Widespread persecution of Christians has engaged the attention of Christians in America since the end of the Cold War, which it was hoped would end ideological conflict. The Cold War’s end did see an improvement in the religious freedom situation in the 1990s, but the twenty-first century has seen regression, in large measure due to the rise of violent Islamic movements, but now particularly in the two giants of the former communist world, Russia and China, and even in democratic India. Different situations mean different strategies may be desirable to reduce and ultimately end persecution. These are reviewed in a newly released report Under Ceasar’s Sword, which provides the findings of a joint research project of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, the Religious Freedom Institute of Washington, D.C., and Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Research Project. The report was discussed in presentations at the National Press Club on April 20.
In introductory remarks, Cardinal Donald Wuerl said that “worldwide” 200 million Christians are “at risk of physical violence, arrest, torture, and even death” because their doctrine is not state doctrine, and the ongoing persecution of Christians results from this. The Middle East is the birthplace of Christianity, and yet at risk of extinction there. How should Christians respond to persecution there and elsewhere? Wuerl said that we must: 1) be aware of what is happening, 2) “raise our voices” and make persecution difficult to ignore, awakening “slumbering consciences,” 3) provide material support to those persecuted in a variety of different ways, and 4) pray for the “suffering and pray for a change of heart.”
Christians should remember that God is with them in their suffering. Pope Francis has said that “they are persecuted and killed because they are Christians.” In the West, there is a different kind of hostile pressure. Here the demand is that we give up truth and give in to secularism.
Wuerl said that “we need a collective voice loud enough to be heard even over the indolence of disinterest.” The mass media has not been helpful, he said, although some information about the ongoing persecution does get through, such as a 60 Minutes’ story on the oppression of Coptic Christians. But people need constant reminders in the mainstream media to keep a matter in public conscience, as has been done with respect to the Holocaust. It seems that “the silence of so much of officialdom around the world is being interpreted as a subtle form of political acceptance.” Should we leave Christians to “fend for themselves?” he asked.
In the first panel discussion on the report, participants examined the sources of persecution against Christians and the strategies that Christians have used and can use to respond to hostile regimes, observing that neither human rights nor state security can be had without religious freedom. Daniel Philpott of the University of Notre Dame said that the persecution of Christians is real and growing “over the last decade and a half.” Whatever strategy is used to respond, it is important to make the persecution of Christians difficult to ignore. Why should there be a focus on the persecution of Christians? Philpott asked. He responded that violation of religious freedom contravenes international conventions, and that Christians are victims of denial. He observed that the secular International Society for Human Rights, based in Germany, estimated in 2009 that “80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination” are directed at Christians. Philpott said that it is the observation of the researchers in the Under Caesar’s Sword study that persecution of Christians “is not reported on proportionately by the mainstream media or by organizations whose business it is to report it.” He said that a “milestone” was the declaration that Christians and other religious minorities were victims of genocide in the ISIS war in Iraq and Syria. Concern for the persecution of Christians in no way undermines efforts to combat the persecution of other religions, he said.
Sources of persecution of Christians were identified as 1) Islam, 2) the remaining communist regimes, 3) secular authoritarian regimes (Turkey, Central Asian republics), 4) religious nationalist regimes (India), and 5) western secularism. Three strategies with which Christians currently respond are: 1) survival, 2) association, and 3) confrontation.
The first strategy, survival, the study found to be the most common (43 percent of cases studied). Typical elements of this response include such things as the church meeting in secret, and church functions, such as religious education, being performed underground. Flight from the oppressive society is another survival response. In another variation in the strategy, Christians pretend to be part of the wider society. The Ukrainian Catholic Church, which was prohibited under communism and “resurfaced in 1991,” was given as an example of a survival strategy. The second most common strategy (38 percent of the cases studied), association, involves trying to build ties with other churches and nations, and the provision of social services. This strategy works best in “semi-open” environments, Philpott said. Pakistan, India, Russia, and Sri Lanka were given as examples of such environments. Forgiveness is part of this strategy. Finally, in the confrontation strategy (19 percent of cases studied), the objective is to bring injustices to light, and criticism and exposition of the oppressive situation. This strategy can take the form of martyrdom or imprisonment.
It was noted that Christian responses to persecution are generally non-violent. Theology influences these responses. Some see persecution as God’s will. Others respond with actions while expecting persecution. An idea of “suffering church and culture” can be important. Evangelicals and Pentecostals are most likely to be persecuted, and to respond with strategies of survival or confrontation, Philpott noted. The intensity of persecution only partly explains the response, the study found.
