A vast oblong of Islamist, authoritarian, or sectarian persecution stretches from Egypt, Eritrea, Turkey, and Sudan, all the way to China and North Korea, across India and Pakistan. According to a recent report published by Aid to the Church in Need, “the persecution of Christians is today worse than at any time in history.”
On the African continent, predominantly Christian nations experience the full threat of a growing tide of Islamist militancy. Already reeling from mass genocide and expulsion at the hands of Boko Haram (whose casualties include some 1.8 million displaced persons, five thousand widows, 15,000 orphans, and more than two hundred desecrated churches and chapels), the Christians of Nigeria now have to contend with new militant factions. The Fulani herdsmen have terrorized country parishes across the nation’s northern and central provinces in recent months, in what more and more secular and religious leaders are recognizing as a targeted Islamist persecution. An escalated campaign of violence began with the New Year’s Day massacre of seventy-two Christian farmers in the Benue state. In April, two priests were murdered alongside seventeen parishioners while celebrating Mass in the community of Mbalom, in the same province. The militants went on to pillage and burn fifty neighboring homes. Then in late June, some two hundred Christian farmers, many of them women and children, were massacred over a four-day period in multiple villages across the Plateau state. It is estimated that the herdsmen, using increasingly sophisticated firearms, have murdered hundreds of Christians since the start of 2018.
In response to ever more frequent attacks, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria has issued two reports condemning the nation’s security forces and local government officials for turning their backs on the increasing violence, and for failing to prosecute known offenders. The bishops have also called for the resignation of Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, for failing to act in the face of what is clearly a full-blown jihad. “He should no longer continue to preside over the killing fields and mass graveyard that our country has become.”
In the Near East, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians (Assyrian, Chaldean Catholic, and Syriac) celebrated Easter in their homeland for the first time since ISIS chased them away from their historic homes in the summer of 2014. The Easter liturgies coincided this year with celebrations of the Assyrian New Year, which brought many thousands of Christian refugees from neighboring Kurdistan and from around the world to recently ravaged cities and towns across the Nineveh Plains. Despite the fact that more than 80 percent of Iraqi Christians have been murdered or driven from their homes by Islamic militants, and despite the institutional silence on the part of Western media (and, sadly, Western political and religious leaders), Christians have made clear that they are not leaving the region.
In the Far East, South Korean Christian activists smuggle radios in balloons across the DMZ. Prompted by the ongoing nuclear nonproliferation talks, both Koreas have begun dismantling anti-propaganda loudspeakers at the border. Yet the Far East Broadcasting Company, South Korea’s largest religious radio station, continues unphased with its campaign of broadcasting the Christian gospel to thousands of secret listeners in North Korea. The situation is not unlike that of Soviet dissidents listening to Radio Free Europe under cover of darkness at the height of the Cold War.
As recently as the 1920s, Pyongyang was known as the “Jerusalem of the East,” a hotbed of both Catholic and Protestant missionary work. Today, Christianity is considered to be foreign American propaganda, and citizens who make their faith known publicly are detained and imprisoned under charges of espionage. In May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo secured the release of three American political prisoners from North Korea, detained under bogus charges of “hostile acts” against the state. Two of them, Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim, were Evangelicals working at the Christian-run Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. Their arbitrary detainment sheds a small sliver of light on the much bleaker situation of the country’s native-born Christians. Of the nation’s 100,000 political prisoners, it is estimated that approximately 50,000 are Christians.
The situation of the suffering Church demands a wholly different strategy from our search in the West for post-liberal political alternatives. In much of the world, we cannot afford to suspect liberalism, but must instead affirm liberal principles of religious liberty and pluralism, private property, and the doctrines of human rights and civil liberties. These central tenets of twentieth-century Catholic social thought, affirmed in Vatican II documents (Dignitatis Humanae; Gaudium et Spes) and in more recent encyclicals (Centesimus Annus; Caritas in Veritate), may by now seem tired in the West. But they remain as relevant today for the least of our brethren as they were at the time of issuance. The arbitrary detainment of American Evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, now facing up to thirty-five years of imprisonment in Turkey, reveals the cardinal importance of freedom of speech and assembly. It is obvious that these and many other fruits of liberalism, such as democratic governance, separation of church and state (or mosque and state), and, at a most basic level, the procedural rule of law, would drastically improve the material conditions of persecuted Christians around the world.
