REDWOOD FALLS - Anti-Christian persecution: We hear about it sporadically in news reports from the Middle East.
An ISIS video shows Egyptian Christian captives being brutally beheaded on a beach in Libya. A car bomb goes off near a Church in Bagdad as worshippers are leaving on Christmas Day, killing dozens of people. A Protestant pastor is imprisoned in Iran for allegedly organizing religious gatherings in private homes.
Such stories have gradually become familiar. Yet few of us are aware that the persecution of Christians is now a world-wide epidemic.
Bringing light to this story is well-known Catholic journalist John Allen. His ground-breaking 2013 book, “The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution,” chronicled waves of physical violence, discrimination, and harassment against Christians in many regions of the globe and grappled with their scope.
At 7 p.m. on March 7 at the Church of St. Catherine in Redwood Falls, Allen will present the Diocese of New Ulm’s annual Bishop Lucker Lecture. In his talk, “Blessed Are Those Who Are Persecuted: Today’s Christian Martyrs and How We Can Respond,” he will share key insights from his book as well as a subsequent world tour to gather individual stories of those who are being persecuted.
Allen is well regarded in the United States and abroad for his reporting excellence. He spent 16 years as senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter focusing on the Vatican. He now serves as an associate editor of The Boston Globe and its Crux Web site. He is also CNN’s senior Vatican analyst.
To provide a glimpse of the topics he might address in his talk, Allen gave a phone interview to Prairie Catholic editor-in-chief Dan Rossini on Feb. 1.
Is your talk going to be based on your recent book, “The Global War on Christians”?
The book is the foundation of it. The book actually came out in 2012. And since then, the “Globe” and “Crux” sent me and my colleague, Inés San Martín, in the last year on a major reporting series in various parts of the world to try to bring the book up to date.
We were in Latin American for the Romero beatification, trying to tell the story of the contemporary Latin American martyrs. We were in Egypt to try to do the story of the Middle East. We were in India to try to do the story of what’s happening in Asia. And then we were in Nigeria primarily focused on Boko Haram, but also doing the broader African story.
So yes, it’s based on the book, but it’s also based on reporting that was designed to bring the book up to date.
Tell us why this topic is so important, because Christian persecution has been going on for ages, but it’s particularly relevant now.
Let me first speak as a journalist. I think this is the most important human rights story of our time. And it doesn’t require any particular religious beliefs to recognize it as such. Just numerically, Christians are by far the most persecuted religious body on the face of the planet in the early 21st century. Now, in part, that’s simply because there are more Christians than any other religious tradition. There are 2.3 billion Christians in the world – which is one-third of the human family – so they’re going to be more exposed to persecution.
But it’s also because the zones of Christianity’s greatest growth are coming outside the West. They’re coming principally in sub-Saharan Africa and in parts of Asia. Often these are places that don’t really have any tradition – any legal tradition or cultural tradition – of respect for religious freedom. It’s also the case that Christianity’s greatest growth is coming among the poor and it’s coming among people who are often members of other minority groups – whether it’s ethnic or linguistic or whatever. Therefore these are people who are often doubly and triply at risk.
The numbers tell the story. The low-end estimate for the number of Christians who are killed for reasons related to the faith is a few thousand. The high-end estimate is around 100,000. This works out to somewhere between one new martyr every 10 minutes and one new martyr every two hours. It is an astonishing scourge.
According to the Pew Forum, which does an annual survey of religious freedom violations around the world annually, there are more acts of religious discrimination directed against Christians than any other faith community. According to one estimate, 80 percent of all the acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed against Christians. So it is an astonishing global human rights problem to which not nearly enough attention is directed.
I think, in part, that’s because it’s often happening in places that Westerners and Americans in particular aren’t familiar with, that is, it’s just sort of too far away. Often it’s happening to people who, aside from the fact of being Christians, are very different from us, members of the Dalit and tribal underclass in India, for example, which is, a completely different experience that Americans don’t understand very well.
