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Christians in the Crosshairs


Columbian staff

Residents gather at St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic cathedral Nov. 2, 2010, for the victims of the Al-Qaeda attack on the Syrian Catholic cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation during Mass Oct. 31. The attack left 58 worshippers, including two priests, dead. (Photo by Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

The number of Christians killed for their faith across the globe each year has risen to unprecedented levels. More Christians were killed because of their faith in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined. Pope Francis has drawn attention to the prevalence of new martyrs. For example, in his Angelus address on June 23, 2013, he said, “Today, in many parts of the world, there are many, many … martyrs, who give up their lives for Christ, who are brought to death because they do not deny Jesus Christ. This is our Church. Today we have more martyrs than in the first centuries.”

In his book The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution (Image, 2013), John L. Allen Jr. examines the phenomenon of Christian persecution while giving voice to this new generation of martyrs. One of the world’s premier reporters on the Vatican and Catholicism, Allen joined the Boston Globe last month as a correspondent focusing on the Church. Columbia spoke with Allen about his book.

Columbia: What is the global war on Christians, and what are some of the key statistics that demonstrate its scope?

John Allen: The term “global war on Christians” is a way of capturing the fact that in the early 21st century we are witnessing the rise of an entire new generation of Christian martyrs, and that lethal persecution of Christians is occurring all around the world on a vast scale.

There are a variety of estimates as to how many Christians are being killed each year for reasons linked to their faith. The high estimate would be around 100,000 (that comes from Todd Johnson at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity). Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark talks in his new book about several hundred. The high estimate tells us that there’s one Christian being killed for their faith every hour; the low estimate tells us there’s one Christian being killed for their faith every day. The reality is likely somewhere in between. But even the low-end number is staggering: one new martyr every day, every year.

Martin Lessenthin, the former chairman of the International Society for Human Rights, recently estimated that 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination today are directed against Christians, which tells us that Christians are the world’s most persecuted religious body.

Columbia: You say the global war on Christians is “the greatest story never told in the early 21st century.” Can you elaborate on this?

John Allen: The central fact is that we have a mistaken narrative about Christianity in the West. That is, when you ask the typical European or American what comes to mind when you say “Christianity,” they think about wealth, power and social privilege. Similarly, when you say “religious persecution,” they think of the Crusades, wars of religion and the Inquisition — chapters of history where Christianity was basically the oppressor and not the oppressed. These stereotypes make it very difficult for people to wrap their minds around the idea that Christians could actually be the victims of persecution.

Such narratives just don’t do justice to who and where Christians are today. Two-thirds of the world’s 2.3 billion Christians live outside the West. They live in Latin America, in sub-Saharan African, in parts of the Middle East, in Asia, often in some fairly dangerous neighborhoods. They tend to be poor. They’re often members of ethnic, linguistic and cultural minorities, so they’re doubly or triply at risk.

The key point is that Christians are targets of convenience for people who, for whatever reason, are angry at the West. It is very difficult to launch an attack on the American consulate or the EU headquarters. But it is very easy to walk down to the local Christian church and take out your frustrations on them.

To put it into a sound bite, the typical Christian in the 21st century is not a middle-class white guy pulling up to church in his Lincoln Continental. It is a poor mother of four or five in places like Bangladesh and Belize who quite often is getting her teeth kicked in because she’s a Christian. That’s the new narrative about Christianity that we have to get out.

Columbia: Individual Christians are at risk in 139 countries — three quarters of the nations on earth. You write that in Iraq, for instance, “Christians have become an endangered species.” In what countries are individual Christians and Christian communities most at risk today?

John Allen: One way of answering that question would be to say North Korea, which has the dubious distinction every year of finishing in runaway first place for the greatest persecutor of Christians. It operates a network of concentration camps for religions minorities. The estimates are upwards of 50,000-100,000 Christians languishing in these camps.

