For most of us, Christmas is a holiday: a time to celebrate the end of the year among family and friends and take a well-earned rest. Inevitably, with the steady fall in the number of Australians who profess to be Christians, the secular aspects of Christmas are to the fore, and observance of the religious character of the day wanes.
The 2021 census reported that, for the first time, fewer than half of Australians identify as Christians (43.9 per cent). By far the largest Christian denomination is Catholicism (20 per cent of all Australians) followed by Anglicanism (9.8 per cent). The decline in the Christian proportion of our population has been fairly sharp: only a decade earlier, the 2011 census reported that 61.1 per cent of us called ourselves Christians.
Catholics account for one in five Australians - and they are on the receiving end of considerable religious bigotry.Credit:Tanya Lake
Nevertheless, while there are more non-believers than ever before (38.9 per cent), we are still predominantly a religious people. Almost two-thirds of us profess a religion, although the greater diversity of our population has naturally led to a greater diversity of faiths.
Still, more Australians identify as Christians than any other category. So it is worth remembering that for those who profess the Christian faith (however lightly), Christmas is also a day of religious significance; it is the day we mark and celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. This weekend, hundreds of thousands of Australians who seldom darken the door of a church will have made an exception to attend a Christmas service.
Even the most determined atheist must acknowledge that the modern Christmas, with its accompanying customs and iconography, evolved from the traditions of the Christian church.
Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Declaration on Civil and Political Rights recognise the right to profess and live in accordance with the precepts of one’s religious faith as a fundamental human right. Because religious belief, like race, cultural heritage, gender and sexuality, is intrinsic to a person’s identity, it is regarded, in the language of human rights lawyers, as a “protected characteristic” – that is, something to be protected and respected.
I have always thought that mocking a person because of their religion is something that only a truly ignorant person would do: just as only ignorant people would mock someone because of their race, culture or sexuality. Pauline Hanson using the burqa in the Senate to parody Muslims, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who mock Catholic nuns in the Sydney Mardi Gras parade, were exhibiting precisely the same type of bigotry.
Of course, people have a right to engage in satire, whether to make a political point as Hanson did, or to display their dislike of a religious order, like the Mardi Gras marchers. But it is particularly important, in a pluralistic and multicultural society, that people treat one another’s differences with respect; that applies as much to religious belief as to any other characteristic intrinsic to identity.
Yet in Australia in recent years, it has somehow become socially acceptable to ridicule people for holding Christian beliefs, though it would be regarded as unacceptable to ridicule other religions, for instance Islam. Our largest single religious group, Catholicism – professed by one in five Australians – has been a particular target. Shamefully, much of that anti-Christian – and in particular anti-Catholic – bigotry has been encouraged by the national broadcaster in both its satirical programming and “investigative” journalism.
While a healthy democracy like Australia can usually absorb tasteless ridicule of religious belief without too much damage to the social fabric, the experience in many other countries is very different. Religious intolerance begets religious persecution, identified by the UN as one of the world’s principal human rights challenges.
In 2018, the American think tank the Pew Research Centre published a report which found Christians were the targets of religious persecution, in one form or another, in 144 countries. “Christians have been harassed in more countries than any other religious group,” it concluded, most seriously in the Middle East and North Africa. That harassment came from three principal sources: from civil society groups, in particular from other religions; in some countries, from government policy which discriminated against and marginalised Christians; and, at the violent end of the spectrum, from radical Islamist terrorism aimed at Christian churches and communities.
Persecution and harassment of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa has seen the percentage of Christians fall from about 20 per cent in the middle of the last century to just 4 per cent (and still falling).
One important Christian church which has been the victim of repeated harassment, including the firebombing of its churches and the murder of hundreds of its clergy and parishioners in recent years, has been the Coptic Church of Egypt. Christians have been the victims of the sharp increase in religious fundamentalism in Turkey under the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But the problem is widespread across the region, leading to what has been described by some as the de-Christianisation of the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, the one Middle Eastern country in which Christians are still safe is Israel, the region’s only liberal democracy.
In response to the Pew report and other studies, the British Foreign Office said that “today, Christians constitute by far the most widely persecuted religion”. In 2018, the then British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt announced he would make the protection of Christians in the Middle East a priority for British foreign policy. The Foreign Office commissioned a review of the conditions that Christians in the Middle East faced. It reported that the persecution was “pervasive, sometimes amounting to genocide”. Although the problem was seen across the globe, it was in the Middle East it was most acute.
Wisely – and rather courageously – Hunt nailed the Western self-consciousness which has led to the issue being so often ignored by the predominantly Christian nations themselves: “I think we have shied away from talking about Christian persecution because we are a Christian country and we have a colonial past, so sometimes there’s a nervousness there. But we have to recognise – and that’s what the report points out very starkly – that Christians are the most persecuted religious group.”
As, in the coming week, we enjoy some lazy days of post-Christmas relaxation, let us spare a thought – and, if you are of a religious disposition, offer a prayer – for the persecuted Christians of what was once called the Holy Land.
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