Also, because traditionally in America, while it’s easy for us to acknowledge that, say, Jews might be the victims of religious discrimination, or Muslims, or Buddhists, or whatever, it is only very recently that we have acknowledged culturally that Christians can be the victims of discrimination, because historically, Christianity was the culture-shaping majority in the United States. So we have this old narrative that says Christians are not the persecutees, they’re the persecutors. We have to work through that. But those are explanations, not excuses. The plain fact of the matter is that anti-Christian persecution is today’s transcendent human rights challenge. And we need to catch up to that reality. As I say, everything I’ve said so far requires no religious conviction whatsoever to recognize. It’s an empirical fact.
Now, let me speak as a Catholic. We have the theology of St. Paul, which says the suffering of a member of the body anywhere should be our suffering, too. We have a grand tradition in the Church of venerating the sacrifice and the witness of the martyrs. That, of course, is what the word “martyr” means etymologically: “witness.” We say with Tertullian, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith.”
The question is, is that just pleasant-sounding rhetoric, or do we mean it? And if we mean it, then as Catholics, we need to wake up to what is happening to our brothers and sisters in the faith today and do something about it.
And I think that doing something means both preserving the stories of those who have made the supreme sacrifice for the faith, making sure they don’t remain anonymous and forgotten. It also means coming to the defense of people who are on the brink of joining their company, because we should be celebrating the witness of the martyr, but we should also do everything we can to ensure that new martyrs are not being needlessly generated because of a failure of solidarity on our part.
The title of your book is “The Global War on Christians.” How is the word “war” justified here?
I’m very cautious about the word, because we Americans call everything a war. It’s potentially one of the most overused words in American political life. And it contributes to a kind of rhetorical inflation that makes it very difficult to talk to people. If you think other people are waging war on you, it’s very hard to find common ground with them.
So I recognize the risk of the word. But I think the reason it’s justified in this case is first of all, the scale of the casualties of this conflict. I ran the numbers for you a minute ago. We’re talking about a bare minimum of somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 to 8,000 new martyrs every year. And depending on how you define a martyr, the actual account could be much higher. According to various sorts of watchdog groups out there, there are somewhere between 100,000,000 and 200,000,000 Christians in the world today who are at risk, not just of low-level harassment, but physical violence and death. And so the scale of it, I think, demands the word.
Secondly, the global nature of it. This isn’t just happening in limited pockets of places around the world. There’s no region of the world today where you cannot find Christians who are at risk – and physical risk. I’m talking about imprisonment, I’m talking about destruction of property, I’m talking about physical attacks, and under some circumstances, death.
When I brought the book out – and we’re only talking about less than four years ago, so it’s not a long period of time – but when the book came out, what I had to wade through was a kind of generalized climate of denial that there was such a thing as anti-Christian persecution. That was always the first question in every interview: “What are you talking about?”
Now, and I think this is the effect of the rise of ISIS, the new form of denial about anti-Christian persecution is that it’s happening anywhere but the Middle East. People are now prepared to acknowledge that in places such as Syria and Iraq, there is a kind of genocide unfolding against the Christian minority group there, but it’s very difficult for them to see it happening anyplace else.
So I think the reasons that in the end I decided to call this a “war” was to bring home those two points about it: First, that this is a war in the sense of the scale of casualties being generated, and secondly, it’s a world war in the sense that it’s happening everywhere.
You have mentioned a number of reasons why Christians are being persecuted. Christians are being targeted for the mere fact that there are so many Christians in the world. They’re being targeted because the Church is growing in areas where there is no tradition of religious tolerance. What could we add to that?
I think certainly one of the dominant trends in global religion probably during our generation has been the rise of various forms of extremism, often linked to nationalism. You see that in particularly acute form these days in India, for example, where the country is now governed by a party that is linked to a sort of deeply conservative form of Hindu nationalism that sees the Christian minority – which by the way is growing dramatically – as a threat. So I think Christians often run afoul of these various forms.
