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The Interim Report on global persecution, issued at Easter by the Rt. Rev. Philip Mounstephen, Bishop of Truro, is a landmark achievement. I hope it will bring attention to what John L. Allen has called the “greatest story never told of the early 21st century”—the “global war on Christians.”

The Report focuses on the persecution of Christians. Though a third of the world’s population faces persecution, Christians make up as much as 80 percent of the persecuted. Calling attention to the plight of Christians will, the Report states, help other religious minorities who suffer in similar ways.

The Christian non-profit Aid to the Church in Need concludes that persecution is “today worse than at any time in history.” And it’s getting worse. Open Doors estimates that 245 million Christians suffer at least “high levels” of persecution. Many Christians have fled their homelands. At the beginning of the twentieth century, 20 percent of the population of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) was Christian. Now that number is 4 percent.

In some areas, persecution meets the U.N. criteria for genocide. Christian leaders are systematically arrested, tortured, and killed. Church buildings are attacked and Christian symbols made illegal or destroyed. States, vigilante groups, drug cartels, and paramilitary organizations are among the persecutors. Media outlets, Islamic preachers, and educational institutions incite hatred with distorted portraits of Christian beliefs and behavior. Boko Haram and other radical Islamists kidnap Christian girls and force them into marriage and conversion.

Militant Islamic groups like ISIS are responsible for much of the persecution, but in south Asia nationalism provides the ideological impetus. Indians increasingly believe that “to be Indian is to be Hindu,” which means that Christians are at best excluded from citizenship and at worst regarded as subversives. In China, Christians are viewed as threats to the Communist hegemony. Christians aren’t even safe among friends and neighbors. Asia Bibi spent years awaiting hanging in a Pakistani prison because of a putatively blasphemous remark uttered in a private conversation.

Thorough and welcome as it is, the Interim Report is less satisfying in its brief proposals for addressing the crisis. It concludes by declaring “complete confidence” in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the “legal structures and systems” of the international community. Set aside the theoretical problems with secular human rights identified by Alasdair MacIntyre, John Milbank, and others. Immense practical obstacles stand in the way of making the liberal principles of the Universal Declaration truly universal.

Liberal human rights theory is, after all, foreign to many political systems. University of Toronto political scientist Ran Hirschl claims that as many as a billion people live under a form of what he calls “constitutional theocracy.” Though no more uniform than liberal democracies, these theocracies share certain features. They have written constitutions that set out the purposes and procedures of government, and usually formally separate religious and political power. (Iran’s president, for instance, isn’t a cleric, though the Supreme Leader is.) Despite structural similarities to liberal states, constitutional theocracies endorse a particular religion or denomination and look to that religion’s texts and interpreters for guidance in legislation, judgment, and governance. The Saudi Basic Law of 1993 states that “Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its religion; God’s book and the Sunnah of His prophet . . . are its constitution.” The Saudi state “implements its Shari’a . . .orders people to do right and shun evil” and so “fulfills the duty regarding God’s call.”

Hirschl isn’t an apologist for theocracy, but he argues that these states are legitimate and offer a reasonable solution to religious conflicts. Establishment of a state religion seems to be a triumph for religion, but it often has the opposite effect. Giving a religion official status can blunt the edge of radicalism, and make the religion and its leaders serviceable to the state’s interests. Fat imams rarely challenge rulers. Official religions also deepen narratives of national identity, and so foster popular loyalty to the state. Besides, theocracies may be more democratic than liberal polities, which can be, as per Peter Berger’s quip, nations of Indians ruled by Swedes. 

To a theocratic state that places restrictions on Christians, a call to conform to the Universal Declaration looks like a form of imperialism. To demand that theocracies cease to be theocratic is to demand that they detach their most deeply held beliefs from their public life. With Western liberalism itself in disarray because of religiously-motivated populisms, can we be the standard for the rest of the world? Why insist that India be ruled by Swedes?

An appeal based on group rights is more politically viable. Some theocratic states already carve out secular jurisdictions and autonomous zones for religious minorities. Despite Saudi Arabia’s strongly theocratic constitution, the royal family created a commission to deal with international commercial law, separate from the Shari’a-based civil and criminal courts. Though the Maldives constitution says “Islam shall be the basis of all the laws,” beach resorts serve alcohol to tourists and permit non-Islamic swimwear. Indonesia’s constitution explicitly recognizes minority religions. It establishes a generic monotheism (“the state shall be based on the belief in the one and only God”) and gives legal recognition to Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. 

At best, such provisions provide breathing space, a pressure release. In theocratic systems, persecution is a rational policy: If a religion is built into the system, then a radically different faith may pose a genuine threat. Hindu and Buddhist nationalists aren’t wrong to think the church is subversive. For the church, whether we’re persecuted or not, the first and last response isn’t political but prayerful, an echo of the lament of the martyrs of the Apocalypse: “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will you refrain from avenging the blood of your saints?”

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

Photo by Angela Xu via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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