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PERSECUTION

Like many others, my wife and I give to Barnabas Aid, one of the organisations that support persecuted Christians throughout the world. The persecution of Christians is indeed widespread. Christians are persecuted by Moslems in many countries in Africa, the Middle East and Far East, by Muslim governments, as in Saudi Arabia, or my Islamic terrorists, as in Nigeria. Christians are being persecuted by Hindus in India, and by Buddhists in Myanmar. But I am glad to say that nowhere in the world today are people of other faiths persecuted by Christians!

This was not always the case. It is a sad fact that Christian Europe has a history of persecuting unbelievers, and even of one group of Christians persecuting other groups of Christians in the religious wars of the 16th-17th centuries.

For the first 300 years after Christ, it was Christians who were persecuted, first by the Jews, then by Roman Emperors from Nero to Diocletian. It was Constantine, and his successors in the 4th century, who began to favour the Church and to discriminate against and persecute the worshippers of other gods, and who established Christianity as the state religion. In the East of the Roman Empire, Christianity was overthrown by Islam in the 7th century, but in Western Europe Christianity remained the official religion, accepted by the people, who conformed at least outwardly to the ceremonies of the Church. This conformity only began to be challenged by the first stirrings of religious dissent in the13th century, dissent that was suppressed by the Spanish Inquisition. It is interesting that this Papal Inquisition was never allowed to operate in England, where King Henry III declared that it was contrary to English Common Law.

It was the Reformation inspired by Luther and Calvin that broke the stranglehold of Catholicism in Europe. It was out of the religious wars that ensued that the idea of tolerance and freedom of religion emerged, but not just as a pragmatic resolution of these conflicts, but as a realisation that such conflicts were incompatible with the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. To follow Jesus was an invitation to be freely accepted, and not a decision that could be imposed on anyone else.

In the West at least, religious freedom is now enshrined in our culture; the persecution of people for their religious beliefs would now be regarded as intolerable. We take pride and satisfaction in this, though we do not give the glory to Jesus, who allowed himself to be persecuted and put to death, rather than to try to compel others to follow him.

Yet even today there is a whiff of persecution arising in Western society around issues of race and sexuality. People can be ‘cancelled’ if they express the wrong views on these issues, fired from their jobs as teachers or social workers, or denied a platform in universities and colleges. Perhaps the tide is turning even in the West, and we may find ourselves once again the objects of vilification and persecution by the ‘woke’ majority. If so, we should not be surprised. It was Jesus who said to his followers, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.”

And that is one of the Beatitudes!

_____

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