Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, the Anglican Bishop Emeritus of Rochester, is a name known to many in Britain across the denominations. Born and brought up in Karachi, Pakistan, Nazir-Ali fled to Britain in 1980s after being tipped off that his life was in danger. He has continued to be a courageous and outspoken defender of persecuted Christian minorities around the world ever since. He is also a vocal defender of marriage and the dignity of the human person, a stance that has brought him both loyal supporters and vitriolic opposition.
Chatting with Bishop Michael over a full English breakfast, I was immediately struck by the man’s humility. The previous evening, I had heard him give the keynote speech at the 50th anniversary conference of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, and I marveled that he was able to give such a lucid and insightful defense of human dignity entirely without notes and without once stumbling or losing his train of thought. In conversation, it was almost impossible to imagine that this polite, softly-spoken man has stood up to violent extremists, has been repeatedly attacked and—even in the relative safety of England—has faced such serious threats to his life that he has required police protection.
Fiorella Nash, for CWR: Bishop Nazir-Ali, can you tell me a little about what it was like growing up as a Christian in Pakistan and how things have changed?
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali: Well, in those days Pakistan was Muslim-majority, but there was a large non-Muslim minority—about 25 percent of the population—and that has gradually eroded. That is one of the problems, not just with Pakistan but with many Muslim-majority countries. The separation of East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh, eroded it, the emigration of Hindus from Pakistan to India because they felt insecure, and then large-scale emigration of middle-class Pakistani Christians because they had the skills to emigrate. We are now down to maybe about 5-6 percent of the population for all non-Muslims, and that has changed the picture radically. Karachi, the city in which I grew up, was a very cosmopolitan city and had large numbers of Christians of all kinds in it. The complexion of the Christian population has also changed. For example, in the Catholic Church, a large number of Christians were of Goanese or South Indian extraction. Now, the majority of Christians, even in Karachi, are of Punjabi extraction.
The other main change has been in the way people live. We, as a family, always lived in Muslim-majority neighborhoods and had Muslim friends. I went to a Catholic school, but the majority of my classmates were Muslims. There is increasing ghettoization now, as Christians tend to want to live near one another for security reasons. I find that very alien myself because it is outside of my experience, but I can see why they are doing it.
CWR: How widespread is the problem of Islamic radicalization and how much has this contributed to the changes you mention?
Bishop Nazir-Ali: There has been considerable radicalization, first sponsored by the West to combat the presence of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The purpose was to make Afghanistan the Vietnam of the Soviet Union, which they did, but the way that they did it was to sponsor Pakistani and Afghani radical groups whom they felt were the only people who would have the commitment to tackle the Soviets. What this has done is to create a worldwide Islamist set of movements—it is not one movement—but it has also radicalized Islam in Pakistan and Afghanistan in a way that was never true in the past. In addition to this, Pakistan itself has encouraged radical groups in order to infiltrate Indian-held Kashmir, again because it was felt that they would have the commitment to take those risks. Saudi Arabs sponsor radical madrassas and there are now a huge number of madrassas in Pakistan, very much out of proportion to any perceived need. So, a whole number of reasons.
CWR: You were a bishop in Pakistan and you were then forced to flee in the 1980s. What happened?
Bishop Nazir-Ali: Well, there were a number of reasons. The government, Zia himself [Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s head of state until 1988], asked for our views about what he was doing, for instance, in changing the penal laws to bring them into conformity with Sharia, and I suppose I was quite young then and the leaders of all the churches asked me to write a response, which at that age I was happy to do.
CWR: How old were you?
Bishop Nazir-Ali: About 30—this was before I was a bishop—but I did so and pointed out that Christians did not have the same view of punishment. This brought about a furious reaction from the Islamist lobby for interfering with Islamist injunctions and so on. It was useless saying, well, you asked for this! Also, we supported women, whose rights were being curtailed, access to education and employment narrowed. These were mostly Muslim women. I was the priest in charge of the cathedral, which was near the High Court, and the women were demonstrating outside the High Court. The police charged them with those steel-tipped batons, so we opened the cathedral gates and they rushed in, we then closed the gates and the police were locked out. This caused enormous disturbance!
Then, of course, I was working with very poor people in the brick kilns—many of them Christians—who are in a kind of bonded labor, and that brought together the brick kiln owners, Islamist right-wingers, infiltrators into the Christian community itself, to become very nasty. I was visiting England and I went to see the then-Archbishop of Canterbury [Robert Runcie] and he said, “Look, I have credible evidence that these threats are not just words. I think you should stay for a while and I have a job for you, to organize the 1988 Lambeth Conference.”
CWR: What was it like to go back to Pakistan?
