The War on Christians

From Africa, to Asia, to the Middle East, they’re the world’s most persecuted religious group

Paul Marshall

June 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39

For at least three reasons, the contemporary persecution of Christians demands attention: It is occurring on a massive scale, it is underreported, and in many parts of the world it is rapidly growing.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that Christians are suffering persecution in more places today than any other religious group; between 2006 and 2012, Pew says, they were targeted for harassment in 151 countries—three-quarters of the world’s states. Similar findings are reported by the Vatican, Newsweek, the Economist, and the 60-year-old Christian support group Open Doors. Most people in the West are unaware of these facts, though that may be changing.

A few cases do get press coverage—the desperate plight of Meriam Ibrahim, for instance, who gave birth in a Sudanese prison just the other day. She was raised a Christian, but after officials learned that her long-absent father was a Muslim, she was sentenced to death for apostasy—for leaving Islam. And since in Sudan a Muslim woman may not be married to a Christian, her marriage to her American husband was declared void, and she was convicted of adultery and sentenced to 100 lashes to be administered before her execution. These punishments will be dropped if she renounces her Christian faith, which she steadfastly refuses to do.

Another case receiving attention is North Korea’s sentencing of a South Korean missionary, Kim Jong-uk, to life with hard labor. On May 30, he was convicted of espionage and trying to start a church. North Korea also still holds Kenneth Bae, an American sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor on charges of trying to use religion to overthrow the political system.

The Chinese government’s demolition of the 3,000-member Sanjiang church in Wenzhou on April 28 was newsworthy partly because of the church’s size, but also because Sanjiang was not an “underground” church but an official, approved, government-registered “Three-Self” church. Some 20 other official churches in the area have had all or parts of their buildings removed or demolished, and hundreds more are threatened with destruction.

And, most notorious, the abduction into slavery of hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria on April 14 by the al Qaeda-linked Boko Haram led news cycles and tweets for a time, though the religious dimensions of the story were often played down. While the kidnapped girls include Muslims (Boko Haram regards them as apostates because of their Western education), most are Christians, seized in a predominantly Christian area and now subjected to forced conversion.

These events get media attention because they are particularly poignant, or dramatic, or involve foreigners, but our media miss countless other stories. Since the kidnappings, Boko Haram has killed—not kidnapped, killed—hundreds of people, many in the predominantly Christian Gwoza area of Borno State, destroyed 36 churches, and kidnapped at least 8 more girls. On June 1, it attacked a Christian area in neighboring Adamawa state, killing 48 people. In Sudan, a second woman, Faiza Abdalla, has been arrested on suspicion of converting to Christianity, and on April 8 a court terminated her marriage to a Catholic. Iran is imprisoning and torturing pastors from the rapidly growing house church movement, including an American citizen, Pastor Saeed Abedini. Vietnam has imprisoned over 60 Christian leaders. Eritrea holds more than 1,000 Christians in conditions so inhumane that prisoners die or are permanently crippled. In Somalia, in an ignored religious genocide, Al-Shabaab systematically hunts Christians and kills those it finds.

Of course, people of all religions suffer persecution for their faith or lack thereof—the situations of Baha’is and Jews in Iran, Ahmadis and Hindus in Pakistan, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong in China, independent Buddhists in Vietnam, and Rohingya Muslims in Burma are particularly dire. Traditionally, the United States has been regarded as the country that advocates religious freedom for all, often to the disdain of other Westerners. In recent years, however, that has changed. Now America is quieter, while others speak up.

British prime minister David Cameron said recently that “our religion is now the most persecuted religion around the world” and “We should stand up against persecution of Christians and other religious groups wherever and whenever we can, and should be unashamed in doing so.” German chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly stressed that Christians are the world’s most widely persecuted religious group. Probably most outspoken of all is Vladimir Putin; no doubt this reflects geopolitical calculation, but the fact remains that he is stressing the matter.

The Italian Foreign Ministry has established an “Observatory on Religious Freedom.” Quite properly, it is concerned with all religions, but its genesis was the upsurge in killings of Christians. Two years ago it hosted a conference on “Stopping the Massacre of Christians in Nigeria.” Former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner established a similar agency in the Quai d’Orsay, and later the ministry gave financial backing to an “Observatory of Cultural and Religious Pluralism” devoted to monitoring “attacks on freedom of conscience, on freedom of expression, and freedom of religion around the world,” particularly with respect to the Arab Spring. Canada now has an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, a title borrowed from the United States.

In the United States, meanwhile, the position of U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom is vacant, as it has been for over half of President Barack Obama’s tenure. Even when the position has been filled, in the last decade it has usually been marginalized. President Obama gave a great speech on religious freedom at the National Prayer Breakfast, but little action followed.

The United States has marginalized the issue in other ways, too.

After the massacre of 25 Copts by the Egyptian military on October 9, 2011, the White House lamented the “tragic loss of life among demonstrators and security forces” (emphasis added) and called for “restraint on all sides.” As my colleague Sam Tadros commented, “I call upon the security forces to refrain from killing Christians, and upon Christians to refrain from dying.”

