Last week I read what I think is the most important article I have read all year. John Allen, writing in the Spectator, describes what he calls ‘The war on Christians’ and explains why he believes that ‘The global persecution of Christians is the unreported catastrophe of our time.’
Allen is an American Catholic based in Rome who mostly writes on the Catholic church, but has recently published a book on the subject of Christians around the world (many of them Protestants and/or Pentecostals) who are suffering persecution and martyrdom specifically related to their identity and witness as Christians. The headlines are staggering:
According to the International Society for Human Rights, a secular observatory based in Frankfurt, Germany, 80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians. Statistically speaking, that makes Christians by far the most persecuted religious body on the planet.
According to the Pew Forum, between 2006 and 2010 Christians faced some form of discrimination, either de jure or de facto, in a staggering total of 139 nations, which is almost three-quarters of all the countries on earth. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, an average of 100,000 Christians have been killed in what the centre calls a ‘situation of witness’ each year for the past decade. That works out to 11 Christians killed somewhere in the world every hour, seven days a week and 365 days a year, for reasons related to their faith.
In effect, the world is witnessing the rise of an entire new generation of Christian martyrs.
Notice that Allen is drawing his statistics from secular as well as Christian sources. He goes on to detail recent atrocities, including the unintended (or, rather, ill-thought-through) consequences of recent military intervention by Western powers:
At the time of the first Gulf War in 1991, Iraq boasted a flourishing Christian population of at least 1.5 million. Today the high-end estimate for the number of Christians left is around 500,000, and realistically many believe it could be as low as 150,000. Most of these Iraqi Christians have gone into exile, but a staggering number have been killed.
Something similar has also been happening in Syria.
(There is a lively discussion in the comments section about the relation between religion and war, but I think Allen is on good ground. One of the commentators notes the estimate from Phillips and Axelrod’s Encyclopedia of Wars that fewer than 7% of all wars have been primarily religious in nature.)
But both the headlines and Allen’s detailed catalogue of atrocities against Christians profoundly affects a range of issues for Christians in the West.
1. It changes our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. Read Allen’s article, and then read through a gospel again. Do you notice how many times Jesus talks about the cost of discipleship? Do you notice how many times Paul talks about suffering as an integral part of being a follower of Jesus? Here’s just a couple of examples, one of which I preached on yesterday:
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10.29–30)
They [Paul and Barnabas] preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships [AV 'tribulations'] to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. (Acts 14.21–22)
So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. (2 Tim 1.8)
What Allen describes seems to match well a summary of Christian life in the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus from the early second century:
They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonored and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good yet are punished as evildoers.
2. It puts a new perspective on the role of Western military action in the world. As Robin Harris highlighted in an earlier Spectator article, oppression of Christians in Islamic countries is frequently because ‘Western’ is identified with ‘Christian’, so Western military intervention leads to the oppression of indigenous Christian groups, even though they have little connection with the Western powers. Yet Western governments cannot understand this and do not factor it in to their considerations.
3. It challenges our evaluation of the importance of human rights in national and international debate. At their recent party conference, Home Secretary Theresa May pledged that, if elected, the Conservatives will scrap the Human Rights Act, which will lead to Britain leaving the Europena Convention on Human Right. Yet in countries like Burma, China and North Korea, the language of human rights is the only international currency which will count in pressing for change. To abandon human rights is to abandon the cause of Christian suffering.
4. It puts a question against our understanding of Christian mission and outreach. The churches in the West have by and large struggled to really engage with working class and popular culture, and have historically remained middle class. Yet global Christianity is largely the opposite; the message of Christian faith has consistently appealed to the marginalised and oppressed, and the lower strata of societies. In the West, do we make the mistake of suggesting that Christian faith is just another way of finding self-fulfilment? ‘God has a wonderful plan for your life’ is not the gospel, as this cartoon wittily and powerfully makes clear.
5. It gives a context to the struggles of Christians in Britain. I subscribe to news emails from Christian Concern, which I think most people regard as the ‘loony right’ fringe of Christian belief. But take a look at this case which featured in their email last week:
Nohad Halawi worked for over ten years at Heathrow Terminal 3. When she complimented a colleague that he was a “man of God”, this was misheard by a Muslim colleague to be a criticism of Islam.
Despite the fact that the issue was resolved by Nohad’s manager, another Muslim colleague started spreading rumours that Nohad was “anti-Islam”, which ultimately led to her airside pass being suspended and then withdrawn, which meant she was no longer allowed to work at the airport. Nohad was disadvantaged throughout the investigation process and her side of the story was ignored by her managers.
It is worth noting that many of the case Christian Concern picks up are of Christians who are working class or in low-paid jobs, often from ethnic minorities, and are unreported by any other Christian group. And as far as I am aware, no-one in the UK has ever been dismissed or excluded from work for being ‘anti-Christian.’
6. It changes the way we read the Bible. We need to confess that all too often we read the Bible from our position as comfortable, wealthy and secure Christians, when much of the world reads from a different position. You could only think that the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25.31–46) portrays Christians as the sheep, the ones with resources to help the poor, if you live in the wealthy West. Most Christians in the world will see themselves as the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick and in prison—and they would be right to do so.
Margaret Thatcher once suggested the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.30–35) supported capitalism, since the Samaritan need to have money to help the man who had been beaten. But an African commenting on what it teaches had another perspective: ‘When you are beaten up, you will accept help from anyone!’ (Perhaps Augustine was on to something after all…)
Do read Allen’s article. Let it inform your praying, your reading, and your thinking.