Letter from Rome: The Ambiguities of Christian Persecution

Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,

As the last Christians in Mosul are forced to convert to Islam, leave or die, wiping out a nearly 2,000-year-old presence in the ancient city of Nineveh, much of the world is waking up to the growing problem of the persecution of Christians. The headlines often focus on events in the Middle East and other Muslim-majority countries, but the problem is not limited to Islam’s bloody borders. Citing a recent Pew Research Center study, the Catholic News Service reports that “Christians continue to be the world’s most oppressed religious group, with persecution against them reported in 110 countries.”

The types of persecution taking place in these countries are obviously diverse, ranging from restrictions on dress and religious symbols to the banning of public worship, imprisonment and even execution. It is of course a very mixed and broad picture; compared to the more extreme forms, somehardly seem to qualify as more than mere inconveniences. Overall, however, it is remarkable that so many societies restrict religious beliefs and practices of some kind, meaning that a sizable portion, maybe even a majority, of the world’s governments do not consider religious liberty a fundamental human right.

Given the changing fortunes of liberal democracy in today’s world (take Hungary, for example), perhaps this is not so surprising. The Enlightenment’s political project to stem religious violence by separating (to varying degrees) Church and State and protecting the religious liberty of the individual required a new way of thinking about the relationship between religion and politics, one that both traditionalists of various faiths and post-moderns of none reject. The former say the public life of a society ought to reflect the beliefs of its people in its laws and customs; the latter think all religious opinions should be kept private so as not to offend minorities or disturb the civil peace. To paraphrase and contradict Richard John Neuhaus, the public square should be either fully clothed in a single type of religious garb or completely naked.

The idea that a healthy polity should be made up of citizens who hold fundamentally different beliefs about God and man (and, increasingly, woman) is not the historical norm, as Christians themselves should know. From the beginning, they were persecuted in the Roman Empire until Constantine’s conversion and later split and fought among each other for political dominance in Europe and beyond. In fact, one could argue that strife among the Christian peoples of Europeled to the modern concept of religious liberty, which Christians have come to accept by recognizing the truth in Christ’s command to render unto God what is God, unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.

Having called off the inquisitorial dogs, it’s odd that Christians are the ones who are suffering the most persecution these days. Is it merely a case of “what goes around comes around”? While the Pew study makes it clear that Christians are far from the only religious group to face persecution, it is still worth asking: what is so threatening about Christianity that adherents to other religions and secularists feel the need to constrain or eliminate it in the modern world?

The main reason results from a certain historical interpretation, one that bears some, but not the whole, truth, as Pope Benedict remarked following his trip to Brazil in 2007. European colonial powers that brought Christianity to faraway lands are now considered the epitome of imperial evil. Christianity is seen as a “foreign” religion in many developing countries, even if the Church has been present in the Middle East and parts of Asia for two millennia. So if there’s one thing that unites multiculturalists, it’s their rejection of proselytism. Even the Pope himself now agrees: “Live and let live” is the first commandment of the liberal creed.

What about Islam and its missionary, illiberal practices? As a religion of the “Other” – i.e. the historically oppressed victims of Europeans – it is allowed to be itself, even if it ought to frighten the devil out of liberals. They must somehow wish for the mythical “moderate Muslims” to appear out of thin air to tame all the jihadists, or at least hope that Muslims will become as lax in their faith as Europeans currently are. Barring that, I wouldn’t be surprised to see real conflict between Europeans and Muslims living on the continent in the future.

This still doesn’t fully explain why Christians are the most persecuted, however. Perhaps it has something to do with Christianity itself, whose founder not only claimed no earthly kingdom but specifically warned His disciples (meaning us as well) that they will be persecuted in His name. Even more startling is that Jesus calls us blessed when we are so maligned (Matthew 5:11), and that the apostles rejoiced when they were (Acts 5:41). Despite their best efforts to become good citizens of virtually any kind of regime, Christians are never completely at home in the City of Man, as St. Augustine explained in great detail; the world somehow seems to know this as well. In fact, Christians ought to be worried if absolutely no persecution took place, as it may be a sign of being too comfortable with the world rather than a sign of contradiction.

In his forward to Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians, author Eric Metaxas reveals the ambiguity the faithful have in the face of persecution. “We in the West desperately need to know about our fellow believers who suffer for their faith. But I would even say that on another level, we should almost be jealous of them, because they have been privileged to know the true cost of discipleship,” he writes, urging us to repent of the “cheap grace” we feel in our material well-being and security.

So what ought to be done about Christian persecution? It would be a mistake to urge believers to seek martyrdom; inciting spiritual pride in addition to civil strife is probably a sure way of losing the recompense of eternal life. But it would be equally problematic to water down the practice of our faith so as to make persecution impossible, something the liberal Christianity of Spinoza and Locke explicitly tried to do.

As Christians, our first weapon is always prayer, most of all for the victims and even for the persecutors – may another St. Paul be found among them. Secondly, we must continue to call attention to the atrocities taking place, especially the most violent and brutal ones. Finally, we should not shy away from protecting our “own,” as we also stand up for the rights of other minorities who are persecuted. A historical oddity is that our reluctance to defend fellow Christians comes out of a misplaced fear of “special pleading” and of not appearing to be sufficiently contrite for the sufferings caused by Christians towards others. (See this New Statesmen piece as evidence of how the secular left attempts to downplay Christian persecution for historical and political reasons.)

As troubling as the fleeing of Christians from the Middle East is, we in the West should welcome them as our brothers and sisters in Christ to our own countries (even the leftist French government is ready to do so, albeit under pressure from the right-wing National Front), especially since the West has created so much of the trouble in the region, dating from the colonial-era creation of modern Arab states to the 2003 Iraq War. We can’t expect people to give themselves up for slaughter if we’re not willing to help them in other ways. And if they want to stay and fight, we should find ways of helping them to do that too.

When it comes to staying and fighting, I remain perplexed by this fact I first heard from Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Sako in Rome last December and more recently reported by  Reuters: “Unlike their Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish neighbors, Christians have no militias to protect them.” Christians are not defending themselves the way they used to and other religious minorities currently are. Why not? What has changed and what is being lost in the name of this functional pacifism?

Perhaps it is due to the aforementioned ambiguity of facing persecution, or it’s an aspect of “turning the other cheek” and renouncing violence. Maybe it’s out of an understandable fear of escalating conflict in already bloody situations or avoiding sectarianism. I don’t know, but it seems to me that Christians are neglecting something more basic here: self-defense and especially the defense of other innocents, especially those who share our beliefs and for whom we are responsible, are not only allowed but required by justice. Christians should not forget the Semitic wisdom of Hillel the Elder: “"If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?"

Kishore Jayabalan