On July 26th, jihadists stormed into a church in Normandy and slit the throat of Father Jacques Hamel, an 86-year-old priest who had been giving mass inside. This came at the end of a month in which dozens had been slaughtered in attacks on France and Germany but still shocked Europeans, who began to post #JeSuisPretre — “I am a priest” — on Twitter. This was an awful attack, but it was predictable.
Jihadists hate our freedoms, says common wisdom. They do, of course, but they also hate our traditions. Militant Islamists harbour an age-old resentment towards Christianity, and express it through violence and oppression. Across the Middle East and Asia, Christians have died in their hundreds. In Iraq, the Christian population has plummeted after such attacks as the 2013 Christmas bombing, where 38 men, women and children were killed. In Pakistan, this year, 70 people died when jihadists attacked Christians on Easter. In Lebanon, just last month, a Christian village was hit by multiple suicide bombings that killed five people. Along with Ahmadis, Christians in Muslim majority nations are the most persecuted minorities in the world.
The killing of Fr Hamel is just the beginning of the violence jihadists hope to inflict on Christians of our continent, reflecting the long-held Islamist ambition to conquer “Rome”, which represents, for them, Christian Europe, their most prominent political and philosophical opponent for millenia. Hand-wringing liberals might locate the source of this resentment in the Crusades, or possibly the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but for the true believing jihadist it is as much about the embarrassing defeats of Islamic invaders of Europe at the Battle of Toulouse, or the Battle of Vienna, and righting the wrong that was the failure of their conquests.
This is not mere speculation. In April, Italian authorities arrested six men and women suspected of planning, under ISIS orders, attacks on the Vatican. In his essay What ISIS Really Wants, Graham Wood quoted ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani as saying, “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women”. This warning was announced elsewhere by the Hamas cleric Yunis Al-Astal, who said that the “capital of the Catholics” would be “an advanced post for the Islamic conquests, which will spread through Europe in its entirety, and then will turn to the two Americas”. Given the virulence of this hatred towards Christianity, and the extent of the suffering that it has wrought, the Catholic and Protestant churches have been strangely passive. The week before the killing of Fr Hamel, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had a friendly meeting with a Pakistani cleric who notoriously glorified the assassination of a liberal politician by Islamists in his own country. How sad it is to extend a hand of friendship to one who would not flinch from severing your own.
Pope Francis, meanwhile, reacted to Fr Hamel’s death with the cliche that “every religion wants peace“. This is the sort of bromide that placates those who require it least; an exercise in wishful thinking dressed up as empathic wisdom. Advocates of jihad would disagree with the statement, and if Pope Francis wants Catholics to be safe from them he should take their apocalyptic interpretations seriously.
Such an ineffectual response from Christian authorities makes it all the more important that even we nonbelievers stand with our religious friends and allies against aggression. This is not merely as Christians are our compatriots — and, of course, fellow members of the human race — but because we are cultural Christians: steeped in the civilisation that produced the Notre Dame, Salisbury Cathedral, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, Bach’s Passions, Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Eliot’s Four Quartets. An attack on Christians is an attack on our heritage. It is an attack against us. It is an outrage.
We should not, of course, affirm the Manichean fantasies of jihadists who imagine a momentous encounter between the forces of Rome and the armies of the Caliphate. The world is not split so evenly or so aggressively. Against such creed-crazed psychopaths stand Christians, atheists, agnostics, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and, indeed, Muslims who dissent from their warlike interpretations of their faith. Nonetheless, we should oppose these anti-Christian outrages, not merely by expressing our support for the Christians among us but by rejoicing in the glories of Christian civilisation that such fanatical philistines, with their hatred of music, art and all things beautiful, deplore.
When the murderers of Fr Hamel invaded his church they were bringing their cruel and arid ideology into the kind of humble, cultured place we should be inspired to defend. It was a nonbeliever, Philip Larkin, who wrote after visiting a church that:
…someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
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