For too long, Western political leaders and intellectuals have turned a blind eye to illiberal threats to Christianity in the East. While conducting research in Iraq, I have spoken to many prelates and representatives of the suffering Church in the region (Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac, and minority Protestant). They cannot understand Western apathy or indifference to their unprecedented persecution and the resulting humanitarian crisis.
Representatives from various organizations working with the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq have told me that not a single dollar from the United Nations has reached the refugee camps run by Archbishop Bashar Warda in his diocese of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, which house many tens of thousands of Christian families (in addition to Yazidis and Muslim refugees from across Iraq). Somehow, the U.N. found itself in the position of being able to provide tents and tarps for shelter, complete with branded U.N. logos and regalia for the media to capture in their coverage—that’s all.
The Obama administration, which in accordance with U.N. provisions privileged Muslim migrants over Christians and other persecuted religious refugees from Iraq and Syria, is another instance. Institutional discrimination was not, of course, explicit. It occurred in the context of a nondiscriminatory refugee-processing policy, in which the U.S. relied on U.N. refugee camps for its pool of asylum-seekers. Yet U.N. camps across the Middle East have systematically excluded Christian families, who receive no special protection from U.N. authorities, and therefore find themselves subject to Islamist violence, kidnappings, and forced expulsion from within the so-called safe havens.
The numbers speak loudly. In Jordan, the Zaatari camp—the world’s largest camp for Syrian refugees—houses more than 80,000 residents, but not a single Christian soul. Of the more than one million Christian refugees fleeing ISIS in Iraq and the civil war in Syria, the majority are still displaced.
Recent remarks by French president Emmanuel Macron recognizing the unprecedented persecution of Christians in the Middle East are a step in the right direction. Better still is the Hungarian government’s material support of Christians in Iraq—the only support of its kind among Western governments. While ISIS destroyed or desecrated more than 12,000 homes and 363 churches across Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, more than three thousand homes have since been rebuilt due to the generosity of the Christian charities, and upward of 37,000 brave Christian souls have since returned home. The Trump administration’s recent announcement of aid for the rebuilding of these communities on the Nineveh Plains through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), bypassing the initiatives of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), is another welcome development.
The Trump administration has also promised a more vigorous approach to religious freedom in foreign policy. Under the International Religious Freedom Act, Trump has redesignated ten of the worst violators of religious rights (China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), while adding Pakistan to the list, threatening sanctions and the withdrawal of aid. A tougher stance is needed if we are to move beyond solidarity with the least of our brethren and toward clear political support. Western leaders should take a cue from Ronald Reagan, who privately lobbied Mikhail Gorbachev on religious freedom on the sidelines of the 1988 Moscow summit. Ongoing engagements with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un should confront the notorious dictator on religious liberty, human rights, and the separation of religion from state control. The same tough demands should be made of other offending nations, such as Iran, that are looking to foster closer economic and diplomatic ties with the West.
In nations where Islamism poses a threat, Western leaders should advocate religious pluralism as an antidote to extremism, and push for greater protections and recognition of local Christian populations. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, who has already promised to eradicate Islamist extremism in an attempt to modernize the kingdom, may prove to be an ally if pushed to do so. In April, Salman met with the late French cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, marking the first time a high-ranking Vatican official had ever stepped foot in Riyadh.
We are in a season of disenchantment with political liberalism in the West. This may be necessary for us, but elsewhere in the world, Christians face deadly persecution at the hands of illiberal actors. There, the Church doesn’t need to resist the worst excesses of liberalism, for the secular liberalism that undermines the faith only exists in the West. Elsewhere, we must defend and support classical liberal institutions as much-needed advancements over totalitarianism, Islamism, and civil strife. While political correctness and the dehumanizing effects of globalization are troubling, Islamist decapitations and North Korean prison camps are simply barbaric. There can be no moral equivalence between the two, and no question about which is preferable. Neither, of course, is ideal—but classical writers such as St. Thomas More and St. Augustine have always cautioned against Christian political utopianism. The suffering Church is still awaiting a figure in the model of what St. John Paul II was for Poland and much of the Soviet bloc. For these the least of our brothers, the excesses of Western secular liberalism seem but a trifle in a sea of bloodshed. Indeed, for many, liberalism and liberal institutions remain the long-awaited solution—not the problem.
Jozef Andrew Kosc is a DPhil student in international development at the University of Oxford.