Why Christians Deserve Attention

On the heels of our discussion of Christian persecution, we explore why this issue should matter to broader society. Daniel Philpott kicks off the conversation with the piece below. In it, he lays out a new joint initiative between the Religious Freedom Project and Notre Dame's Center of Civil and Human Rights that will focus on Christian responses to persecution. 

By: Daniel Philpott

Convert, pay a special tax for living here as a religious minority, or die! These were the choices given in late July to the Christians living in Mosul, Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an Islamic extremist group that has proclaimed a region-wide caliphate with itself as the head. ISIS was trying to finish a job. Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq’s Christians have fled the country en masse in the face of civil war and the threats of armed Islamic extremists. Their numbers have plummeted (using conservative estimates) from an estimated 1.4 million in 2003 to less than 450,000 in 2013.

At roughly the same time, news broke of the departure from Sudan of Miriam Ibrahim, whom the Sudanese state had sentenced to death in May for allegedly converting from Islam to Christianity. Though Ibrahim’s mother had raised her as a Christian after her Muslim father left the family, Sudanese law required her to retain her father’s Islamic faith. As an adult, she continued to practice her Christian faith, and in 2011 she married a Christian, Daniel Wani—an act that traditional Muslims considered adulterous. After much legal wrangling and extensive diplomacy, the government finally allowed her to leave the country on July 24. 

Meanwhile, the Chinese government has markedly increased its persecution of Christians since 2012 and has demolished over 60 churches in the southeastern part of the country this year. Christians in North Korea, Vietnam, India, Uzbekistan, and some 25 other countries also experience severe denials of their religious freedom. The persecution of Christians is global in its scope and gargantuan in its scale. 

It therefore came as welcome news to the Center of Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame and the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center when, in late June, the Templeton Religion Trust awarded the two centers a $1.1 million grant for a project entitled “Under Caesar’s Sword: How Christian Communities Respond to Repression.” The grant supports a three-year collaborative project that will commission a team of fourteen prominent scholars to study every region in the globe where Christians suffer severe persecution. 

Through what strategies do Christians respond to persecution? Why do they adopt these strategies? What are the results? Once we learn systematic answers to these questions, we hope to raise awareness of the persecution of Christians and of the ways in which Christian communities respond to persecution; to empower those who would assist these communities, including governments, churches, NGOs, universities, and journalists; and ultimately to improve the plight of the persecuted. 

We would not be surprised by criticism. Causes like this one have drawn fire from skeptics in the human rights community, western academia, journalism, and other quarters. Some critics take the religious freedom movement to task for focusing exclusively on Christians. They have repeated this charge ever since the early congressional debates about the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in the 1990s. They viewed US religious freedom policy as a tool of powerful and well-0rganized Christian churches and perhaps even a veil for Christian evangelization. 

The reality is quite different. The annual reports of the Office of International Religious Freedom in the US State Department and of the independent US Commission on International Religious Freedom—both mandated by IRFA—are two of the most thorough and balanced records of religious freedom. Embassies around the world are instructed to report on repression of religion committed against anyone and anywhere, including Muslims in Gujurat, Bahai’s in Iran, Falun Gong members in China, and scores of other religious groups. 

When it comes to policy, this is how it should be. Whether it is the US government formulating policy toward Syria or the UN promoting international law, all whose religious freedom is violated deserve equal attention. 

When it comes to the work of advocates outside of government, though, we think there is a strong case for focusing on Christians. Today, Christians constitute by far the most widely persecuted religion. The International Society for Human Rights, a secular NGO based in Frankfurt, estimated in 2009 that Christians are the victims of 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world, a finding that is corroborated by separate human rights observatories. John Allen reports in his recent book, The Global War on Christians, that Christians were the only religious group that was persecuted in all sixteen countries highlighted as egregious offenders by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2012. The Pew Research Center’s 2014 report found that between June 2006 and December 2012, Christians faced harassment and intimidation in 151 countries, the largest number of any religious group. 

Despite the breadth of repression faced by Christians, there is a dearth of attention given to this crisis, even by groups whose natural mission is to recognize it. The Berkley Center’s Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown, one of the partners in "Under Caesar’s Sword," recently analyzed 323 major reports published by one of the world’s most influential human rights organizations, Human Rights Watch, over a three-and-a-half year period (from 2008 to mid-2011). Religious persecution of any kind was a focus in only eight, or about 2.5 percent, of published reports. Furthermore, fewer than half of these actually focused on Christian persecution. Media attention remains scant as well. Only a handful of Western journalists, such as USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers, devote regular attention to the issue. 

"Under Caesar’s Sword" involves no special pleading. The project is designed to be even-handed, looking at Christian responses to persecution that were successful as well as unsuccessful, peaceful as well as violent, heroic as well as compromised. It will involve careful scholarship, not hagiography. Still, the project is motivated by moral concern, not dry scientific interest. Its yen towards balance and lack of bias arises because of this concern, not despite this concern. It is through an examination of a wide range of variables that the study hopes to derive findings of such soundness that they will make a concrete difference in the lives of a beleaguered group of people who deserve far greater help. 

Daniel Philpott is a professor of political science and the director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame (on leave fall 2015 and spring 2016).

This piece was originally authored on September 2, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affair.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/6/30/why-christians-deserve-attention