But if you want to know where whole Christian communities are at greatest risk right now, I would say Syria and Egypt. These are both places where an old-style police state has either fallen or is in the process of disintegrating. The danger is that a rising tide of Islamic radicalism could prevail, making Christians into targets. Today the Christian leadership both of Syria and Egypt is terrified that they’re going to be the next Iraq — a place where a once-thriving Christian community in the Middle East finds itself in social chaos, where they’re wearing bull’s-eyes on their backs, and where the natural response of a huge chunk of the Christian population is to get out.

Columbia: Part II of your book unmasks five myths about the global war, including the myth that it’s all about Islam. Please explain why it is misguided to reduce the global war to the question of Islam.

John Allen: First of all, let’s not be naive: probably the world’s leading manufacturer of anti-Christian hatred is radical Islam. But the truth of the matter is that radical Islam could disappear from the face of the earth tomorrow, and it would not mean that Christians are safe.

Let me offer two cases in point. Every year, Fides, the Vatican missionary news agency, puts out a list of countries where Catholic pastoral workers have been killed. For the last two decades, the number one most dangerous spot on earth for Catholic pastoral workers has been Colombia, an overwhelmingly Catholic society. The danger there is posed largely by the country’s civil war and the narco-terror gangs who don’t like the Catholic pastoral workers who take a stand against the drug trade in favor of human dignity.

Meanwhile, the most violent anti-Christian pogrom anywhere in the world in the early 21st century wasn’t in a Muslim society, but rather in India. In 2008, in the state of Orissa, machete-wielding Hindu radicals hacked to death hundreds of Christians, drove tens of thousands into exile, and burned down hundreds of churches, schools and homes.

So while we certainly cannot ignore the threat posed by radical Islam, we also can’t think that it’s the only danger that Christians face.

Columbia: You present a vast array of martyrs’ stories. Would you share one or two of the most significant ones?

John Allen: I’m very fond of the story of Sister Leonella Sgorbati, a Salesian nun who was shot to death in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 2006. She was killed alongside a Muslim man and father who was her driver and friend.

At that time, Mogadishu had become a kind of killing field. All the Western institutions — NGOs, embassies, diplomats, military presence, media — had pulled out because it was simply too dangerous. But Sister Leonella was running a hospital, so she couldn’t abandon those patients, who, by the way, were overwhelmingly Muslim. Nor could she abandon the other sisters, many of them African. So Sister Sgorbati chose to stay, knowing full well that it could cost her life.

One day, predictably enough, the radicals came for her at the hospital. When they opened fire, her Muslim friend and driver attempted to shield her body with his own. He took the first couple bullets. They died together, their blood mingling on the hospital floor. Sister Leonella’s last word, attested by the nuns who witnessed the scene, was “Perdono,” which is Italian for “I forgive.”

What is marvelous about that story, aside from the incredible witness to the Gospel that it illustrates, is that it is also a tremendous counter-example to the narrative of the clash of civilizations — what some would see as the inherent conflict between Christianity and Islam. Because here was a Muslim man, a very observant practitioner of Islam, passing Jesus’ ultimate test of friendship, a willingness to lay down his life for his friend.

Columbia: Citing a number of Archbishop William E. Lori’s concerns from his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in 2012, you say that religious freedom is a signature cause that the global war on Christians is destined to “turbocharge.” How are the church-state tensions in the United States and Europe related to the global war?

John Allen: I try to distinguish between religious freedom issues in the West and what I’m calling the global war on Christians in other parts of the world. Thank God, those of us who live in Europe and North America, although we certainly have our problems, for the most part we do not have to take our lives in our hands each time we go to church.

But the two things are obviously linked. In the West, our religious freedom issues tend to be more institutional. They are about the ability of faith-based groups to be true to their creed while also playing a vibrant public role. Obviously, the tug of war between American Christian leaders and the Obama White House over the contraceptive mandate would be a terrific symbol of that kind of tension. And I think it is a perfectly reasonable question to ask whether a society that erodes the religious freedom of institutions can be relied upon to uphold the religious freedom of individuals.

Cardinal (Francis E.) George (of Chicago) famously said that he expects to die in bed, his successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. He wanted Americans to ask if we are on a slippery slope that could end in something like Iraq, with regard to people who profess religions.

