Christians are currently the most vulnerable minority on earth and massive outside intervention will be needed to stem the rising tide of persecution against them.
This is the view of John Allen Jr., the highly regarded Vaticanista, whose new book, “The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution” has just been published.
Speaking with ZENIT in Rome last week, Allen painted a stark picture of Christians being targeted by violence across the world. As a group, he puts them in the same category as dissident Jews in Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s and black victims of apartheid in the 1980s.
“You didn’t have to be Jewish or black, and you don’t have to be Christian today, to recognize this is the most vulnerable minority population on earth that deserves our concern,” he argues.
It is, he says, “the towering human rights priority of the day,” and he provides statistics to prove it. 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 a ‘situation of witness’ each year for the past decade. That works out at 11 Christians killed somewhere in the world every hour.
Allen undertakes a thorough analysis of persecuted Christians in the book, debunking the myths surrounding the violence – that it is all about Islam, that it’s usually political, and that Christians only face risks where they are a minority. He offers a helpful overview, from Africa to Asia, the Middle East to Latin America, discussing the social and political fallout of the violence and looking at the spiritual fruit of this widespread war.
While working on the project, one question he asked himself was: “Why is this story not being told?” The main reason, he believes, came up in a conversation he had with Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The archbishop of New York said Christians “don’t have their own Holocaust literature,” a genre of accounts of anti-Christian violence. These don’t exist, unlike those of the Jews and the Shoah. Allen, therefore, “almost felt a kind of moral obligation to do it.”
But I ask him why Christians are the most vulnerable minority? Part of the reason, he says, is the rapid rise of the Christian population across the world. In 1900, Catholics numbered 244 million; now the figure is 1.1 billion, and most of the expansion has occurred in the developing world where Christians are not always a welcome minority.
He also says Christians tend be caught in the firing line because they don’t fire back; there’s no “analogous phenomenon” of Christian extremism in the mould of Islamists or Hindu extremists willing to do violence to their enemies.
“Christians are soft targets in some ways,” he says, and suffer from “an ineradicable tendency” to associate Christianity with the largely post-Christian West.
Still, isn’t the natural environment of Christians to live under some form of persecution, and doesn’t the faith thrive under such circumstances? “That’s entirely true,” Allen says, “but it’s no excuse for inertia in the face of people getting their teeth kicked in.”
Which brings us onto one of his last chapters: the spiritual fruits of martyrdom. Allen says he tries to “create a consciousness” in the Church “of the need to come to the defense of martyrs.”
“It is not just going to be good for people who are at risk, but also for the rest of us,” he says. “The best of Christian tradition is in stories of the martyrs and there’s a sort of ‘spiritual tonic’ that comes from contact with those stories.” He also believes it’s “good for ecumenism” as all the other Christian churches have this in common.
But how much of the persecution is really down to the hatred of the faith? “At one level you can say they’re not being killed in ‘odium fidei,’ in hatred of the faith,” Allen explains. “But my argument is that it is mistaken to concentrate on the motives of the persecutor, and not those of the persecutee.” He says it’s better to ask the question: “Why are certain Christians staying in a particular area?”
“In many cases, if you drill down, it’s because of their faith,” Allen says. “They feel called as a matter of fidelity to the Gospel, to be witnesses of Jesus Christ, to stand with forgotten and marginalized people and defend the interests of justice.”
Allen says he is not really interested “whether the guy pulling the trigger had in his head: ‘I want to kill a Christian today.’ My question is, what was in the heart of the person getting shot?”
One of the myths Allen tries to scotch in the book is that anti-Christian persecution is all about Islam. The most anti-Christian pogrom in recent history, he says, happened not in the Islamic world but in the Indian state of Orissa, in 2008.
“That said, if you want to look at those places on the map where Christians are arguably most at risk today, it does tend to be in the Middle East,” he says. He points out that Iraq had 1.5 million to 2 million Christians in 1990, but today they number between 250,000 and 400,000.
“This is a church with two millennia of history which has basically been gutted in the arc of two decades,” he points out, adding that Christian leaders in Syria and Egypt fear they will be the next Iraqis. “I do think that if there’s a single spot on the map where Christian conscience needs to be most focused about Christians being at risk, it’s probably there,” he says.
More than once, Allen advocates some kind of outside intervention to prevent further persecution. “Without playing the prophet, if present trajectories continue, it seems to me abundantly obvious that things are going to get worse, and it’s going to require massive intervention on behalf of outside parties to try to change the calculus,” he says. “I don’t think you can put all the eggs in the basket and say: ‘Well it’s the United States army that has to put boots on the ground.’ It may come to that at some point, but what I would hope to see is that there would be a grassroots mobilization of the Christian consciousness so you would have, in the Christian world, something analogous to what happens in the Jewish world every time there’s an anti-Semitic attack someplace.”
“Any time a swastika is spray painted on a synagogue in the world, the global Jewish community – which, let’s face it, is significantly smaller than the Christian community – nevertheless will organize coherently to bring attention to it and shame the government of that place into doing something about it,” Allen says. “We Christians have not reacted in the same way up to this point and I think we need to. It’s long past time.”
He stresses he is “not talking about picking up RPGs and fighting fire with fire.”
“What I am saying is that the spirit of turning the other cheek does not mean turning a blind eye to our sisters and brothers who are being brutalized. With every nonviolent tool in the toolbox, we need to rise up and say this is simply unacceptable, and I do think we have options for doing that.”
Allen welcomed Pope Francis’ words at his weekly general audience Sept. 25, in which the Holy Father reminding the faithful of the violence by asking them if they pray for Christians who are being persecuted and reminding the faithful that we are members of one family. “Those remarks were right on the money,” Allen says. “I do think there’s a role for prayer in all of this.”
In particular, he hopes for a prayer for the persecuted said during every Mass. Furthermore, he feels it could also become “an ecumenical prayer right across the Christian world.”
The Pope’s vigil and day of prayer and fasting for Syria on Sept. 7 “was profoundly powerful in that regard,” Allen says, “but it cannot just be a one-off deal.”
Some argue that persecution is also taking place in the West, such as the clash between the Church and the Obama administration over the HHS mandate. But Allen says he doesn’t deal with Church-state relations in the book.
The clashes are “related but distinct,” he says. “A threat to religious freedom in the West means you might get sued; in many parts of the world, you might get shot.”
“I hope we can all agree, the latter is the most urgent scenario.”