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From the slaughter of 60 Catholic priests by Iraqi Islamists four years ago to what one historian calls “hellish concentration camps for Christians” in Eritrea, journalist John Allen sees followers of Jesus as “indisputably…the most persecuted religious body on the planet.” So he writes in his latest book, The Global War on Christians (Random House, 2013), which cites such authorities as the International Society for Human Rights, noting that the group identifies 80 percent of religious freedom violations worldwide as targeting Christians.
Allen, an expert on the Vatican, was a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and an analyst for CNN and National Public Radio before being recruited recently as a Boston Globe editor and writer. He has also written elsewhere about anti-Christian persecution. Yet according to David Frankfurter, a College of Arts & Sciences professor and chair of religion, his take is overblown. Frankfurter, whose expertise includes the religion-violence nexus, shares his views with Bostonia.
Frankfurter: There are all sorts of violent persecutions taking place today, and I would probably rate the massacre of Shiite Muslims in Pakistan and Iraq, along with the massacre of everyday Muslims and Christians in northern Nigeria, at least as high as persecution of Christians in various places. The recent pogroms against Muslims in Central African Republic have been well documented and just staggering in their scale. Christians—whether Egyptian Copts or North Korean evangelicals—are hardly the only religious groups under attack.
The problem with imagining a global persecution of Christians, or of any religious group, is that each case is really quite different. The relationship between Copts and Muslims in Egypt has become much more fraught over the 20th century because of economic and political differences. Nigeria is another place where Christians have gained and exerted political and economic power in some ways, while a kind of radical Islamism has energized some movements in the north, with extremely violent consequences. But it is not just Christians who are victimized by the Nigerian group Boko Haram (“Away with Western Culture!”). It is often other Muslims. It is quite wrong to imagine that Christians alone are somehow uniquely targeted by violent groups. And in some cases it is Christians—evangelical, Pentecostal—who are instigating violence, whether against gay people in Uganda or against so-called “child witches” in many parts of west Africa.
Violence against other groups has always taken place during some type of cultural change—think about the Thirty Years’ War and the Reformation in Europe. Violence against rival or minority groups arises from rumors of conspiracy (a woman or child has allegedly been abducted) or the stark worldview of outside groups, like Boko Haram in Nigeria or Ansar Dine in Mali, and often popular rumors that “those people” are dangerous, subversive, immoral, or opposed to the progress of society. A government might attempt to “cleanse” society of evil, in the form of witches, homosexuals, or minority groups, to demonstrate its capacity to safeguard its people, to embrace a notion of modernity. A particular charismatic leader of any religious group may proclaim that his followers can show their true piety by waging war against some particular religious or social entity.
Given that the United States allows—for better or for worse—its citizens to missionize and influence other cultures, often with highly inflammatory rhetoric and notions of evil (e.g., Uganda and its crusade against homosexuality motivated by American evangelicals) and given that we sponsored a war on Saddam Hussein that has been widely regarded as a war on Islam, it is difficult for the United States to show a united front against religious persecution. But the Obama administration has tried its best on many fronts to highlight persecution of religious groups as a great wrong.
Allen’s own perspective is myopic and paranoid, so it is hard to demand that Western countries, with their increasing grasp of the complexity of religious politics in various cultures, take persecution of Christians as a unique problem.
One of the problems with discussing religious persecution is that in some religious traditions persecution and martyrdom lie at the very heart of the stories that organize religious identity itself. We can observe this tradition in Judaism, Shiite Islam, and certainly Christianity, which begins with the martyrdom of an innocent man and continues with innumerable stories of graphic torture and death.
From an early stage Christians embraced these stories, retold them, painted and sculpted them, visited the shrines of their victims, and even drew inspiration from them to annihilate perceived aggressors (Jews, Muslims, other Christians) in a “never again” mind-set. Persecution and martyrdom, as the Barnard scholar Elizabeth Castelli has shown, have offered Christians a sense of history, identity, community, and license for action. In this context, I am not surprised that someone like Allen would raise the cry of anti-Christian persecution, but I’m not sure we should take that cry as more than a deeply traditional call to Christians to view the world as threatening and persecution as a kind of destiny. The great second-century Church father Ignatius of Antioch declared that only in persecution and martyrdom does Christianity become real, and most historians of the religious would say that this sentiment never really went away.