Bishop Nazir-Ali: Well, when I was invited back by Benazir Bhutto, I was treated like a kind of hero [laughs]. I was a government guest, it was great fun! But she was unable to deal with the structural problems left by Zia and as a friend I told her that. There were reasons why she could not do what she wanted to do, but that was the reality.
CWR: Looking at the plight of Christian minorities in many parts of the world, the situation can seem quite hopeless. What are your feelings about the future of these communities? Is there any hope?
Bishop Nazir-Ali: We have just had a wonderful meeting of younger leaders, supported by older leaders, including the former Iraqi Minister for Immigrants and Refugees, who is now a presidential advisor. She is a Chaldean Catholic herself and she gave us first-person reports about what was happening in Erbil, for example, [where Christians] are having to go back to the plains again because government support for them has been withdrawn. But she also talked about communities in Baghdad and elsewhere. I think many Iraqi Christians will be able to resettle but many will not. Some will remain in Kurdistan. A representative from Aid to the Church in Need who is looking after 600 Iraqi Christian families said that they are mainly from Mosul and they are refusing to go back, because it was not just ISIS, it was their own neighbors who betrayed them.
In Iran, the situation is very difficult. We had a few young men from Iran at the meeting. It is easier for the Armenians, the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, but they are confined to their ethnic communities. For Farsi-speaking Christians, it is very difficult and yet, the number of Christians in the underground churches is increasing. It is not as large as some people claim but there has never been a time in history where there have been so many Farsi-speaking Christians, whether inside or outside Iran. It is quite amazing.
Pakistan has a large Christian community numerically, but hounded all the time by blasphemy laws and other kinds of legal discrimination, social marginalization. I am reading a horrendous thesis on how Islamism is affecting the community on a daily basis, the drip, drip of hatred in the educational system. When the governor of the Punjab was murdered after visiting Asia Bibi, when he said that the blasphemy laws were man-made and could be reviewed—he was shot 37 times by his own guard. A government minister told me privately that what really worried him about that murder was the tacit approval of the middle classes. That is the cumulative effect of the drip, drip, drip of hate against Christians but anyone who does not subscribe to a particular view of Islam.
In Syria, the Christian communities of all kinds are united in the view that there is really no alternative to the Assad regime, for all its problems.
CWR: You met Assad quite recently, didn’t you?
Bishop Nazir-Ali: Yes. I was asked by Church leaders there last year to meet with Assad and we brought up all the most difficult issues. We got some reasonable answers from him; he didn’t claim perfection, he said that people act without authority, and he couldn’t answer some questions we put to him. But, in the Middle East, it’s not a choice between angels and monsters, it’s a choice between monsters, and if you think like that, even according to some opposition leaders, Assad is by no means the worst of the monsters. What some opposition groups say—some of them very far to the left—is, “Well, there is no love lost between Assad and ourselves, but what we don’t want is a Wahhabi state.” It looks as though Assad is going to stay, but I would like to see a transition to democratic elections under UN supervision. We don’t know what the result of that would be, but my guess is that the Ba-ath Party would win.
CWR: You mentioned earlier the tacit approval of murder by the middle classes in Pakistan, but it is commented upon in Christian circles in the West that the genocidal attacks against Christians around the world are being ignored by the media over here. Why is there this silence?
Bishop Nazir-Ali: I think there is a reluctance to acknowledge that Christians are the target. It was much easier for the West to publicize the plight of the Yazidis, which was very bad, but in many ways, not worse than what was happening to the Christians. When I was visiting some Yazidi camps in the Middle East along with Aid to the Church in Need, a Yazidi Sheikh said to me, “Our religion has no way of helping people in this situation. Your religion does and we are very grateful.” But there is a reluctance. I think that the united political stand of the churches in Syria is a cause of embarrassment to the West and doesn’t fit the Western narrative—but nothing in Syria fits the Western narrative! It is completely different to the way it is portrayed in Britain. With Pakistan, the British Government has a £600 million educational program, which is very good, but I said to them, “Will you raise the question of the teaching of hatred?” and they said they might behind closed doors. Who knows what, if anything, will be said behind closed doors? There is a refusal by the British Government to target aid to Christian minorities on account of being “non-confessional.” In the refugee camps where refugees are selected to come to the West, many are Islamist-dominated, Christians do not go to them. Instead, they are supported by churches in Jordan and Lebanon. Once again, there is a systemic aspect to all this.
CWR: How can Christians best witness to the suffering of our co-religionists in the mainstream media?
Bishop Nazir-Ali: I take every opportunity. When I went to Syria I was attacked in the western media for meeting Assad. I asked for a right to reply. The Telegraph gave me the right. That led to various interviews, TV, radio etc. I am constantly doing this, though it’s not enough, of course. After the Easter bombing of Christians in Lahore, I did nine interviews in one morning with western media, including being questioned about the Christian view of suffering.
