A spate of stories about anti-Christian persecution have been appearing on my Facebook newsfeed since ISIS began its latest offensive in northern Iraq. Some are complete fictions, such as the report that ISIS militants were beheading Christian children, while others use the language of martyrdom to describe ethnic cleansing of a number of different groups. It seems strange that people would invent stories about beheading when ISIS have been crucifying dead bodies in Syria. Similarly, when Boko Haram militants massacred hundreds of villagers in Nigeria last week, it isn’t clear why this story should have been sensationalized as “Boko Haram terrorists slaughter 1,000 Christians by shooting them, cooking them alive and chopping them up in pieces.” Why lie to make a horrible story even more horrible?
Careless reporting does more harm than good and makes one start to wonder how much truth there is to any of the stories we hear about persecuted Christians. Although religious persecution of any sort is still heavily under-reported in the media, it has received more and more attention in recent times. Some of it is strictly anti-Islamic, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Newsweek article, but much is balanced and factually accurate. Organizations such as The Voice of the Martyrs and International Christian Concern have worked tirelessly on these issues for many years, and they provide material support for the victims as well as spreading the word about human rights abuses. Two major books on the subject appeared last year – John L. Allen Jr.’s The Global War on Christians (2013) and Persecuted: The Global War on Christians (2013), by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Nina Shea. I picked up Persecuted to find out how much substance was behind these reports, and am saddened to report that most are only too accurate.
As Marshall, Gilbert, and Shea repeatedly remind us, Christians are the world’s most persecuted religious group – “roughly 75 percent of acts of religious intolerance are directed against Christians.” Christians are persecuted in 133 countries, but the authors focus on a handful of the usual suspects. They cannot give statistics because so much of it remains undocumented, but their vignettes are compelling and believable. This book is heavily footnoted considering its journalistic (and patronizing) style. As should be expected on such a topic, most of their data comes from online sources and I was impressed that so many were reliable watchdog organizations such as the International Religious Freedom Report and the European Stability Initiative or major media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, and the New York Times. The rest comes from Christian organizations, regional newspapers, and occasionally from personal interviews or victims’ blogs.
One of my biggest questions before I picked up this book was whether the authors were conflating ethnic violence with religious persecution, the way that people do when they claim that victims of the Armenian genocide or the Spanish Civil War were Christian martyrs. This is manifestly not the case. They focus on Christians “who are tortured, raped, imprisoned, or killed for their faith.” They write, “their churches may also be attacked or destroyed. Their entire communities may be crushed by a variety of deliberately targeted measures that may or may not entail violence. And all of them most certainly experience, as the IRFA puts it, ‘flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.'” And this is not just because they are minority groups. In every example this book cites it is, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “because of their pursuit of truth, their faith in Jesus Christ and their heartfelt plea for respect for religious freedom.” The book does talk about the persecution of ethnic minorities such as the Karen and the Chin in Burma, but it explains that while the origins of the persecution are ethnic, the nature of the persecution often involves soldiers forcing ethnic minority pastors to blaspheme at gunpoint.
The accounts in Persecuted range from mob violence against individual Christians to legal sanctions against organized religion. They show how the Malaysian government refuses to allow Bibles containing the word “Allah” to be distributed and demands that all Christian literature have “not for Muslims” printed on the front in case Muslims might accidentally be converted. In Russia the Council of Experts for Conducting State Religious Studies Expert Analysis restricts the ability of Protestant churches to function and occasionally closes regional churches involved in faith healing on the grounds that they are engaging in the illegal use of “medical technologies including techniques which have a psychological and psychotherapeutic affect on the human psyche.” The authorities were slow to respond and failed to properly prosecute the perpetrators when Hindu nationalists attacked thousands of Christians in Orissa, in India, but the real point of this story is that anyone can persecute Christians – governments, local policemen, fundamentalist groups, and militant gangs. Malaysia, Russia, and India are mild cases by the standards of this book. Christians in North Korea are publicly executed for distributing Bibles, and in Saudi Arabia hatred towards Christians is preached in schools and mosques, with the result that underground church leaders receive frequent death threats and foreign missionaries are imprisoned for months on vague charges.
The fact that so much of the evidence in this book is true does not make it a good read. There is no attempt to explain the systemic, racial, or economic factors shaping religious hatred. Perpetrators are simply evil, or more often, Muslim or atheist. The authors frequently use ideographs they hope will inspire horror in their readers. The chapter titles, for example, are:
1. The Current State of Affairs
2. Caesar and God: The Remaining Communist Powers
3. Post-Communist Countries: Register, Restrict, and Ruin
4. South Asia’s Christian Outcasts
5. The Muslim World: A Weight of Repression
6. The Muslim Word: Policies of Persecution
7. The Muslim World: Spreading Repression
8. The Muslim World: War and Terrorism
9. Cruel and Unusual Abuse
10. A Call to Action
A glance at these headings shows the book’s strong anti-Islamic message. American ideals of equality shock readers with the idea that Christians might be “outcasts,” and decades of anti-Communist rhetoric ensures that we cringe when we think that this atheistic ideology still exists. Not only do the authors ignore the more accurate label “post-socialism,” but they write that in countries such as Russia, Armenia, and Georgia “post-Communist means ‘still largely Communist but we don’t want to admit it.'” Regardless of how much of a mess Putin’s Russia is, there is no way that it can be described as “still largely Communist.” Similarly, Persecuted challenges the argument that Christians are not true Turks with the argument that “straddling Europe and Asia, Turkey has an ancient Christian presence that has long struggled to survive in the midst of an overwhelmingly Muslim population. Beginning with the apostles, the church flourished for fourteen centuries in what today is Turkey, before suffering conquest, genocide, brutal population exchanges, pogroms, and many other persecutions. Then, roughly one hundred years ago, Turkey became a radically secular republic that stifled religion across the board and saw continued bloodshed.” To claim that Christians are more authentically Turkish than atheists are is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature and historical specificity of Turkish nationalism. The authors make such willful errors repeatedly throughout the book, making it difficult to read without throwing up from time to time.
The book’s ideological bias becomes clear when one realizes that all three authors work for the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, a right-wing think tank in Washington DC whose values include “a strong belief in the power of free peoples, free markets, and the role of technologies as a driver of economic progress.” One of the book’s implicit messages is that the United States is great and that the rest of the world needs to get its act together. Given how desperate the plight of so many Christians is, it saddens me that I had to learn about anti-Christian persecution from these people. The research and news stories they cite shows that stories about these issues do exist and that there is plenty of information available for anyone who wants to educate themselves. But no-one cares. Until anti-Christian persecution is linked to an enemy everybody loves to hate, such as ISIS or Boko Haram, these stories do not make the headlines and never go viral. Perhaps the lesson is that we need to learn to care even when we’re not told to by social media and to take the initiative to learn about the world for ourselves. Even if it means reading right-wing propaganda like Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians.