Persecution is a localised phenomenon rather than a truly global one
“From Boston to Zanzibar, there’s a worldwide war on Christianity,” claimed United States senator and likely presidential candidate Rand Paul in his speech at the recent Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC. One of the founding fathers of the Tea Party, Paul went on to denounce the Obama administration for supporting the Syrian opposition saying: “We are now arming rebels that are allies with al-Qaeda [and] American tax dollars should never be used to prop up a war on Christians.”
Rand Paul is the first prominent American politician to posit the idea that a worldwide war is being waged on the largest religion on earth. While not novel, the idea that many of the planet’s 2.2 billion Christians are under systematic siege has found new traction with the publication of John Allen’s book, The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Anti-Christian Persecution. A longtime correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, Allen has risen to international prominence as the leading American Vatican-watcher.
Despite his generally insightful reporting on Vatican affairs, Allen has not only done a disservice to Christians around the globe suffering real repression and persecution but has potentially fanned the flames of religious conflict by calling upon Christians to resist a fictitious war that exists only on the pages of his book and in the questionable data of certain Christian organisations. Allen and Paul are wrong on both accounts. The repression and discrimination suffered by a small but significant number of Christians is neither global nor does it constitute a war. Allen makes his case for “global war” in the following manner: “We’re talking about a massive, worldwide pattern of violence and oppression directed against a specific group of people, often explicitly understood by its perpetrators as part of a broader cultural and spiritual struggle.” Whereas Senator Paul has focused all of his attention on Muslim perpetrators of the “war” from the US to Africa, Allen goes to great lengths to show that the pattern of violence and oppression goes beyond the Islamic Middle East to include such surprising regions as Latin America, which is more than 90 per cent Christian.
It’s precisely here in the Americas where Allen’s case for a global war on Christians couldn’t be weaker. Even the worldwide watchlist of Christian persecution compiled by the Evangelical organisation Open Doors, which Allen frequently refers to, lists Colombia as the sole nation in the Western Hemisphere in which Christians suffer some degree of persecution (“moderate” according to Open Doors). Allen repeats the claim of Open Doors that among the main persecutors of Christians in the conflict-ridden South American country are “pagan Indigenous” in league with armed rebel groups.
Beyond the veracity of such claims, the history of the Americas reveals exponentially more Christian persecution of “pagans” than vice versa. Allen also points to intra-Christian conflict as evidence of the regional front of the larger global war. More specifically, without any coherent rationale, Allen cites Catholic-Protestant violence in Chiapas, Mexico’s least Catholic and most indigenous state, as part of the worldwide war on Christians. Maintaining a tenuous grip on reality in reflecting on the purported persecution of Christians in his own country, the United States, Allen reiterates the apocalyptic view of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who declared in 2010: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”
That there is no “massive pattern of violence and oppression” directed against Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox either in the Americas or in Europe – which together comprise 63 per cent of the world’s Christian population – reveals the “global war” as nothing but dangerous hyperbole.
How, then, to characterise the real oppression of a relatively small but significant number of Christians? Instead of a worldwide war there is more accurately regional repression, which is most acute in the Middle East but is also felt in some neighbouring African and South Asian nations. Home to only four per cent of the world’s Christian population, the Muslim-majority nations of the Middle East are where believers most face real repression in terms of discrimination, harassment and even violence. Here Allen does an admirable job of documenting the persecution that takes place in such countries as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. But even here, at the epicentre of Christian oppression, there is not a region-wide war in terms of a “massive pattern of violence and oppression”. Moreover, Christians in the Middle East aren’t the only ones suffering under severe restrictions on non-Muslims. Saudia Arabia, for example, routinely arrests Filipino and other “guest workers” on charges of witchcraft and has even imposed the death sentence for some.
If we are to avoid turning regional repression and conflict into a real global religious war we must reject the inflammatory hyperbole of extremists from all faiths, some of whom would relish an apocalyptic world war. Genuine concern for the persecution of Christians, and members of any other religion, must be based on accurate analysis, which draws on a wide variety of sources, and not only on those with specific religious affiliations. In short, the dangerous hyperbole of a “global war on Christians” has the potential to turn what is really regional repression into real worldwide religious conflict.
R Andrew Chesnut is Bishop Walter F Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of World Studies
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated 25/10/13