In September 2008, a group of Islamists invaded the home of an Indonesian pastor, dragged him to the street, and demanded he convert to Islam. “When he refused, they cut off his finger,” reports Under Caesar’s Sword, a new study by 17 scholars of Christian persecution in 25 countries. “He still refused, so they chopped off his hand. When he refused again, they cut off his arms, and when he refused again they sawed off his legs, ending by chopping off his head. The pastor’s wife met the same fate.”
It’s not just Islamists or Islam. “Communist regimes like China, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, and North Korea are a second type. India, Sri Lanka, and Russia exemplify a third type, in which various forms of religious nationalism promote a fusion of state, faith, and national identity to the detriment of Christian minorities. A fourth category comprises regimes that impose a harsh secular ideology, such as the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia.”
Nor is it only governments. “Non-state actors—populations at large and organized groups, including violent religious extremists and terrorist groups—are often responsible for repression, too.”
Why does this report focus on Christians? Because, these scholars conclude, “Christians are the most widely targeted religious community, suffering terrible persecution globally.” Estimates by human rights organizations vary, “but even the most conservative estimates of the Christian proportion of global religious persecution do not fall below 60 percent.” In 2009, the International Society for Human Rights, a secular NGO based in Frankfurt, estimated Christians were the victims of 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world. The Pew Research Center found that in every year between 2007 and 2014, Christians have been targeted for harassment in more countries than any other religious group.
Why are Christians the primary object of persecution worldwide? Very few Christian majority nations persecute their religious minorities. But there are exceptions, these scholars point out, such as in Russia where Vladimir Putin is encouraging a nationalist-Orthodox fusion of identity and exposing minority Christian sects to “strong discrimination.” Then there is Communist Cuba, where the majority of the population still identify as Catholics and are nonetheless persecuted by their own government.
And yet despite the gruesome stories of persecution — and the occasional acts of heroic martyrdom — the press remains remarkably uninterested.
“Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this persecution is the lack of press coverage it receives,” the study notes. Georgetown’s Religious Freedom Project analyzed 323 major reports published by Human Rights Watch, from 2008 to mid-2011. Only 2.5 percent of its reports were concerned with religious persecution of any kind, and less than half of these tiny number reported on Christian persecution.
What about the liberal democracies of the West? The scholars acknowledge — and it is important emphasize this –that Christians here do not face persecution. Reading about what is happening to Christians in much of the rest of the world reminds me: we American Christians are wusses.
But the report notes Christians and other traditional faith communities do face a growing, troubling hostility among the powerful.
“The Pew Research Center reports that between 2007 and 2013, governmental restrictions on religion increased in 37 out of 43 European countries, as well as in Canada and the United States, while social hostilities increased in 38 out of 43 countries.” They point out: “Such restrictions are motivated by a secular ideology and involve imposition of serious material costs on Christian believers due to their commitment to traditional Christian teachings.”
In many Islamic nations, in Communist China, and in Putin’s Russia, it is not clear what we can do to protect the persecuted Christians. But the first step is noticing them, remembering them, and paying attention.