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What Is To Be Done About the Global Persecution of Christians?

adapted from an article in the 4 May 2017 issue of Origins
by Daniel Philpott 

Editor's Note:  We are keeping Part One in case you missed it last week.  Part Two follows it.

Part One


The persecution of Christians is for real.  It is global in scope, brutal in nature, daily in its occurrence and growing worse than ever.  These are the realities that my friends and colleagues at the Religious Freedom Institute observed three years ago and wondered how to confront.

The persecution of Christians is a violation of religious freedom, a human right that is articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and numerous subsequent international conventions.  Religious freedom is violated on a massive global scale, and these violations have increased dramatically over the past decade and a half.  An oft-cited statistic from the Pew Research Center holds that 74 percent, or roughly three-quarters, of the world's population lives in a country where the denial of religious freedom is high or very high.  Christians are victims of this denial more than members of any other religion.

The International Society for Human Rights, a secular nongovernmental organization based in Frankfurt, estimated in 2009 that Christians were the victims of 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination. Several other sources put forth a similar finding.

It is our view that the persecution of Christians has not been reported on proportionately by the mainstream media and by organizations whose business it is to report it.  There are exceptions, and there has been improvement.  A milestone was Secretary of State John Kerry's designation as genocide of the killing of Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in Syria and Iraq in 2016.  Still Christian persecution remains underreported as evidenced by a study conducted by the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown.

We stress and repeat again, however, that our focus in no way undervalues the religious persecution of anyone, anywhere.  The Religious Freedom Institute makes it its daily business to promote the freedom of people of all faiths, consonantly with their dignity as human beings who search for and live out religious truth.

We also do well to recall times and places where Christians have been on the delivering end of religious persecution, from which nobody is innocent.

Worth stressing in particular is our rejection of the narrative that is all too prevalent in the Western media and contemporary political discourse:  Christianity vs Islam. Nothing could be further from our purposes.  Muslims also suffer religious persecution on a large scale, including in the West, where violence has spiked against them in the last year.  Muslims around the world courageously stand for the freedom of Christians -- and vice versa.  We insist on the human right of religious freedom for Muslims as for all people and stand with them wherever it is denied.

Despite persistent attention in the media to brutal forms of persecution in Muslim-majority countries such as Iran or totalitarian regimes such as China, the global persecution of Christians assumes an extremely wide variety of forms and levels. The swords of many different kinds of Caesars hang over a wide diversity of Christian communities all over the world, including evangelical house-church communities, Pentecostal student groups, and Orthodox and Catholic churches.

The regimes in which persecution occurs are also highly diverse.  Surprising to many is persecution under well-established democracies such as Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka, whose open and competitive electoral systems have sometimes incentivized groups to target Christian minorities in order to attract the political support of non-Christian majorities.

The report details several contexts of persecution.  Yes, one context is Islamist regimes, which strongly enforce a traditional version of Shariah to the detriment of religious minorities and dissenting schools of Muslims.  Another context is Communist China, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea.  Another is secular authoritarian regimes (Turkey, Central Asia republics).  Another is religious nationalist regimes which posit the religion of the majority as the state's identity (India, Sri Lanka).  We also look briefly at Western countries, where secularism increasingly curtails religious freedom -- what Pope Francis calls "polite persecution."

The "sword" of persecution comes in very different shapes and sizes.  Sometimes the machinery of state power brings down the full weight of Caesar's sword in the form of direct and appalling violence.  Police and security services, sometimes directed by bureaus of religious affairs, forcibly break up church services and Bible studies, and imprison and torture pastors, evangelists, and rank-and-file church members for engaging in ordinary religious activities.  In many contexts the sword of persecution assumes subtler and less-violent forms.  It is striking how much state-sponsored persecution of Christians is conducted with comparable legality, regularity, and bureaucratic propriety.

On the other hand, much Christian persecution arises from what may be called little Caesars -- nonstate actors like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or Islamist militias in Indonesia's Maluku islands or Buddhist militants in Sri Lanka.

In terms of magnitude, direction, and geographic breath, then, global Christian persecution is grim.  It takes place across a geographic band of enormous length and breadth that stretches from Libya, moves southward to northern Nigeria, moves eastward to Egypt and the rest of the Middle East, expands north to Russia and south to Sri Lanka and then proceeds eastward to China, Indonesia and North Korea.  Demographer Todd Johnson estimates that some 500 million Christians -- more than 20 percent of Christians on earth -- live in countries where they are subject to severe persecution, with virtually all of them in this geographic band.


