Christians are "the most widely targeted religious community, suffering terrible persecution globally" according to a study released this year by University of Notre Dame's Center for Ethics and Culture, the Religious Freedom Institute, and Georgetown University's Religious Freedom Research Project. From the horrific beheadings of Coptic Christians in Libya by the Islamic State, to the mutilation of Indonesian Christians who refused to convert to Islam, it is estimated that 7,100 Christians died for their faith in 2015.
While Christians are certainly not the only community in the world facing violent persecution today, they are the leading community being targeted for their faith. According to the International Society for Human Rights, a secular NGO, in 2009 Christians were the victims of 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world. Historically, the Christian church has at different times been responsible for dealing out persecution on other communities, but that is not our current reality. It is reasonable to give some special attention to the research coming from Notre Dame and Georgetown on how Christian communities are responding to this crisis.
The report finds that Christian responses to persecution embody a creative pragmatism dominated by short-term efforts to provide security, build strength through social ties, and sometimes strategically oppose the persecution levied against them. The fact that these efforts are pragmatic should not obscure that they often are conducted with deep faith as well as creativity, courage, nimbleness, theological conviction, and hope for a future day of freedom.
Christians suffering persecution often go underground, flee, attempt to accommodate or support repressive regimes, or fight back, (though the last is extremely uncommon). The report categorizes these responses to persecution under survival, association, or confrontation.
Survival strategies make up 43 percent of Christian responses to incidents of persecution. This is when "Christians attempt to continue their way of life and traditions of faith in their communities, with courageously facing persecution, going underground, or trying to conform just enough to the majority to be accepted," the report states. The simplest strategy for survival is flight.
The survival response can arise from a desire to preserve a community's way of life, some of which are ancient with rich history -- such as the Chaldean Church in Iraq whose spiritual leadership has decided to remain in the face of heavy persecution. For others it comes from the Christian theology of martyrdom, which says to prepare for and rejoice in suffering.
Pastor Tu in Vietnam embraced this by writing a course for his fellow pastors called, "What If Tomorrow" which focuses on being prepared to go to prison at any time. But survival also can focus on saving lives through flight and going underground -- these are often the only available options.
Association, which accounts for 38 percent of Christian responses to persecution, is a strategy focused on building relationships with other faith leaders and government authorities in the belief that such relationships will build bridges with potentially-hostile communities. This strategy is most effective in countries that are semi-open to religious freedom, such as Pakistan, India, and Nigeria, and is a response to the attempt by repressive regimes to isolate Christian communities.
"It is no coincidence that North Korea, the country in which Christians are persecuted most severely, is the country in which the plight of Christians is least known," the report explains. A prominent success of this strategy is how the church in Indonesia, faced with Islamist violence, developed strong ties with the segments of the Muslim population that favored religious tolerance. Another tool of association is for a church to begin providing a community service, such as healthcare.
Confrontation, the least common response at 19 percent, is a strategy by which Christians openly challenge their persecutors. This often leads to imprisonment and martyrdom, and on very rare occasion's armed resistance. Some will try to engage human rights watchdogs by publicizing their persecution. This response rises from a motivation to oppose and end injustice. This can also take the form of rebellion against laws which ban open expression of Christian faith. Such actions can lead to prison and death.
Christian responses to persecution are almost always nonviolent and, with very few exceptions, do not involve acts of terrorism. There are six regions where we have seen some armed resistance against militant groups that the local regime has failed to protect Christian communities from.
This academic study leaves the reader with a somewhat sterile view of how Christians are responding, and the reader can forget that behind each of these responses are the heroic stories of Christians dying because they refuse to renounce their faith, moderate Muslims forming a human ring around Coptic Churches to protect them from violence, and believers gathering to worship in basements behind closed doors.
The overwhelming feeling one receives from this report is of the frailty of the responses these Christians have available to them. In Turkey, only 2 percent of the population is Christian. Egypt's Christian population is between 5 and 10 percent. There were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq in 2003 and it is estimated that only 400,000 remain. Many of these instances of persecution are occurring in Muslim majority countries where Christians have little opportunity to hold positions of influence. These are profoundly vulnerable minorities that need outside allies to shield their human rights.
This report suggests how the greater Christian community, NGOs, external governments, and the academic community can play a part in stopping persecution. Some of these ideas include speaking to governments and international organizations with one voice across denominations and religious lines in conflict areas, promoting peace-building and reconciliation, and encouraging the development of historical narratives that include the contribution of those minorities to national stories.
It also stresses the importance of shining the spotlight on oppressive governments and telling the stories of individuals courageously suffering for their most deeply-held beliefs.
Peter Burns (@peterburns_1861) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a member of the Philos Leadership Institute class of 2017.
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