South Sudan refugee camp, 2011. Maximilian Norz/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Judging by the millions protesting against president Trump’s policies on behalf of the vulnerable and voiceless, empathy is alive and well. Or is it? Trump’s recent immigration ban exempts Christians from Muslim-majority countries, recognizing their status as the world’s most persecuted faith. But how much empathy do Christians feel for their brothers and sisters in Africa? And why do Muslims who care about the plight of the Palestinians lose so little sleep over the systematic elimination of their black African co-religionists in Darfur? Is skin colour still a significant stumbling block to empathy?
Who exactly is my neighbour?
For years, African Christians have been persecuted for their faith. For the purposes of this article, persecution is not litigation against bakers who refuse to make cakes for gay weddings, or pharmacists declining to sell contraceptives. Rather, persecution is the deliberate and deadly targeting of Christians because of their religious identity, whether it is the terrorist group Boko Haram bombing churches in northern Nigeria, or the Sudanese armed forces killing their non-Muslim citizens, or Islamic State brutally erasing 2000 years of Middle East sectarian diversity.
Occasionally, the western media reports on Egyptian mobs destroying Coptic Churches, or ISIS beheading Syrian and Iraqi Christians. But coverage of Africans being subjected to massive ethnic cleansing is relatively rare. African Christians are left wondering if their co-religionists in the comparatively wealthy white world take the commandment about loving their neighbour so literally that they empathise only with people like themselves, as Richard Dawkins suggested in The Selfish Gene.
The Africans interviewed for this article do not come from the ranks of intellectuals who blame colonialism for the continent’s problems. Yet, they believe that even though most westerners deny it, at a subconscious level a black African Christian life isn’t quite as valuable as a white one.
“Christians in Europe and America are not talking much about the killings of fellow Christians in Africa because to some, Africans do not matter, just like during the genocide, when our people were killed,” a survivor of the Rwandan genocide explained to me. “The west did not care much, but when they are attacked by terrorists they make measures to stop terrorists and it is in the world news”. In the words of another Rwandan, who provides training for genocide survivors: “My take on this? It is pure racism, and there has never been any brotherly love”.
A retired British bishop recalled attending a conference at Lambeth Palace (home of the Anglican Church worldwide) where an American bishop said the African Anglicans were, “only just out of the jungle.” “He failed to realize that more of the African Bishops had earned doctorates than he or most of those American Bishops who complained!” The retired bishop continued: “I was a bit shocked when Archbishop Justin Welby said he lost sleep over homophobia, at the same time as fellow Christians were being massacred in Northern Nigeria, which he didn’t mention”.
According to Bill Andress, an American who has been campaigning against the persecution of Sudanese Christians for decades, “whether consciously or subconsciously, we do not value the lives and welfare of black people as we value those of white people, and we assume that tragedy in Africa is just part of the picture and cannot be stopped”.
Another American campaigner, Marv Steinberg, of Genocide No More, believes Christians in the US are split in their interpretation of the commandment to love thy neighbour, “meaning your immediate neighbour, if he agrees with you. I really think race enters into it”.
And Rod Brayfindley, a pastor in northern California, blames “the difficulty of overcoming both deep and latent racism in the western press.” He adds, “news rooms argue African conflicts are too expensive and risky to cover, but if a similar group of white folk were being attacked, they would absolutely have the funds to cover them”.
Many European and American Christians insist people of faith should be concerned about all humankind, and not just their co-religionists. Yet, this does not account for the widespread ignorance among western Christians about black African Christians who are being killed precisely because they practise their faith, rather than converting to Islam or agreeing to live by Islamic rules.
According to Ann Buwalda of the Jubilee Campaign, a UK charity which advocates for persecuted Christians worldwide, “when I speak or share in American churches, I find there is interest in the suffering in Africa. But when people are not given anything to do in response to hearing the horrors, they will shut down and tune out because of the emotional side of learning and then not knowing what to do with the information”.
The awareness gap persists, despite the best efforts of several western NGOs like the Jubilee Campaign. It is unlikely many Jewish people have not heard of the Holocaust, or that most literate Muslims would not know about the Palestinians. Both ‘sides’ in the Palestine-Israel conflict have efficiently politicised their co-religionists across the globe. Arguably, some Muslims and Jews living beyond the Holy Land may pay lip service to the cause represented by their imperiled brothers, but, in contrast to Christians, they are at least aware of the issues.
Perhaps, as Barbara, an Anglican stalwart in California, put it, people feel so overwhelmed by the misery of Africa that they do not distinguish between the victims of famine, AIDS, natural disasters, civil wars and jihad. If this is the case, then, in the view of one British aid worker I spoke to, development charities and NGOs may be partly to blame for painting such a negative picture of the continent in order to raise money.