The reason I say that the global war on Christians will turbocharge our commitment to religious freedom is this: I actually think it is the right place to begin conversations about religious freedom. In other words, if you begin by talking about the contraceptive mandate, this immediately gets sucked into the politics of left versus right in America. People are often going to have irreconcilable opinions about it, and so it gets you off on the wrong foot.

However, if you start the conversation on religious freedom with what happened at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in downtown Baghdad Oct. 31, 2010 — when Islamic militants burst into the church, killed the two priests saying Mass, left 50-some other people dead, and occupied the church for four hours until the defense forces finally showed up to liberate it — then no reasonable person would call that anything other than an outrage. I think you can get overwhelming public support that the defense of those people deserves to be a towering human rights priority. If that’s where you begin the conversation, then I think it’s easier to explain why something like the contraceptive mandate is a problem.

Columbia: You note that “even for people hostile to religion or to Christianity in particular, the martyrs represent Christianity at its most attractive.” How does the global war on Christians paradoxically represent a powerful missionary resource?

John Allen: First of all, martyrdom has always been the most powerful missionary resource for the Church. The famous phrase of Tertullian, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” is as true in the 21st century as it was in the third. I don’t think it’s any accident that the zones of Christianity’s most explosive growth today are often where Christians are at the greatest risk.

Martyrdom is Christianity at its best because it’s Christianity stripped of every vestige of power or privilege or institutional might — the things that are often the stumbling blocks for people in thinking about the Church. It’s about ordinary people who, when push comes to shove, are willing to pay in blood rather than part with their faith. If you sit down and listen to the stories of the martyrs, it’s impossible not to be moved by them.

One of the points I try to make in the book is that raising consciousness about the new martyrs is, in the first place, obviously good for them — we want to try to defend these people from harm. But it is also in equal measure good for us. It is a powerful, spiritual tonic, particularly in an era in which the new evangelization is supposed to be the highest priority of the Catholic Church. I can’t think of any better way to convince someone in a cynical world to take a new look at Christianity than to tell them the stories of the martyrs.

Columbia: In the end, you offer eight concrete suggestions for “What’s To Be Done.” If members of the Knights of Columbus wanted to lend hands-on help in the global war, what would you recommend they do?

John Allen: I would suggest three things. One is that we just need to raise consciousness. The Knights have the resources and ability to begin and sustain conversations in the Church. I think that if the Knights were to make this a priority — telling the stories of the new martyrs — that would be an enormous contribution.

I’ve met persecuted Christians all around the world. When you ask them, “What can we do for you?” the place they always begin, before they get to anything pragmatic, is: “Don’t forget about us.” I think if the Knights can help find ways to make it clear to those folks that we haven’t forgotten, then that would be a tremendous service.

Second, there are plenty of groups doing amazing work to express solidarity with persecuted Christians. In the Catholic world, Aid to the Church in Need and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association have been incredibly active and effective, both in delivering concrete humanitarian aid and in keeping this issue alive. So I would say do whatever you can to support these groups.

Third, the Knights play a very effective and valuable role in American political life, including on Capitol Hill and in contacts with legislators. One thing I think Knights can do is to make sure that the voices of persecuted Christians are heard in our foreign policy discussions.

Let me give you a case in point. Not so long ago, the United States was on the brink of going to war in Syria to bring down the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Everybody knows that Assad is a thug with a terrible human rights record. But if you asked Syria’s Christians, who are 10 percent of the Syrian population, they will tell you that trying to use force to bring down Assad right now is a terrible idea. They worry that the Islamic radicals will gain the upper hand and the Christians will end up like the persecuted Christians in Iraq. In other words, you have to understand that for Syria’s Christians, the choice is not between a police state and a thriving democracy. The choice is between a police state and annihilation.

The rule of thumb ought to be that before we make choices about how to deploy our influence around the world, we ought to at least hear the people who are going to bear the consequences of whatever we do or don’t do. And if the Knights can help make that happen, it would be a terrific service.