By the way, even Buddhism has its own form of national radicalism, which you see in places such as Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and so on. So I think that’s one factor.
But I think the basic factor is this: Outside the West – and that’s where Christianity is growing most dramatically today – Christianity is often identified with the West. It’s identified with Europe and the United States.
So say you’re a typical person – say, you’re a typical Iraqi Muslim, or you’re a typical Indian Hindu, or you’re a typical Chinese secularist, whatever it is, and you have an axe to grind against the West. You don’t like its foreign policy in the Middle East, you don’t like its perceived economic stranglehold on the world, or whatever your beef may be. It is very difficult for you to take it out on the E.U. or the United States. It is remarkably easy for you to walk down to the corner to the local Christian Church, which you associate with the West, and take it out on them.
So quite often these Christians – who are not Westerners – have deeper roots in their society than their persecutors do. That is certainly true of the Christians in the Middle East, who were there seven centuries before Islam. Nevertheless, they carry the weight for the perceived sins of the West in the eyes of their neighbors and often end up paying a price in blood because of it.
One of the big observations in your book is that the persecution of Christians is not primarily due to Islam.
Two things are true about that, and we have to hold them in focus at the same time. One is that there is no doubt that radical Islam today is the world’s leading manufacturer of anti-Christian hatred. There is no doubt about that. Of all the places in the world today where I think Christians are at risk and they need our help, there’s a kind of special priority that has to be given to Syria and Iraq because of the carnage that’s unfolding there. And nothing we say should be seen as minimizing or calling that into question.
At the same time, the other truth, which is equally true, is that radical Islam could fall off the face of the earth tomorrow and that would not mean that Christians everywhere are safe. Because in places such as China and India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, North Korea, some parts of Latin America, and in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and a staggering number of other places in the world, Christians face a bewildering cocktail of threats of which radical Islam is one, but hardly the only piece.
So you have to hold both of those things in focus. You can’t deny the fact that there is an urgent need for reform at the heart of Islam that would make space for the religious other – no doubt about that. There’s a cancer inside Islam today that has to be dealt with. But on the other hand, we also can’t kid ourselves that it is only our brother and sister Christians living in the Islamic world who need help.
In the book you make the case that you have to look not only at the motives of the perpetrator regarding Christian persecution – and I guess that’s the traditional way of looking at it – but also the motives of the victim come into play. What’s the reason for that insight?
You’re absolutely right, in that traditionally, the test for martyrdom in the Catholic Church was what we call someone killed “in odium fidei” – meaning in hatred of the faith. That really puts all the emphasis on the motives of the assassin, [those of] Thomas Becket being the classic example. The issue there is we want to distinguish somebody who is killed as a witness to the faith from somebody who’s just say the victim of a random robbery, or something like that.
But in some ways that really does not do justice to the realities of the 21st century, or for that matter, the realities of much of the 20th century. It was what John Paul was trying to get at when he started talking about “martyrs of charity”: people who were killed “in odium caritatis” – in hatred of charity, in addition to “in odium fidei.”
Take Sr. Leonella Sgorbati, who was killed in Somalia in 2006. At the time of her death, she was the last Westerner in Mogadishu. She was an Italian missionary nun. … Her life’s work had been training nuns from Africa to be able to take over the work of running hospices and clinics and so forth and delivering health care to the poor. And so she was at this hospital in 2006 with her Muslim driver and friend when a bunch of radicals – Muslim radicals – stormed the place and shot her and her Muslim driver and they died ... .
Now what were the motives of those killers? There’s not a great deal of evidence that they were driven by specific anti-Christian hatred. This was more like territorial gain and just kind of generalized hatred against anyone who wasn’t from their group. So traditionally, you might say, that’s not really martyrdom. But I think we have to ask the question, “What was Sr. Leonella doing in Mogadishu in September 2006?” She sure knew there were safer places to be. Everyone else had bowed out: all the diplomats, all the press, all the NGOs. Everyone else was gone, because they knew it had become the Wild West.