It was observed that while dramatic or heroic resistance is difficult to find, some strategies have produced tangible results. “Creative pragmatism” commonly characterizes the Christian response.
In response to a question about whether it helps or hurts to speak out on persecution, Philpott advised that we should emphasize commonality of the ideal of religious freedom among different religions. An example of such commonality was given as Christian/Muslim mutual support in Egypt. Also, forms of non-violent persecution should be highlighted by media. It was observed that Christians rarely respond to forms of persecution with actual violence. Timothy Shah of the Religious Freedom Institute observed that Christians commonly have a concern for others who are persecuted.
In the second panel, Timothy Shah of the Religious Freedom Institute, Brian Grimm of the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, George Marlin of Aid to the Church in Need, David Saperstein, former Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, and Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute, discussed how businesses, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and governments can address the persecution of Christians.
Grimm asked how business can overcome religious divides. He said that work brings people together in common mission. Marlin said that humanitarian aid from Catholic charities has been forthcoming when governments failed. People who are in crisis need emotional and spiritual support, and religious charities are suited to providing this. He said the Iraq currently needs a Marshall Plan “to make the Christian towns of the Nineveh Plains viable again.” Eleven thousand homes need to be rebuilt. The reconstruction of destroyed churches should be an important symbolic recovery for the Christian communities. Such a comprehensive plan, supported by governments, NGOs, and church-related agencies “could well become a model for Christian communities in Muslim majority countries.” The Nineveh Plain Committee has been important in engaging the international community to “secure expertise and funding.” A problem is that Kurds and Yazidis are eager to acquire Christian lands. But a successful renaissance of Christian towns on the Nineveh Plain is possible. Syria remains highly volatile, and a delicate humanitarian task waits in Syria.
Saperstein said that Under Caesar’s Sword is an excellent report and “will change the situation.” Why are Christians the most persecuted religious group in the world? he asked. Because Christianity is widespread, he believes. He also believes that the association strategy is the best strategy of the three outlined for improving the religious freedom situation
Shea said that “Islamic extremism has replaced communism as the biggest threat to religious freedom in the world.” Coptic Christians have been identified by ISIS as its “favorite prey.” She remarked that Christian victims in the Middle East are inadequately attended to. Christian refugees in Irbil (the Kurdish capital that has received Christian refugees) are sustained by private groups. Christians are grossly underrepresented among the Syrian refugees received in the United States. One half of one percent of Syrian entrants to the U.S. are Christian, whereas 10 percent of Syria’s population was Christian at the time the Syrian civil war broke out. She asked if the Trump Administration will contribute to Christian reconstruction on Nineveh Plain. She also observed that Egypt now has an ISIS problem. Positive developments may result from Egyptian President al-Sisi’s call for the reform of Islam. She said that cultural reform is needed. Textbooks need to be changed. There should be repeal of blasphemy laws in Muslim countries. It was observed that Morocco rescinded a fatwa which called for death for apostates from Islam. A common Christian response to persecution in the Middle East has been to flee. She said it is critically important for private citizens to contact their representatives and senators in Congress in support of religious freedom.
Saperstein said that religious freedom has the strongest support across the board of all issues in U.S. foreign policy. But Shea said that we can’t relax once we have the Trump Administration’s Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom in place. Religious freedom advocates must link religious persecutions to other issues. Saperstein believes that the reconstruction of Nineveh Plain is an important U.S. effort. It will require developing jobs and health care.
In the third panel, Mariz Tadros of Sussex University, Kent Hill of the Religious Freedom Institute, and Christian Van Gorder of Baylor University further discussed the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Here ISIS is the major threat to Christians, but other Islamist groups which threaten exist as well. Secular post-communist nationalism is a threat in former Soviet Central Asia. The worst situation for religious freedom since the Soviet era now exists in Central Asia. Pressure from the U.S. and United Nations is needed to improve situation in Central Asia.
Tadros said that “everyday forms of encroachment” are a problem for Christians in the Middle East. This gradually diminishes the sphere of a society in which Christians can live, and has the same end result as violent persecution. Before the recent convulsions associated with regime change in the Middle East, Libya had 300,000 Christians, generally migrant workers. Most have now left. The targeting of Christians by terror groups is a problem. She said that work of a rigorous academic nature is needed to combat the “politics of denial” which exists with respect to the persecution of Christians. Notably, if people are targeted because they are religious, this must be recognized if they are Christian, just as non-Christians are recognized as being persecuted because of their particular religions. She pointed out media reports that the 21 Coptic Christians killed by ISIS in Libya were identified as “Egyptians,” but not as Christians. Also, the term “Islamophobia” used to silence criticism of Muslim terrorist groups, she said, and this must be counteracted. “Local civil society” in the Middle East must be supported and allowed to speak.