CWR: You mentioned during your keynote speech for SPUC that you have been under a lot of attack. Have you had death threats?
Bishop Nazir-Ali: All the time! There was a time when the security services rang my chaplain and said, “Look, these threats are not fantasies, they are real and we need to provide protection.” They were excellent, they provided a safe room in which you can retreat if attacked, they gave advice about what kind of postbox we should have, etc. If I had to travel they would provide security. Some of it was very oppressive—you are never on your own. They still take an interest; the house has to have secure iron gates and secure entrances.
CWR: How do you deal with this spiritually?
Bishop Nazir-Ali: I have been attacked before in Pakistan and it’s extremely disturbing. On one occasion, I went into Iran clandestinely just after the Islamic Revolution and there was danger everywhere, I was just so grateful to the papal nuncio, who looked after us; without him we wouldn’t have survived. I don’t think much about it, when it happens it’s not nice, but I think this has always happened to God’s people. It’s part of the price of discipleship, but there are also lots of good people you would never have known otherwise. Two years ago, I was with Aid to the Church in Need. ISIL still held Mosul and I was with a lot of young chaps, Kurdish and Christian soldiers, and they said, “We are going into battle. We want you to pray for us.” So I was there, praying with these young soldiers, and a senior officer of the army said, “I will see you to your vehicle.” I thought it was just Middle Eastern politeness. But he said, “You know, my family in the past were Christian and we were forcibly converted, but I now want to follow Jesus.” That would never have happened if I had not been in the way of danger.
CWR: You mentioned the underground churches earlier. Are there many secret Christians in the Middle East?
Bishop Nazir-Ali: In Iran, definitely. In Iraq, without any soliciting of this kind, I met several people who said, “We are Kurdish, but the only religion we follow is that of Jesus.” Just knowing who I am, they spoke to me; I didn’t ask them. In Turkey, the number of Christians is growing. In Turkey, many are saying, “Our ancestors were Christians. We should rediscover that faith.”
CWR: You were speaking yesterday about the dignity of the human person. Could you tell me a little about your understanding of the human person and why it is under attack?
Bishop Nazir-Ali: Yes, I think there is a biblical and Judeo-Christian anthropology about who human beings are, made in God’s image, having a dignity that cannot be taken from them, equal in respect of their personhood, made as man and woman, made to fulfil certain purposes in the world, which include the family, but also the building of civilization and the treatment of the rest of creation. I talk about creation, not nature. And this biblical anthropology, if you like, is at odds with the dominant, post-Enlightenment anthropology which begins with isolated individuals, gathering into community to protect themselves. It will be in conflict at many different points. Marriage is clearly a battlefield, but it is not just marriage; it is also the sanctity of the human person at every stage of life which is under attack. There is now a movement to redefine death from brain-stem death to loss of consciousness. If that happens, it will release enormous amounts of resources. It releases people from all sorts of dilemmas. It is a conflict of worldviews and in the end, we will have to choose. Nations will have to choose which view we are going with, because the two are irreconcilable on a number of points. Gender identity is clearly a battlefield and, of course, there are a small number of people who are genuinely intersex and it is a work of mercy to render them one or the other, but that is not the same as gender fluidity—to say that there is no difference between the sexes or that the different sexes do not have different roles to fulfil in life. This is not categorizing people, to say that men and women do things differently. That kind of complementarity is something the equalitarian lobby is not willing to recognize, but it is fundamental to the Bible’s view.
CWR: Hardly a week goes by when there isn’t a story in the press about a school adopting a gender-neutral uniform or a fashion chain dropping gendered labelling. Where do you think society is heading? Is this just a passing phase?
Bishop Nazir-Ali: I was on a bus in Italy many years ago when an elderly Catholic priest said to me, “We are entering a world where black will be white, white will be black, darkness will be light, light will be darkness,” and I often think of that, this radical attempt to redefine everything human beings have ever understood and lived with and for. I hope it’s temporary; it may not be. It may be the dissolving of a civilization. No civilization, in the past anyway, has ever survived a refusal to delay gratification, just to take one example. With the kind of hedonistic individualism we have now we are reaching that stage. The dissolution of the family, the killing of large numbers of people who are vulnerable, these are signs of the destruction of a civilization. It has happened many times before, there is no reason why it should not happen again. The question is, what happens then? Secular thinkers say that when a civilization begins to die a new myth, as they call it, replaces what has died. That may happen in the West, I don’t know. But from the Christian point of view, I think Alasdair MacIntyre’s point that we need to build defined communities, moral and spiritual, which can be a light to attract those in darkness—that is the intermediate step to take, depending upon what in God’s providence is next.