So why did she choose to stay? Why did she choose to put herself at risk? I think it’s abundantly clearthat that choice had everything to do with her faith. So I think we take a broader view of what counts as anti-Christian persecution, that is, we don’t put 100 percent of the emphasis on the guy pulling the trigger, but we put at least half of it on the person getting shot. Then I think we have a more realistic vision of what’s actually going on out there. And I think that also brings home to us how unimaginably vast a scale of people who are making decisions these days to put their own safety at risk in order to serve the gospel it actually is.
In your research on Christian persecution, what has been the most surprising thing that you’ve learned so far?
Well, there are a lot of surprises. ... I think most Catholics in the grass roots probably have some vague sense that Christians are being persecuted around the world, but may not know much more than that. Going in, I had assumed that the place that was going to be the worst was the Middle East. Things are undeniably bad in the Middle East, in many parts of it. But it was a complete revelation to me to learn that statistically speaking, the greatest frequency of acts of physical persecution and harassment directed at Christians today is actually in India. Statistically speaking, for the last several years, there’s been at least one act of physical harassment or persecution directed at Indian Christians every other day. And that’s been true for years.
It was also a revelation to me to learn that in terms of the body count, the most violent anti-Christian pogrom of the early 21st century was in India, in the state of Orissa in 2008. And when we were doing our reporting trip last summer, we spent some time there talking to the victims, that is, those who survived. And so that was certainly a surprise to me.
I guess another surprise is this: I’m looking at those Dalits and tribal Christians getting their teeth kicked in in India, for example – to me that has nothing to do with the politics of “left v. right.” I don’t care if you lean left, lean right, on a lot of stuff. But when you have vulnerable, innocent people, who are beaten and burned to death for no reason other than the faith they profess, I’m thinking that’s not an ideological question.
It’s a constant surprise and it probably shouldn’t be: I’m a reporter. Nevertheless, it’s a constant surprise for me how quickly politicized the discussion about anti-Christian persecution becomes. I think there are some on the left – and I’m not actually talking Catholics, just the left in general in the United States – who worry that if you pay too much attention to anti-Christian persecution, say in India, or in Iraq and Syria, then very quickly that’s going to bolster the critics of like contraception mandates. And so they feel a kind of vested interest in minimizing it.
And on the right, I think you have some who are very nervous about anti-Christian persecution anywhere else than in the Islamic world because they kind of have a hawkish foreign policy agenda that they want to pursue. And so the Christian victims, say, in Iraq and Syria are very convenient for that agenda. Other places, maybe not so much. It might, in fact, end up running afoul of some regimes those people happen to like.
So I think the struggle to protect the conversation about the global war on Christians from what you might call political contamination has just been much more arduous than I would have imagined and that has been kind of a surprise. Because to me this is kind of like the Soviet Jews in the ’60s and ’70s, or this is like the victims of Apartheid in the ’80s – I mean it shouldn’t matter what your politics are. When you have a class of human beings who are being brutalized simply because of the community they belong to – whether that community is defined by skin color or religion or whatever else – I think anybody ought to be able to recognize that as an outrage that needs to be dealt with.
What have you learned since writing the book on this world tour of this continued investigation of Christian persecution?
I think one thing really came home to me, because when we did this reporting tour over the summer, our top priority was to collect testimony from victims. We already had the numbers, and we kind of already had the big picture, but we wanted to tell the human stories behind that big picture. So we spent hundreds of hours speaking to hundreds of victims all over the planet.
One of the things that really came home to me is that for us, that is, people who were looking at it from the outside, anti-Christian persecution is often an event. For them, it is a life condition. Let me give you an example. We were in Nigeria talking to people who had survived a bombing that took place on Christmas Day [in 2011] at St. Theresa’s Church, which is about an hour outside the national capital of Abuja. Forty seven people died in that bombing, carried out by Boko Haram radicals.
