November 3rd is the annual International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. In 2007, less than 30% of 198 countries and territories in the world had high or very high religious restrictions or hostilities. Just four years later, that number had risen to 40% (Grim 2013), a trend likely to continue.
Similarly, while the twentieth century was the ‘bloodiest century’, particularly in relation to Christian martyrdom, the twenty-first century is witnessing yet more Christian martyrs, with an estimated 100,000 in 2013 and a rising trend projected (Johnson and Crossing 2013, 33; Johnson 2012).
Religious freedom overview
According to Brian Grim, an expert on religious freedom issues, over five billion people presently live under religious restrictions or hostilities, the majority of them being felt by religious minorities (Grim 2013). Grim’s designations ‘religious restrictions’ (or ‘government restrictions’) and ‘social hostilities’ are important and helpful terms for our understanding of religious persecution today:
- Religious restrictions are laws set in place by governments. For example, a law making blasphemy of a religious tenet punishable by imprisonment or death is a government religious restriction.
- Social hostilities can be seen as consequences of functioning contrary to a norm enforced by a society.
As Grim illustrates, the antagonism, threats, and even physical violence Ahmadiyya Muslims sometimes experience as a result of government restrictions placed upon them (e.g., legally restricting their activity to their mosques) are social hostilities (ibid.). Socio-political definitions like these are helpful to our understanding of persecution and support our ability to measure, analyse, and aid victims of religious persecution.
With this in mind, Grim notes that two-thirds of the world’s population lives in countries with high government restrictions:
- More specifically, one-quarter of the world’s population lives in countries with laws restricting religious symbols, and over one-third of countries worldwide imprison people based on religion.
- Significantly, 23% restrict conversion, a restriction which, when broken, often leads to social hostilities.
Over half of the world’s population lives in countries with high social hostilities against religions:
- These include one-in-seven countries where sectarian violence is present.
- Religion-related terrorism exists in over 30% of the world’s countries, and in over one-third of countries world-wide social groups use force to impose religious norms (ibid.).
Of course, many of these demographics relate to restrictions and hostilities in countries where their occurrence is most frequent. However, some infrequent restrictions and hostilities also occur. For instance, while Egypt or Russia may have high government restrictions (e.g., restricting conversion in Egypt or restricting mosques in Russia), religious symbols have been restricted in the United Kingdom, where restrictions or hostilities are not otherwise common (ibid.).
Persecution of Christians
Not only do these statistics show that religious persecution is a global problem, but they demonstrate that persecution is not only a Christian concern. Nevertheless, it also remains the case that “Christians are the single most widely persecuted religious group in the world today” with one source estimating that “75% of acts of religious intolerance are directed against Christians” (Marshall, Gilbert, and Shea 2013, 4).
Christians in the Middle East
To take one region as an example, countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) rank high on Grim’s scale measuring government restrictions and social hostilities connected to religion. In this region, Christianity exists as a minority religion, often the largest religious minority among others:
- Many MENA countries favor one religion to the detriment of others.
- In fact, MENA ranks eight times higher than countries in the rest of the world in religious favoritism (Grim 2013).
- In a similar way, MENA countries rank nearly four times higher in sectarian violence related to religious restrictions than countries in the rest of the world (ibid.).
At the risk of some over-simplification, the reasons for rising religious persecution in MENA are numerous and likely a mix of religious, historical, political, and economic factors. MENA has a long history of controlling religious communities by means of government restriction:
- The Byzantines taxed their conquered and religious minorities.
- Later Muslim governors used a very similar system to control the non-Muslim groups they ruled.
- Under the Ottomans, religious groups were divided and subdivided into millets.
- Similar restrictive controls were also employed in the region under British and French mandates.
With such tight control over religious (and ethnic) populations, social hostilities are often inevitable, especially as one religious group rises in power.
Moreover, Christians can sometimes pay the price in reactions against Western dominance and influence in the region. While the 2011 Arab uprisings, in general a reaction to perceived tyranny and Western-supported governments, brought some political freedoms, they did not often yield religious freedoms for the region’s religious minorities. In some cases, the perceived connections between Christianity and the West—a perception not helped by the West’s political presence, but also a history of Christian mission that was not always charitable—can make local Christian populations, as ancient as many of them may be, appear suspect to many.
In future, if the role of Islam in government becomes a more central feature in MENA, the place of religious favoritism, even if it is (mistakenly) seen as a means for controlling religious groups, must be challenged. Further, as Western Christians seek to advocate religious freedoms for their brothers and sisters in MENA, local Christians must be allowed to take the lead as a spirit of true solidarity and unity with one another is emphasised.
