Persecution of Christians ‘growing worse’

An international conference in Rome in mid-December on the topic of Christian persecution drew attendees from all over the world to share their experiences and to hear the reports of 14 top scholars who studied Christian persecution in 30 countries (see the Dec. 6 issue of OSV Newsweekly). This project, titled Under Caesar’s Sword, 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.

Daniel Philpott, a project leader and fellow of Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies, relates his experience of the conference.


Our Sunday Visitor: Was there any consensus among experts about whether persecution of Christians is getting worse worldwide, or just in some areas?

Daniel Philpott: There was a general consensus that the persecution of Christians around the world has been growing worse. In part, this is because it has been getting worse in the place where the media spotlight was already shining: the Middle East. There, the rise of the Islamic State threatens to expel and destroy ancient Christian communities. Things have been getting worse elsewhere in the Islamic world as well: in Pakistan, Indonesia and the central Asian republics (“the -stans”). We have also seen a new crackdown on Christians in China, resulting in the removal of crosses from, or destruction of, over 400 churches in Zhejiang province alone in the last year and a half.

There is also the persecution of Christians (as well as Muslims) at the hands of Hindu nationalists in India, who are emboldened by the rise of a government ruled by a Hindu nationalist party.

Even in the West, threats to the religious freedom of Christians have been growing. Though I would not call it persecution, it is quite serious nonetheless. So, I think we can indeed speak of a global rise in the persecution of Christians.

OSV: Christians have been fleeing the conflicts and persecutions in the Middle East and in North Africa. Did any speakers offer hope that these Christian communities could be rebuilt?

Philpott: Indeed, the phenomenon of flight is common in the Middle East and North Africa today — Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and the Gaza Strip. It is in Iraq, Syria and Gaza that there is a serious danger of losing ancient Christian communities who are themselves cultural and spiritual treasures: articles of faith, if you will. The two patriarchs who spoke at the conference from Iraq and Syria expressed hope that Christians would stay in their homes, though they were also careful to say that they respected the decisions of threatened Christians to either leave or stay. Generally, I did not hear much hope among the participants that Christians would return after fleeing.

OSV: Could you relate some of the successful strategies the scholars found that Christians have adopted to deal with harassment or persecution?

Philpott: Generally, the strategies depend on the degree and kind of repression that the Christians face. We discerned three categories of responses, ranging on a scale of assertiveness. First, there are “survival” strategies. The most repressed communities can often do little more than cope with their predicament. This could involve courageously persisting in worship and even evangelization, or else finding ways to appease and accommodate their regime. Communities in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan fit this description.

Second are “constructive” strategies in which Christian communities find more active ways to assert their presence. In Nigeria and Kenya, for instance, Christian communities built bridges with other Christian communities and Muslim leaders, which helped to protect themselves against extremists. In Russia, small Christian communities engage in the provision of social services so as to give them a larger presence and more autonomy in their society.

Third, and most assertive, are strategies of “confrontation” through which Christian communities actively oppose their regime and its policies. These are the riskiest strategies and are usually found in democracies or semi-democracies. In India and Pakistan, for instance, Christians engage in public demonstrations against discrimination and against the violence of extremist groups.

OSV: What information reported at the conference was the biggest surprise to you?

Philpott: Most striking and bracing were the examples of courageous and distinctively Christian responses amid very difficult circumstances. There was Paul Bhatti, brother of assassinated Pakistani Minister of Minority Affairs, Shabhaz Bhatti, who spoke of his journey toward forgiveness and his decision to remain with the people of Pakistan after his brother’s death.

There was Helen Berhane, an Eritrean Gospel singer who was placed in a shipping container for over two years for her refusal to renounce the Gospel, and she sang for us a song that she composed there.

Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Church shared with us the sorrowful history of that Church under Nazism and communism as well as its heroic role in the recent anti-government protests in Maidan Square in Kiev, Ukraine.

Father Bernard Kinvi of the Central African Republic spoke of sheltering Muslims in the hospital that he runs amid a war between Christians and Muslims. These heart-rending, flesh-and-blood examples of responses to persecution complemented the more scholarly analysis and showed what is at stake.

OSV: One goal of the project was to help religious leaders and policymakers in Western countries consider a greater range of options to support persecuted Christian communities. What are some of the options discussed that Christians here could implement?

Philpott: With respect to governments, one of the major questions in the air was that of military intervention on behalf of Christians persecuted by the Islamic State. In his address, the Patriarch of the Chaldean Church in Iraq, Louis Raphael Sako, called for Western intervention in the form of ground troops. Also in the air was the question of whether the persecution of Christians qualifies as genocide according to international law. We heard of the work of the U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, David Saperstein, who is building coalitions for religious freedom around the world, and we heard of parallel work in other Western democracies.

Ideas emerged also for what Christians and their churches in the religiously free part of the world can do. There could be a far more concerted and organized effort to promote prayer for the persecuted Church. People and parishes might also develop a relationship with persecuted Christians in a given locale. This should be guided by the wisdom and prudence of churches and organizations that have a long-standing relationship with these areas; but done right, such relationships can be great sources of spiritual encouragement and material assistance.

OSV: What is your plan to disseminate the findings of the scholars and to formulate recommendations for action?

Philpott: A public report will be completed by this summer and launched in a public event in Washington, D.C., in the fall. We will have a volume of academic essays written by our team of scholars and produce a documentary film. We’ll also be producing and putting out curricula for schools and churches in order to spread awareness and build solidarity with the persecuted church.

OSV: What would you consider to be the most important result of the conference?

Philpott: Solidarity. One of the most extraordinary things about the event was the coalition of people that it brought together from all over the world: professors and prelates, activists and ambassadors. It brought together representatives from many Christian churches: Catholic, evangelical, Anglican, Lutheran, Coptic and Orthodox. Pope Francis has spoken of “the ecumenism of blood” that brings together the Christian church through its martyrs. At the conference, I sensed a movement on behalf of the persecuted church that might grow and blossom.

Ann Carey writes from Indiana.