Study explores Christian response to persecution

Fourteen of the world’s leading scholars of Christianity will soon present their findings after spending months studying how Christian communities respond to persecution.

Those involved with the project, who fanned out across the globe, covering some 30 countries including hot spots of persecution like Nigeria and Iraq, will detail their findings for the first time at an international conference in Rome Dec. 10-12.

The project, undertaken at a time when Christian communities in many parts of the world are facing persecutions ranging from political and social harassment all the way to death and near-extinction, is titled “Under Caesar’s Sword.” It is a partnership between the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame and the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

“If we can discover systematically what Christian communities do when they are persecuted and what effects their strategies have, these communities will be strengthened. They may learn from one another new possibilities and new strategies,” said Daniel Philpott, a project leader and fellow of Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies.

Timothy Shah, another study leader and associate director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs added: “Because the situation for so many persecuted Christians is so fluid and dynamic, and because our scholars have been in the field in just the last few months in a number of cases, our project will deliver a rich but also fresh and up-to-date picture of what Christians are facing right now, as well as how they are creatively and courageously responding.”

In addition, both Shah and Philpott believe the project will focus greater attention on the plight of persecuted Christians and help religious leaders and policymakers in Western countries consider a greater range of options to support persecuted Christian communities.

In Nigeria and Kenya

Holy Cross Father Robert Dowd, a political science professor and also a fellow in Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies, did research in Nigeria and Kenya, where he has been involved in Holy Cross ministries for years.

“The persecution of Christians in Kenya by Al-Shabaab and in Nigeria by Boko Haram has been extremely violent,” Father Dowd said.

Those terrorist groups have also attacked Muslims they consider to be insufficiently faithful, he observed, but they have often killed Christians — especially males — just because of their religious identity.

Most ordinary Christians in both countries have responded to these attacks by fleeing their homes, he found, and these people make up a growing percentage of the million-plus internally displaced persons in Nigeria alone.

“There appears to be a split among Nigeria’s Christian leaders as to the best way to respond to attacks on Christians,” Father Dowd said.

Mainline Christian leaders, particularly Roman Catholics, tend to reach out to Muslim religious leaders and the government to develop strategies to weaken Boko Haram, whereas evangelical Christians tend to demand government action and call for Christians to defend themselves.

Father Dowd found that efforts to reach out to Muslim religious leaders in certain areas of Kenya and Nigeria have been effective in providing Christians with greater security.

“In Nigeria in particular, there are numerous examples of Muslims hiding and defending Christians from Boko Haram militants. These interfaith efforts to promote religious freedom may also be sowing the seeds of mutual respect and greater religious freedom for Christians and Muslims in the area,” Father Dowd said.

In India and Sri Lanka

Chad Bauman, who studied in India and Sri Lanka, is a professor of philosophy and religion at Butler University and president of the Society for Hindu-Christian Studies. He partnered with James Ponniah, an assistant professor of Christian Studies at the University of Madras in India.

Bauman said that the “vast majority” of interactions between Christians with Hindus in India and with Buddhists in Sri Lanka are “cordial, pleasant and friendly,” with a long history of cooperation between faiths in those countries.

Hinduism and Buddhism are considered to be the national faiths in these countries, so the people there tend not to be evangelistic or try to expand their faiths and make converts, Bauman explained. Problems between Christians and the majority of faiths in India and Sri Lanka are not really theological, he said, but rather related to the history of colonialism and concerns about globalization and Westernization.

“So when they see evangelizing, they say ‘This is not religion; this is some sort of political expansionism,’” Bauman said, adding that some small Christian sects seem to have caused most of the problems by very aggressive proselytizing.

One complaint local people have, he said, is that Christians come into a country with a great deal of money and set up hospitals, co-ops and companies to create jobs, but then they use these services as a way of luring people to the faith.

In India and Sri Lanka, persecution of Christians usually takes the form of vandalism, beatings, harassment and even legal discrimination, but murder and sexual assault of Christians also occur, Bauman said.

Revealing the findings

Other countries in the study, which was funded in part by a $1.1 million grant from the Templeton Religion Trust, included China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Father Dowd and Bauman will join the other scholars in giving their full reports at the conference at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome. The gathering also will feature religious freedom advocates, human rights activists and religious leaders from around the world speaking about their own regions and giving a global perspective. After the conference, project leaders will compile the scholars’ findings into a human rights report that will be translated into four languages and distributed worldwide and available online. A volume of essays about the findings also is planned, along with a public presentation in Washington, D.C., a documentary film and development of curricula for schools and churches.

Ann Carey writes from Indiana.