But, of course, far more – hundreds – survived. Many of them had injuries that have produced lingering health conditions. These people are poor. The place where they live is a very poor neighborhood. And many of them, because of their lingering health conditions, can’t work anymore. So whatever meager income they were making is gone. There is no national system of health insurance in Nigeria. The only access to resources to pay for their health care bills comes from the Church. There is a small fundraising operation that was set up there that covers some very small percentage of the need. But it’s nowhere close to what these people actually require.
We talked to one guy, for example, whose leg got injured. It was his femur that was shattered or something and they put some kind-of-like iron rod in there as kind of a stop-gap measure and told him he was going to need some surgery. He’s never been able to afford the surgery. Of course every year what it would cost to do the surgery goes up, not down, because the condition is getting worse. So the actual unmet need goes on for a lifetime.
I’m just talking now about the physical consequences of persecution, to say nothing of the psychological and the spiritual. These people, many of them, are still wrestling with why a good God would allow this to happen to them. They’re trying to explain to their kids why their father is dead, why their brother and sister are dead, and still dealing with it at that level.
So for us, we read in the paper that a bomb went off outside a Church on Thursday. And as far as we’re concerned, that story is kind of over by Friday. But for the people who actually experienced it, this is something they’re living with for the rest of their lives. Anti-Christian persecution: it is not an event, it’s a state of life that you live with forever.
When we’re faced with this tremendous phenomena of anti-Christian persecution, and being somewhat removed from it, we can try to come up to speed by learning about it, and we can pray, we can donate to some of the causes that try to alleviate the suffering of these folks. What else can we do?
I think you’ve hit three of the four most important points. One is consciousness, because the truth of it is, most people – Christians and not – ... tend to think about it as mostly scattered and episodic and they have no idea of the scale of it. So consciousness raising is point number one.
Point two is prayer, and we should never minimize the power of prayer. First of all, for the spiritual reason that, as believers, we’re convinced that prayer can change the world. But as Catholics, remember that before Vatican II, we actually had a prayer at the end of every Mass for the conversion of Russia. That was a very unecumenical thing to do in many ways. Nevertheless, it served the purpose of reminding us that there was a suffering Church behind the Iron Curtain. That prayer shaped a culture in the Church. So if we are deliberate today about praying on behalf of our persecuted brothers and sisters in the faith, that too can have the effect of shaping the culture in the Church, of generating awareness concerning commitment. So prayer is certainly the second part.
Third, we can support all the truly terrific organizations out there that have been on this for a long time and are doing yeoman’s work to try to bring relief to the people who are being brutalized. In the Catholic world, I’m thinking, for example, of Aid to the Church in Need and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, and on and on. We do not have to reinvent the wheel. There are terrific and utterly accountable and trustworthy groups out there. You can be sure that every dollar that goes to these groups is actually getting to the people who need it. So, in other words, the message there is, we can do something about this. We are not powerless.
Another thing, you asked me how I was surprised. Another surprise for me how modest the needs of these people often are. We’re not talking, quite often, about multi-billion dollar initiatives, as being what they need. These people we met in Nigeria, for example, in some cases we’re talking about a few hundred bucks which makes the difference between them being able to get the surgery they need and live something approaching a normal life as opposed to living the rest of their lives in constant searing pain.
Or another example: this guy we met in Egypt – a Coptic Orthodox Christian – whose home has been burned down in the village he lived in. His family had been brutalized. He had been beaten within an inch of his life during one of the cycles of violence linked to the Muslim Brotherhood there. Now living in an apartment in the poorest neighborhood of Cairo and struggling with hepatitis, he can’t afford his medicine anymore. So he’s basically waiting to die. I asked him, “How much do you need to pay for the hepatitis medicine for a year?” and basically it worked out to be something like $10 per month. So we gave that guy $120 so he could pay for his medicine for a year. But the thing of it is, there are thousands of [such] people. What I’m saying is that often, the needs are so minimal that they are easily within the reach of ordinary people in the States.
