Each issue of the admirable ecumenical journal, Touchstone, includes a department called “The Suffering Church.” It’s a title that Catholics of a certain age associate with purgatory; in Touchstone’s vocabulary, however, “the Church suffering” is the Church being purified here and now by persecution. It’s a useful reminder of a hard fact.
For that hard fact too rarely impinges on the Christian self-awareness, much less the Christian conscience, of the Church Comfortable, the Church Lax, or the Church of Nice—even though the historical commission created by John Paul II in preparation for the Great Jubilee of 2000 made clear that Christians today live in the greatest tribulation-time in Christian history. Indeed, that historical commission suggested that more Christians were killed for fidelity to Christ in the 20th century than in the previous nineteen centuries of Christian history combined. As I’ve noted in this space before, “martyrdom” is not just a matter of Richard Burton and Jean Simmons turning their backs on Jay Robinson’s madcap Caligula while Michael Rennie/St. Peter looks on benignly in the classic Hollywood romance, The Robe; “martyrdom” is going on around us, all the time.
Thus a single page of a recent issue of Touchstone noted that some 1,200 Protestants are being imprisoned in shipping containers in Eritrean desert camps where “torture is routine”; that Mostafa Bordbar, a 27-year-old Christian convert, was arrested and charged with “illegal gathering and participating in a house church” in Iran (a sobering reminder to those bears of little brain who discern a new “moderation” in Tehran these days); that Kazakh Christians, many of them converts from Islam, are “encouraged,” by the arrest and imprisonment of their pastors, to refrain from evangelism; and that a Muslim leader in central Nigeria regularly abducts Christian girls and women and holds them captive in his home, in order to compel their conversion (or reversion) to Islam.
As these micro-dramas are being played out, Christians live in daily fear for their lives in Syria and Egypt, two imploding societies where the majority Muslim factions and sects can seem to agree on one thing only: It’s open season on Christians. Within two decades, perhaps less, Christianity may well have ceased to be a living ecclesial reality in many of the places where Christianity was born, not to mention the cities where sub-apostolic and patristic Christianity developed; the sole exception to this pattern throughout the Middle East and North Africa is Israel.
Thus Tom Holland, a popular historian and author of The Forge of Christendom (an intriguing book exploring the ways the late first millennium’s expectation of an imminent End Time shaped the West’s triumph in the second millennium), said recently at a London press briefing that “In terms of the sheer scale of the hatreds and sectarian rivalries” afoot in the Middle East today, “we are witnessing something on the scale of horror of the European Thirty Years War.”
At that same conference, my old friend and colleague Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Religious Freedom Center in Washington, raised some pointed questions about western media ignorance—or worse—about this persecution. Shea noted that a fourth-century Coptic church dedicated to Our Lady was recently destroyed in Egypt, even though it was on a shortlist to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The church was 200 years older than the UNESCO-listed Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, whose destruction by the Taliban in 2001 was widely reported and universally condemned; yet the mainstream media treated this grotesque act of anti-Christian religious and cultural vandalism in Egypt as a non-event.
So what is to be done? Support those non-governmental agencies that work to sustain the pastoral life of Christianity in its historic birthplace. Demand that U.S. diplomacy take religious freedom in the Middle East more seriously. And make the cause of these and other persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ a regular part of liturgical prayer, remembering the Church Persecuted in the General Intercessions at every Mass and praying publicly for the conversion of the persecutors.
Yes, their conversion.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.