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Following the screening of a documentary film, Faith of our Fathers: In Search of the English Martyrs, parishioners were asked how they would respond to such persecution were it to occur today. It seemed a purely hypothetical question. Yet for many Christians across the world today, persecution is a reality they face every day.
In the past year, three major books have focused on the persecution of Christians across the world: Rupert Shortt’s Christianophobia, Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Nina Shea’s Persecuted, and now the indefatigable US journalist and leading Vaticanologist John Allen’s The Global War on Christians. There is a large part of me that longs for someone to write a book that is not specifically focused on the persecution of Christians, but which examines the increase in the persecution of believers of every faith. It is not only Christians who are under attack for their beliefs. In Indonesia and Pakistan, the Ahmadiyya and Shia Muslim minorities face severe persecution; in Burma, the stateless Rohingya Muslims face a campaign of ethnic cleansing; in China, Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong are oppressed; in Iran, the Baha’is face much abuse.
And it is not only religious believers. In Indonesia, a young man, Alexander Aan, was jailed for two and a half years because he declared himself an atheist. I visited him in prison twice. It is in the interests of all of us to speak up not only for our own particular community of faith, but for the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief – as set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – for all. And this includes the freedom to choose, to practise, to share and to change religion – and the freedom to choose to have no religion at all.
That said, there is no doubt that Christians bear the brunt of religious persecution in the world today. Yet the story of the persecution of Christians in the twenty-first century, while receiving more attention than before, is still largely ignored. Too often, as John Allen argues, modern-day martyrs “suffer in silence”. Allen’s writing is engaging – it is personal, passionate and very human. He provides a wide-ranging survey of the countries where Christians are persecuted, from Eritrea to North Korea, from Pakistan to Nigeria, from Cuba to China and beyond. Allen has been pulled up for some loose statistics (the number of Christians killed “in situations of witness” are inflated by the inclusion of figures from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where large numbers of Christians are being killed, but not for reasons of faith). He should have been more careful: all statistics on persecution should be treated with caution, because of the question of criteria and definition.
What is not in doubt are the searing accounts of torture and abuse faced by Christians in almost every corner of the world. In Eritrea, Christians have been imprisoned in metal shipping containers. Me’eter, “a concentration camp for Christians” in Eritrea is a military complex converted to hold religious prisoners. The description of their torture is graphic. Allen tells the story of one survivor, who “was tossed into a container with a female inmate who had been beaten so badly her uterus was actually hanging outside her body”. The unavoidable question, he asks, is “why the abuse at Me’eter doesn’t arouse the same horror and intense public fascination as the celebrated atrocities that unfolded at Abu Ghraib, for instance, or at Guantánamo Bay. Why isn’t the whole world abuzz with outrage over the grotesque violations of human rights at Me’eter?”
But it’s not only Eritrea. Far from it. Allen produces a catalogue of horrors from almost all continents, and the perpetrators come from all directions: radical Islam, yes, but also militant Buddhism, Hindu nationalism, extreme secularism, communism and authoritarianism. Even, sadly, from within Christianity itself, one denomination suppressing another. “We’re talking about a massive, worldwide pattern of violence and oppression directed at a specific group of people,” Allen notes. “If the defence of human rights and religious freedom is to mean anything, its cutting edge has to be formed by robust concern for the fate of these Christians.” Allen acknowledges the complexity of the issues and the danger of over-simplification. Persecution of Christians is sometimes specifically to do with faith, but it is often interwoven with ethnicity, politics and socio-economic factors. In some instances, Christians are jailed or tortured because they have acted according to their conscience, speaking up for democracy and human rights or challenging organised crime. Allen argues that even if they are not targeted solely or specifically for their faith, they themselves have acted according to conscience informed by faith, and so their persecution is religious. “In assessing the scope and scale of today’s war on Christians, it’s not enough to consider what was in the mind of the person pulling the trigger – we also have to ponder what was in the heart of the believer getting shot,” he suggests.
He also acknowledges that in some cases, aggressive proselytism on the part of Christians has provoked retribution, but argues that the failures of the institutional Church or individuals “cannot justify indiscriminate violence and harassment”.
Where Allen’s book adds value is in analysing why the response from the free world, including Christians in the “West”, has been so mute, and what more can be done. It is not for shortage of information, he argues. “The problem in the global war on Christians is not that no one is reporting what’s happening. It’s rather that far too few people are paying attention.” He suggests several theories for Western silence, including the fact that for many Christians in the comfortable West, persecution is “disturbing and uncomfortable” and therefore to be left alone. In addition, the issue has, sadly, been politicised. The victims of persecution, according to a French intellectual, Régis Debray, are “too Christian to excite the Left, too foreign to interest the Right”. Such partisanship is tragic.
As Allen argues, “It’s well past time for the world, especially its Christians, to wake up”. No faith commitment is required to see that the plight of persecuted Christians is “an urgent human-rights priority”. One didn’t need to be Jewish to be horrified by the Holocaust or the fate of dissident Soviet Jews, nor did one need to be black to be opposed to apartheid. Similarly, “one doesn’t have to be a Christian today to be appalled by the widespread torture and murder of Christians”. Yet Christians have “a special obligation”, a “vocation”, to “come to the aid of their suffering brothers and sisters”. The persecution of Christians today is, as Allen writes, perhaps “the greatest story never told”.
Reviewed by Benedict Rogers