Developing a theology of persecution
Christians must reflect on what the rising trend of religious persecution means for the Church today. Doing so will involve engaging in more developed theological reflection on persecution than the Church has exhibited in the past (Tieszen 2008, 18-35).
One of the Church’s most pervasive struggles in this area is its common misunderstanding of persecution as only physical violence. In fact, as Grim’s work suggests, persecution can occur in a number of non-violent ways such as antagonism, ostracism, legal restrictions, etc. In fact, even though restrictions can lead to violent hostilities, it can also be the case that legal restrictions on religion can be so strict that violent hostilities are curbed—or indeed redundant:
- For example, restricting a religious community’s life and activity to a ghetto would also proscribe interaction with other religious communities and thereby eliminate possible inter-religious violence as well.
- Over-emphasizing violent acts may thus risk overlooking non-violent restrictions that are still forms of persecution.
The Church must also work out a thorough theological definition of the religious persecution of Christians, one that complements socio-political definitions like those of Grim and others (Tieszen 2012). With a proper definition in place, the Church will be able to identify persecution wherever and however it occurs, engage in proper theological reflection upon the event, and offer comprehensive advocacy on behalf of victims:
- One area where this may be most felt is in the presence of rising secularization and privatization of religion in the West, quite possibly a form of persecution in its own right.
- If this is the case, then the Church, especially in the West, must reflect upon its role in a society where it is increasingly marginal and marginalized.
Advocacy and solidarity
The rising trend of religious restrictions and social hostilities also means that the Church must continue in its effort to advocate religious freedoms and to place itself in solidarity with those who suffer. Advocacy efforts are aided by the work of those like Grim, the World Watch List, the International Institute of Religious Freedom, and others.
However, Christians in the West—still most able to help non-Westerners who are more frequently the victims of intense persecution—must give more thought to what it means to be present among those who suffer. Even more, the Church must consider the ways in which its efforts to promote and support religious freedoms complement its theological and biblical role as a suffering people. This latter theological consideration may further point to the importance of large segments of the Church recapturing theologies of martyrdom and persecution, especially ones that offer a place for the memory and celebration of the Church’s martyrs.
Finally, while the Church’s advocacy is vital, the way in which it engages in this task alongside governments has important theological implications for Church-state relations:
If, in its effort to lobby governments, the Church cedes control of religious freedom to secular bodies, then the Church may lose its authentic, visible witness such that it cannot function as a body in authentic solidarity with those being persecuted (Hauerwas 1999).
When this occurs, the Church functionally interiorizes religion.
As a result the Church purchases its freedom from the state; Christians become responsible for the soul while secular groups and governments control the body (Cavanaugh 2002, 87).
Theologically understood, Christ is head of the Church, body and soul. The Church’s true religious freedom, then, is found when it is a part of Christ’s unified body and functions from a position of solidarity, not just by caring for persecuted souls, but by having something to say to the world about persecuted bodies as well. This latter function is not just the job of governments, a point significantly impacting Church-state relations and what it means that the Church is a persecuted body.
There is a rising trend of religious persecution in the world today. While Christians have no monopoly on suffering, they are frequently the victims of it and will continue to suffer its presence in the world. The Church is meant to be Christ’s suffering body in the world. The reality of persecution in the life of the Church also speaks to theological realities. The Church must continue to reflect theologically on the persecution it endures even as it continues to advocate the religious freedoms that all of humanity deserves.
Cavanaugh, William T. Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Consumerism. New York: T & T Clark, 2002.
Grim, Brian J. “The Numbers of Religious Freedom.” Lecture, TEDx ViaDellaConciliazione, Vatican City, April 2013. http://www.pewforum.org/Government/The-Numbers-of-Religious-Freedom–Brian-J–Grim-at-TEDxViadellaConcilizaione.aspx. Accessed 1 June 2013.
Hauerwas, Stanley. “The Politics of Freedom: Why Freedom of Religion is a Subtle Temptation.” In After Christendom. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999.
Johnson, Todd M. “The Demographics of Martyrdom.” In Sorrow and Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution, and Martyrdom, ed. William D. Taylor, Antonia van der Meer, and Reg Reimer. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2012.
Johnson, Todd M., and Peter F. Crossing. “Christianity 2013: Renewalists and Faith and Migration.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 37, no. 1 (January 2013): 32-33.
Marshall, Paul, Lela Gilbert, and Nina Shea. Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013.
Tieszen, Charles L. “Redefining Persecution.” In Sorrow and Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution, and Martyrdom, ed. William D. Taylor, Antonia van der Meer, and Reg Reimer. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2012.
Tieszen, Charles L. Re-Examining Religious Persecution: Constructing a Theological Framework for Understanding Persecution. Kempton Park: AcadSA, 2008.