Kent Hill said since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2011 civil war in Syria, and the depredations of violent Islamic extremism and war, 90 percent of 1.5 million Iraqi Christians have been displaced from their homes, while 80 percent of Syrian Christians have left. This continues the purging of Christians from the Middle East, which has occurred periodically. Most notably, 3.5 million Christians were killed at the end of the Ottoman Empire. He asked how Christians will be protected. Christian alignment with brutal regimes, such as that of Assad in Syria, leaves Christians defenseless if and when the regime falls. Christians in the West should help refugees through the available NGOs, but also in the reconstruction of Christian communities. Jordan should be looked at an island of stability that can help in the effort to defend Christians. The wider world must revisit both the views that Islam per se is the problem or that Islam is not a factor in violence. He concluded that Muslims have the most to lose if ISIS prevails and must be part of any solution to violence against Christians.
Van Gorder, reviewing the situation for Christians in Saudi Arabia and Iran, said that 100 percent of Christians in Saudi Arabia “experience persecution,” which is generally from “family and society,” rather than from the government. Iran has released a statement of rights, but it does not mention religious freedom. Christians in the Middle East are now dissociating themselves from the West, and “generally avoid confrontation at all costs.” Survival seems to be the dominant strategy, with “worship events” often kept private. Christians in Iran and Saudi Arabia see themselves as subjects of another king. A questioner asked if democracy is a threat to Christians. Hill and Tadros responded that democracy should include the rights of minorities.
The panel was asked what hope there is for the future. The 2003 invasion of Iraq had and continues to have unintended consequences. Tadros said that citizenship has to respect religion, but cannot be based on religion. Hill said that the Marshall Plan was the best investment for this country, and would be “a good investment, the right thing to do” in America’s relations with war-torn Middle Eastern countries.
A fourth panel discussed the persecution of Christians in East, South, and Southeast Asia. Included in the Panel were Fenggan Yang of Purdue University, Robert Hefner of Boston University, Chad Bauman of Butler University, and James Ponniah of the University of Madras.
Yang was asked what can be done about persecution of Christians in China. He said that there is very little that can be done. China is a rising economic power and foreign power. The rise of Christianity in China is remarkable. From 1980-2010 there was a growth rate of 10 percent, from 8 million to 67 million. This is true despite persecution. But other religions are increasing too. Yang said that the current persecution in China is comparable to the Roman persecution. He believes that the strategy Christians are employing in the current situation is evangelism. An Edict of Milan will eventually come for China, he believes. Christian response to the current situation should be evangelize, educate, and engage. This is helped by the fact that many Chinese students are in the West.
Hefner discussed both development programs and persecution in Indonesia. He said that foreign NGOs have more successfully engaged in Indonesia than in other Muslim countries. But Christians still face great challenges. This was recently shown by the blasphemy and “hate speech” charges against the Christian candidate for the governorship of Jakarta. Christians are well represented in Indonesian society. The Indonesian Christian population has tripled since 1945. There was an upsurge from 1998 to the mid-2000s in religious violence in Indonesia. In defense, Christians appeal to the “Panchisella” confessional system, by which the Indonesian government recognizes five religions, including Christianity. Thus Indonesian Christians generally have adopted a strategy of association in dealing with the challenges of living in a Muslim majority country.
Bauman said that Indian Christians face both legal and social pressure. The social pressure can involve violence. There is also the threat of anti-conversion laws. Ponniah said that responses to persecution on the Indian subcontinent have been creative, strategic, and far-sighted. Camouflaging of identity is one strategy (e.g., charities identifying themselves as corporations, or official personal identification as Hindu, but privately practicing Christianity). There may be changes in evangelism (avoiding open air evangelism). Joint celebrations by adherents of different religions is another response to persecution, as is cooperation with non-Christian groups to document violence. Another strategy is pursuing litigation against perpetrators of violence. Bauman said that cultural sensitivity is important in every action, especially in evangelism. Christians should avoid appearing to use social services to induce people to become Christians. Advocacy connected with the persecution of Christians should not be “exaggerated or one-sided,” promoting nativist backlash.
The wide variety of religious situations in the world means that there is no one right response to persecution. In cases of very hard, violent persecution, survival may be the only strategy. More open societies allow for association and confrontation strategies to work. But success, measured as the right of Christians to fully and openly practice Christianity, should not be expected soon, and should involve prayer, careful attention to what native Christians are saying, the expertise of NGOs, and perseverance.Google+