As anxious as many Christians are about religious freedom in America, nothing we’ve experienced—and God willing, never will—comes close to the brutal persecution of Christians abroad. The stunning extent of this persecution is documented in Times Literary Supplement religion editor Rupert Shortt’s evenhanded and unsettling new book, Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack.
Some 200 million Christians—two-thirds of the entire population of the United States—are now suffering oppression, even to the point of death, on account of their faith. Yet, if you ask the average person about it, they probably wouldn’t know anything about Christianity’s modern martyrdom, much less know where and why it’s occurring.
Rupert Shortt does, having traveled through Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, and returned to tell a story as harrowing as it is unforgettable. In a dozen chapters, thankfully free of political correctness or partisanship, he covers what has been happening to the Christian communities in these regions, and does so with searing honesty and force.
We read of Indonesian school girls targeted and beheaded simply because they were Christians; of Nigerian Christian men forced to chose between conversion to Islam or death, and of their wives and children forced to chose between conversion or perpetual slavery; of Pakistani Christians being burned alive in their homes; of Coptic Christians in Egypt and Chaldean Catholics in Iraq being fire-bombed, maimed and killed—and when not killed, hounded into exile; of “religious apartheid” and executions in Iran; and of unspeakable atrocities against Christians in the Sudan, the “scene of suffering as abhorrent as anywhere on any continent.”
The Islamic world is not the only place Christians are under siege. In India, Hindu extremists have attacked Christian communities (as well as Muslims); in Burma and Sri Lanka, Buddhist nationalists have launched aggressive anti-Christian campaigns; and Communism’s ruthless war against followers of Christ—in Cuba, Vietnam, China, and North Korea—is well-known. Even in the Holy Land, where Christians have been caught in the crossfire of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, their numbers have dwindled from 20 percent of the population (in 1945) to a mere 2 percent today.
Christianophobia covers it all. I read the book in one sitting, gripped by every page. I finished it with a sense of anguish, asking two questions: Why is this catastrophe being so largely ignored, and what, if anything, can be done about it?
Speaking to Shortt last week, we discussed the crisis, and he underscored the complexities and difficulties involved in overcoming it.
This story is being downplayed, he said, because of subliminal reasons, both secular and religious. On the secular side, much of the media has disdain for Christianity, and considers it not only regressive, but dangerous—an attitude broadly shared by intellectuals, academics, and celebrities. Christianity is mistakenly seen as an exclusively “Western” religion, and part of the West’s assumed imperialism.
Given that perspective, who wants to be seen openly sympathizing with such an unfashionable lot as practicing Christians? Shortt calls this “the blind spots that can affect bien-pensant opinion-formers.” Add to this the latter’s reluctance to question any aspect of Islamic culture (even though many reform-minded Muslims do); and the idea that Islamophobia is more intense and widespread than Christianophobia (even as human rights organizations document just the reverse), and you begin to understand the depths of the problem.
And yet, paradoxically, it is Christian theology itself that also explains the current situation. Christianity’s teachings on love, humility, forbearance, and forgiveness create a non-confrontational ethos—which is a genuine strength of persecuted Christians—but also makes it more challenging to communicate their plight.
“Because young Christians don’t get radicalized,” said Shortt, “and because persecuted Christians on the ground very rarely respond with terrorist violence, their sufferings don’t really create news. Speaking as a journalist, I know—very sadly—that what tends to make people sit up and take notice is violence; and while Christians may not always turn the other cheek, they do tend to take it all lying down, and get on with it as best they can, and that doesn’t necessarily make for front-page headlines.”
Christian suffering, Shortt noted, is considered redemptive: “There is nothing in the New Testament that suggests that anyone who takes the Gospel seriously is going to have an easy life. On the contrary, there is a huge amount to suggest that the more you suffer, the closer you are to God; and indeed persecution might be something that Christians could positively welcome as a source of unity with Christ. Nevertheless—speaking just as a journalist, and not as a preacher—that doesn’t mean that news of the suffering of Christians should be suppressed; and it certainly doesn’t absolve the perpetrators.”
One might add that as important as voluntary sacrifice and unexpected suffering is within Christian theology, a healthy faith can rightfully strive to alleviate suffering, and protect both body and soul. Blessed John Paul II’s Salvifici Doloris is an extended meditation on the Christian meaning of human suffering; and Pope Benedict’s new motu proprio letter underscores the importance of Catholic Charities. The Church’s emphasis on religious liberty and human rights, as developed by Vatican II, is another reason Christians deprived of both should speak out—and ask others do the same.
In calling attention to Christian suffering, Shortt in no way intends to overlook the sins of Christianity itself against other faiths and communities. Outbreaks of anti-Semitism and transgressions against Muslims are tragic facts of Christian history. “And although the view that Muslims have been the perpetual victims of Christian aggression down the ages rests on a falsification of history, I reject the equal and opposite fantasy”—promoted by biased and uninformed Christians—“that holds Islam to be a uniquely violent religion. Misconceptions of this sort usually spring from a failure to distinguish between Islamic piety on the one hand, and Islamism as a religious-political ideology on the other.”
The situation described by Shortt is grave, but not hopeless. Despite being scandalously underreported, organizations like Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Aid to the Church in Need do extraordinary work on behalf of the persecuted, as do human rights leaders like Paul Marshall and Nina Shea. And even some very secular media outfits, like the BBC, have increased their coverage of this epidemic, if only because their emphasis on global news has made it unavoidable.
Christians living in better circumstances, however, need to take up the cause of their suffering brethren: they need to educate themselves about what is happening, spread the news, ask their own religious leaders to speak out, support reputable organizations that are working for religious freedom, and appeal to their political leaders to do far more in their contacts with key diplomats and oppressive governments.
Asked about the future, Shortt was cautious, but affirmative. He thinks the growing movement to defend human rights and religious liberty, and the Christian-Islamic dialogue in particular, can produce something of real value, as the Christian-Jewish dialogue has:
“Just as Christianity has evolved, then, there are reasonable grounds for thinking that Islam will do so, too. The points of contact between the two traditions are at least as significant as the differences. When they are true to their guiding principles, both faiths insist on the sanctity of the person as a seeker of God, and from this should duly follow recognition of religious freedom as the first of human rights. Whether this awareness will spread is not for me to predict. For the Christian, it is hope—not more malleable impulses towards either optimism or pessimism—that really counts. Hope, in St. Augustine’s resonant words, ‘has two beautiful daughters: their names are anger and courage. Anger that things are the way they are. Courage to make them the way they ought to be.’”
May all believers, and non-believers alike, move in that direction.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack by Rupert Shortt (Currently available in the United Kingdom from Ebury Publishing; not yet published in the United States).
“Christians Persecuted Throughout the World,” by Rupert Shortt, the Daily Telegraph, October 29, 2012.
“Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack by Rupertt Shortt,” reviewed by Catherine Pepinster, The Independent, November 3, 2012.
Salvifici Doloris, Apostolic Letter of Blessed John Paul II, February 11, 1984.
“The Church’s Deepest Nature”—In his own call, B16 Directs Catholic Charities,” Whispers in the Loggia, December 1, 2012.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide
Aid to the Church in Need website
Religious Freedom in the World, edited by Paul Marshall (2007)
Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea (2011)
A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor, edited by Miroslav Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammad, and Melissa Yarrington (2010)
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