Part Two

......The Religious Freedom Institutes' public report Under Caesar's Sword: In Response to Persecution contains descriptions of Christians in some 25 countries as reported by our scholars.  The report conveys eight major findings: the first three set forth three strategies of response that range on a scale from reactive to proactive -- survival, association and confrontation.

Strategies of Survival were the most common and 43% of responses worldwide. In these, Christians focus on preserving their lives and their most basic activities -- worship, community, life, education and the like.  One of the starkest and simplest of strategies is to flee, either elsewhere within a state or outside a state's borders, as Christians often do in settings of war and rampant violence such as contemporary Iraq, Syria, Libya and northern Nigeria.  Other survival strategies are covert and subterranean.  One of these, which is dangerous and precarious under regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Central Asia and China, is to undertake characteristic Christian activites such as worship, educating children and care for members of the community in secret.  A recent prececent is the Ukrainian Catholic Church that became a "church of the catacombs" under Soviet rule after World War II but resurfaced in 1991 when Ukraine gained independence. As Kathleen Collins observes, the increasing state persecution of Christians in Central Asia leads most of them "to simply hide," as one informant told her, leaving them virtually invisible in the public square.  In other cases, Christian communities will adopt creative forms of cultural and legal camouflage.  They might speak a language acceptable to the regime, show patriotism outside the walls of the church or even hide their faith through deception of feigning conversion to a non-Christian religion.

Strategies of Association are the second most common response.  They amount to 38% of total responses.  Here, Christians reach beyond survival to focus on building relationships and networks with groups outside their immediate communities -- other Christians, non-Christians and international actors -- to enhance resiliency and mount some broad-based though relatively non-confrontational resistance to persecution.  These strategies take place at every level of persecution but are most common and most robost in "semi-open" environments that afford opportunities for political action and expression even while persecution takes place.  Pakistan, India, Russia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Kenya and Indonesia are all examples.

Isolating Christian communities -- keeping them hidden, obscure and unconnected with outsiders -- is, after all, a common strategem of persecution regimes and militant groups.  It is not accidental that North Korea, the country about whose Christians the rest of the world knows least, is the one in which Christians are persecuted the worst.  Common strategies of this sort are the building of ties with other churches and other religions.  Robert Dowd relates, for example, how Catholic and Protestant Christian communities in northern Nigeria have responded to the violence inflicted by Boko Haram by forming ecumenical partnerships as well as ties with mainstream Islamic leaders in hopes of isolating Boko Haram.

A common associational strategy is the provision of social services -- alleviating social ills through hospitals, rehabilitation programs for addictions, orphanages, homeless shelters, and the like.  In this way Christian churches not only live out their mission but also build ties outside their walls and thus strengthen their freedom. 

Surprising among Christian strategies of association is forgiveness.  Forgiveness can be an invitation to conversations and reconciliation and thus a form of building ties.  At our Rome conference, Pakistan's Paul Bhatti forgave the killers of his brother, Minister of Minorities Affairs Shabhaz  Bhatti and thus built ties between Christians and Muslims.

Strategies of Confrontation are on the most proactive end of the spectrum, in which Christians openly oppose a persecuting regime or militant group.  These are the least common response, making up 19%.  The purpose of this type of response is to confront injustice and, above all, end injustice and widen the enjoyment of religious freedom.

Most commonly, confrontation strategies involve criticism and exposure. Sometimes Christians document human rights abuses in order to reveal them to parties who can advocate on their behalf -- foreign governments, for instance.  They might also pursue court cases where they believe they might receive favorable judgments. Christians also voice protests of regimes and societal groups through nonviolent demonstrations and public criticism in newspapers, television, and the internet.  The more open settings of India and Indonesia as well as Nigeria and Kenya afford opportunities for this exercise of voice.

Confrontation becomes harsher and more dangerous when it takes the form of armed resistance.  Kent Hill notes that some Chrisitans in Iraq and Syria chose to take up arms against the Islamic State and other Muslim militants.  Armed resistance is also documented in Nigeria and Kenya by Dowd and in Indonesia by Robert Hefner.  In all of these cases resistance was not against a regime but rather against militant groups whom the regime had failed to suppress.

Confrontation can also take the form of martyrdom and imprisonment, which can be seen as strategies (and not merely fate) when Christians express or practice their faith or advocate for justice in full knowledge or expectation of suffering.  Martyrdom is the most proactive of strategies, for it involves the least acquiescence to the repression of the state and is the greatest expression of Christian freedom, testifying that even death cannot suppress faith.....

- Conclusion next week -