Fourth, I would add ... political advocacy. That’s the other thing. What I mean is, we need to make sure that religious freedom generally, and the fate of persecuted Christians in particular, is at the forefront of foreign policy, political decisions by Western powers including the United States.
I mention Christians particularly not because Christians are superior to followers of any other religion – obviously not – we believe in religious freedom for all. But I think there ought to be a priority for Christians simply because they are today’s most persecuted group. I think in making human rights calculations generally, you try to intervene whenever you can, but you start with people who need help most urgently. And today, those who need help most urgently are Christians.
So when we’re making decisions about how and when and in what ways, for example, we intervene in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Iraq, we need to start that conversation by asking those Christians on the ground there, “What would be of most benefit to you?” “How do you see the consequences of whatever we may do or not do?” And make sure that those voices have a pride of place in the decisions we make, which they have not to date – let us be clear. I think we American Catholics, American Christians can play a very important role in making sure those voices have a much greater echo in decisions about how we deploy our power and influence around the world.
How would that change the game in the Middle East?
Well, for one thing, we never would have invaded Iraq in 2003, had we listened to the Christians there. Today, I think what it would be telling us is we must be much more careful than we have been to date about insisting that there’s no solution to the Syrian crisis without getting rid of Assad, as desirable as getting rid of Assad would be in the abstract. Let’s face it, the guy’s a thug. And wouldn’t we like to live in a world in which he’s no longer in power? Sure. But if you asked the Christians on the ground in Syria today, what they will tell you is that realistically, the alternative to Assad is not a thriving democracy. The alternative to Assad is a complete ISIS takeover. And between those two, it is pretty clear which one would make their lives worse. I think you have to take that awfully seriously.
To put it differently, I think it would be the height of irresponsibility to say, we are going to use our influence to get rid of a bad guy in order to make life better for the citizens of Syria, when in reality, the effect of that might well be to make it worse. And we need to talk to those people before we do that to make sure we’re reading the situation accurately. ... That means taking seriously their experiences. And frankly, we haven’t done a particularly good job of that over the last decade or so. ...
It is a source of great shame to me, as an American, that all of the bishops I know from Iraq and Syria – and in recent years I have come to know a lot of them, because we’ve been doing a lot of reporting about that part of the world – almost to a man, those bishops in their heart-of-hearts think they can rely on Russia and even Iran to protect Christians in the region more than they can the United States. I think that’s greatly to our shame, and that as American Catholics, American Christians, we have a great deal of untapped political potential. We need to begin drawing upon that to turn that around.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I guess the other point I would make is that the highest priority of the Church these days is supposed to be what we’ve been calling the new evangelization: trying to relight the missionary fires of the Church. I will tell you in my experience, there is no more profoundly effective missionary calling card for Christianity than the stories of our martyrs, because that’s Christianity at its best: totally stripped of any pretense of power or privilege or anything like that. It’s about ordinary people being able to summon the kind of courage to put their lives on the line for something, often in mind-blowingly heroic ways.
It inevitably beckons the question, “Why would somebody do that?” That nun I told you about in Somalia, why didn’t she get out along with everybody else? Which gives you the opportunity to talk about the faith and why her faith compelled her to do that. I’m telling you, there is nothing more effective in terms of getting the Christian message across than telling the stories of the martyrs.
So my point is that raising consciousness about the new Christian martyrs, in the first place we should do it because it’s good for them. In other words, we can try to keep them safe. We can do a much better job of that. But secondly, telling the stories of the new Christian martyrs is also enormously good for us. ... In a time where the new evangelization is key, I don’t think there is any better evangelizing strategy than telling stories of the new martyrs.
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Following the Lecture, the Diocesan Distinguished Service Awards will be presented to the 2016 DDSA recipients.