. And the difficulties that are arising for Christians are arising as part of a wider framework.

CT: You spoke of a spiritual warfare.

BM: The reason I used it was to distinguish it from other forms of warfare - that the Christian response has to be the response of Christ. Spiritual warfare includes loving your enemy, bringing healing to situations of conflict, helping those who are under pressure.

But I think that it may also have something to say to the powers that be, that it is not simply through military might that this situation will be addressed. There are other very important things that we need to do.

CT: UNITE highlighted the reality of persecution worldwide to Christians in the UK. How would you like to see Christians here engage with those of the persecuted church?

BM: I think the first thing is to be aware that this is going on because I think that many people just don't believe that it is, and indeed it is going on here, as the recent Dispatches programme showed. It is a fact of daily life for many people.

Secondly, they should pray - and really pray - for such people. And we should also pray for ourselves, about what God is calling us to do in such a world.

We must offer assistance, whether that is material or spiritual, or one of being present with them, and we must advocate for them on their behalf because very often they are voiceless.

CT: You said on Dispatches recently that it was only a matter of time before an "honour killing" would take place on Muslims in Britain who have converted to Christianity. Do you think this is an issue that many people in the church are not aware of and don't know how to engage with?

BM: I think what I was trying to say in the Dispatches programme that didn't come across as clearly as it could have done is that we live in a related world and what is happening in Iran or Pakistan or Egypt is quite likely to happen here, because we are not isolated from the rest of the world - and indeed the rest of the programme showed how it was happening here.

I think there is very little awareness of it. People who are not necessarily Christian are very shocked that this could have happened in Britain but it does. And although I had said in the programme that this might happen, I was told in email by someone almost immediately after the programme that this had already happened and didn't I know this? Well I didn't.

CT: Some politicians and church leaders are using the language of persecution in reference to Christians in the UK, such as at the time of the BA cross fiasco. Do you think Christians in the UK are being persecuted?

BM: I think that Britain is moving away from being a society that was based on the Christian faith and Christian values to being something else. My argument has always been that it is not necessary for Britain to do this, that it is quite possible to be an open society while at the same time acknowledging the Christian basis for its institutions, customs and laws and so on - indeed that may be the only way to be a genuinely open society because secularity has the effect actually of marginalising everybody.

But if that is not to be and society does move away from its Christian basis then of course Christians and Christian churches will come more and more into conflict with what the state is doing, for example with questions on the beginning of life and the end of life - we are already seeing that - the dignity of the human person, and freedom for human beings in terms of what they believe and how they express or change their beliefs. One of the things we have lost in Britain now for the first time in centuries of Christian history is any public doctrine of marriage and family.

Now, if you say these things there are all sorts of people who will oppose you and the state may well take their side and that will result in difficulty for Christians.

CT: Do you think Christians are being pushed out of the public square?

BM: I think there is a very strong constituency in Britain of very powerful people who want the public square to be naked because they think that is what ensures fairness, but I disagree with that view on the sorts of grounds that I was just talking about. The problem with a naked public square is that something will always fill it and that something may not always be what we want.

CT: Looking at the bigger picture of persecution around the world, how do you see Christianity developing from this?

BM: The story of the church is a story of persecution and the blood of the martyrs has been and is and will be the seed of the church. If you look on the west front of Westminster Abbey there are ten new statues and each of them is of a modern martyr, somebody who was killed in the last century for their faith.

This is a continuing story and in a strange kind of way it is a story of God's blessing because through these people who are being persecuted we are being blessed.