Andy Warren-Rothlin, an academic living in Nigeria, echoes this, when he argues that “western media has tended to present suffering Africans in ways which do not engender engagement (‘she’s just like me!’), but rather paternalism (‘I must help the poor thing’). The result is that western audiences don’t see a village in northeast Nigeria as somewhere they might live, or a Nigerian church as somewhere they might have been when Boko Haram rolled into town”.
It was not always like this, points out Sam Totten, an American academic with decades of human rights and humanitarian experience in Africa. Less than 20 years ago, the evangelical supporters of George W Bush pushed him to press the Sudanese regime to allow ten million southern Sudanese Christians to secede in 2011, forming South Sudan. That widely-shared concern seems to have shrunk to a few NGOs and activists.
One of president Obama’s final acts was to ease Sudanese sanctions. Yet, the Khartoum regime continues to bomb the Christian areas in what remains of Sudan. Villages, schools and hospitals have been targeted as recently as January 2017, while, according to Amnesty, Sudan used chemical weapons against its Muslim civilians in Darfur in September 2016. But instead of outrage at Obama’s appeasement of Sudanese leader Field Marshall Bashir, the only sitting head of state indicted for the crime of genocide, there has been near silence from American politicians who otherwise flaunt their Christian values.
The wrong kind of Muslim?
The Islamic world is similarly unmoved by the fate of Muslims in Darfur, prompting some Middle Eastern commentators to observe that black African Muslims suffer from the same indifference as black African Christians. “Are the people of Darfur not Muslim as well?” demands Tareq Al-Hamed of the Asharq Alaswat paper. And the former fundamentalist, now Washington think-tank expert Ed Husain asks, “Are Darfuris the ‘wrong’ kind of Muslim because they self-identify as black Africans rather than Arabs?”.
I spoke to a canon in northern Nigeria who believes that most Arabs still view Africans as slaves, even when they share the same Muslim faith. His view is supported by anecdotes from Sudanese who describe being routinely and publicly addressed as abid (slave) when working in North Africa and the Middle East. In Libya, Human Rights Watch has documented the alarming extent to which black African Muslims have been bullied, tormented, attacked and killed by Arabs. The Canadian academic Salim Mansur believes, “Blacks are viewed by Arabs as racially inferior, and Arab violence against blacks has a long and turbulent history”.
Andy Warren-Rothlin sees the situation differently. “This is clearly not a race issue, since it’s even harder to get interest from London-based southern Nigerians in the suffering of their northern Nigerian compatriots. Or if it is race (if you use such terms!), you must recognise that each of the 500 or so ethnic groups in Nigeria is one ‘race’.” His views are shared by American Christian activists who are disappointed by the lack of concern shown by southern Nigerian Christians towards their fellow Christians in the northeast of the country. “Nigeria is so delicately balanced between Muslim and Christian, that the Christians living in relative peace don’t want to stir up trouble,” admitted one campaigner.
Richard Cockett, a regional editor at The Economist, argues that the Rohingya people of Myanmar have, until very recently, suffered the same invisibility as African Muslims. Because the Rohingya are “mildly Sufi”, he tells me, they have not attracted support from Muslims further afield. Now, thanks to a recent UN report, their persecution has been noticed, but for decades they suffered ethnic cleansing in obscurity. They might not have been African, but it seems they were the wrong kind of Muslim.
Meanwhile, Muslim countries that consider themselves as defenders of the faith have been silent following the Trump Administration’s ban on Muslim immigrants. And it has been widely noted that three million Syrian refugees could be given shelter in the 100,000 air-conditioned tents standing empty in Saudi Arabia.
What can be done? Each time a Christian or Muslim leader or politician piously invokes their faith, they should be challenged by the faithful and the non-faithful alike in their community to make good on the pledges of equality and shared identity explicit in the roots of both religions. If a church or mosque does not have a partner or link with a church or mosque in Africa, then members of their community should ask why not. In addition, our governments should recognise the vital role played by African churches and mosques as arbiters of local reconciliation, because they often represent the only genuine civil society in repressive countries; and our aid programmes should therefore support those grassroots peace-building efforts.
Is it worth contacting our elected officials and faith leaders about these matters? The late American Senator Paul Simon said that if only he had heard from 100 constituents demanding action during the Rwanda genocide, he would have felt empowered to contact the Secretary of State. Politicians know that for every one person who makes a phone call or writes a letter or an email, there are hundreds of thousands who share their views but haven’t quite got around to taking action. It is never a waste of energy.