On Easter morning in 2012, a church in Kaduna, Nigeria, was the target of a Boko Haram suicide car bombing that killed 39 and wounded dozens. (The previous Christmas, Boko Haram had bombed St. Theresa’s Catholic Church outside the capital, Abuja, killing 44 worshipers, and also attacked churches in the towns of Jos, Kano, Gadaka, and Damaturu.) There was no official comment from the Obama administration about the Kaduna massacre on Christians’ holiest day. Instead, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a press release celebrating the Romani people and demanding that Europe become more inclusive of them.

At the beginning of the State Department’s annual report on international religious freedom for 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry stated, “While Christians were a leading target of societal discrimination, abuse, and violence in some parts of the world, members of other religions, particularly Muslims, suffered as well.” The assertion is incontrovertible, yet the wording elides the truth: Christians are not just “a leading target,” they are the leading target. American officials seem so scared of being accused of selectively defending Christians that they consistently overcompensate and minimize what is happening.

The Catholic and Orthodox churches are more outspoken now than they were in the past, partly because the plight of their brethren, especially in the Middle East, is so stark. Pope Benedict XVI raised the issue many times. Pope Francis, speaking three days after the September 22, 2013, suicide bombing of All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, in which over 80 congregants were killed, urged Christians to examine their consciences about their response to anti-Christian persecution: “Am I indifferent to that, or does it affect me like it’s a member of the family? .  .  . Does it touch my heart, or doesn’t it really affect me, [to know that] so many brothers and sisters in the family are giving their lives for Jesus Christ?”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, in his November 11, 2013, address as he stepped down from chairing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke of the “Via Crucis currently being walked by so many of our Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, who are experiencing lethal persecution on a scale that defies belief.”

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople has observed that “even the simple admission of Christian identity places the very existence of [the] faithful in daily threat,” and Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department for External Church Relations, has been raising the issue with American churches for several years.

Happily, there are signs that some Americans are again paying attention to the issue. Last month on Capitol Hill, a wide coalition of Christian leaders was convened by the co-chairs of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus, representatives Frank Wolf of Virginia, a Republican, and Anna Eshoo of California, a Democrat. They committed themselves to a “Pledge of Solidarity and Call to Action for Religious Freedom in the Middle East.”

Although the persecution of Christians is widespread—Nigeria is where most are actually being killed, North Korea is the most repressive, China represses the largest number—the Pledge of Solidarity focuses on the Middle East and specifically on Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. These are countries where the situation has deteriorated rapidly to the point where Christian communities—along with smaller religious minorities such as Mandeans, Yezidis, Baha’is, and Ahmadis—now face “an existential threat to their presence in the lands where Christianity has its roots.”

In the last decade, half of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country, and many others have fled to the Kurdish region. In three days last August, Egypt’s Coptic Christians experienced the worst single attack against their churches in 700 years—with 40 churches utterly destroyed and over 100 other sites severely damaged. Tens of thousands of Copts are estimated to have fled their homeland. Syria’s Christians, like all Syrians, are caught in the middle of a brutal war, but, according to the pledge, they “are also victims of beheadings, summary executions, kidnappings, and forcible conversions, in deliberate efforts to suppress or eradicate their religious faith.”

Too often these communities in the ancient heartland of Christianity have been forgotten. Speaking in Rome in December, Baghdad’s Catholic Chaldean patriarch, Louis Sako, lamented, “We feel forgotten and isolated. We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West? Would they do something then?”

In Washington, pledges like this new one tend to have about as much staying power as campaign promises. Still, there are reasons to believe that the Pledge of Solidarity will have an effect.

For one thing, the breadth of the coalition behind it is remarkable. Speakers included Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Greek Orthodox metropolitan Methodios of Boston. Pledge signers include Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission president Russell D. Moore, Sojourners’ Jim Wallis, Episcopal Church presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Anglican Church in North America archbishop Robert Duncan, Samaritan’s Purse president Franklin Graham, Robert George of Princeton University, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and George Marlin, chair of Aid to the Church in Need-USA.

Also promising is the fact that the Pledge of Solidarity sets forth focused goals—the appointment of a special envoy on Middle East religious minorities (legislation to create this position has passed the House but is stalled in the Senate, reportedly by a hold placed by Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma), a review of foreign aid to ensure it upholds principles of religious freedom, and an effort to see that refugee and reconstruction assistance reaches all religious communities.

But the pledge will have its greatest effect if, rather than falling on deaf ears, it awakens rank-and-file Americans and others to the religious diversity of the Middle East and the plight of Christians there and elsewhere. When Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I met in Jerusalem in May, their joint communiqué echoed the pledge, singling out “the Churches in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, which have suffered most grievously due to recent events.” The concern expressed by these religious leaders and a handful of politicians is abundantly justified. Still missing is any large-scale mobilization of free people on behalf of persecuted Christians around the world.

Paul Marshall is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and coauthor of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Thomas Nelson, 2013).

Published on The Weekly Standard (