The War on Christians

From Africa, to Asia, to the Middle East, they're the world's most persecuted religious group

For at least three reasons, the contemporary persecution of Christians demands attention: It is occurring on a massive scale, it is underreported, and in many parts of the world it is rapidly growing.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that Christians are suffering persecution in more places today than any other religious group; between 2006 and 2012, Pew says, they were targeted for harassment in 151 countries-three-quarters of the world's states. Similar findings are reported by the Vatican, Newsweek, the Economist, and the 60-year-old Christian support group Open Doors. Most people in the West are unaware of these facts, though that may be changing.

A few cases do get press coverage-the desperate plight of Meriam Ibrahim, for instance, who gave birth in a Sudanese prison just the other day. She was raised a Christian, but after officials learned that her long-absent father was a Muslim; she was sentenced to death for apostasy-for leaving Islam. And since in Sudan a Muslim woman may not be married to a Christian, her marriage to her American husband was declared void, and she was convicted of adultery and sentenced to 100 lashes to be administered before her execution. These punishments will be dropped if she renounces her Christian faith, which she steadfastly refuses to do.

Another case receiving attention is North Korea's sentencing of a South Korean missionary, Kim Jong-uk, to life with hard labor. On May 30, he was convicted of espionage and trying to start a church. North Korea also still holds Kenneth Bae, an American sentenced to 15 years' hard labor on charges of trying to use religion to overthrow the political system.

The Chinese government's demolition of the 3,000-member Sanjiang church in Wenzhou on April 28 was newsworthy partly because of the church's size, but also because Sanjiang was not an "underground" church but an official, approved, government-registered "Three-Self" church. Some 20 other official churches in the area have had all or parts of their buildings removed or demolished, and hundreds more are threatened with destruction.

And, most notorious, the abduction into slavery of hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria on April 14 by the al Qaeda-linked Boko Haram led news cycles and tweets for a time, though the religious dimensions of the story were often played down. While the kidnapped girls include Muslims (Boko Haram regards them as apostates because of their Western education), most are Christians, seized in a predominantly Christian area and now subjected to forced conversion.

These events get media attention because they are particularly poignant, or dramatic, or involve foreigners, but our media miss countless other stories. Since the kidnappings, Boko Haram has killed-not kidnapped, killed-hundreds of people, many in the predominantly Christian Gwoza area of Borno State, destroyed 36 churches, and kidnapped at least 8 more girls. On June 1, it attacked a Christian area in neighboring Adamawa state, killing 48 people. In Sudan, a second woman, Faiza Abdalla, has been arrested on suspicion of converting to Christianity, and on April 8 a court terminated her marriage to a Catholic. Iran is imprisoning and torturing pastors from the rapidly growing house church movement, including an American citizen, Pastor Saeed Abedini. Vietnam has imprisoned over 60 Christian leaders. Eritrea holds more than 1,000 Christians in conditions so inhumane that prisoner's die or are permanently crippled. In Somalia, in an ignored religious genocide, Al-Shabaab systematically hunts Christians and kills those it finds.

Of course, people of all religions suffer persecution for their faith or lack thereof-the situations of Baha'is and Jews in Iran, Ahmadis and Hindus in Pakistan, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong in China, independent Buddhists in Vietnam, and Rohingya Muslims in Burma are particularly dire. Traditionally, the United States has been regarded as the country that advocates religious freedom for all, often to the disdain of other Westerners. In recent years, however, that has changed. Now America is quieter, while others speak up.

British prime minister David Cameron said recently that "our religion is now the most persecuted religion around the world" and "We should stand up against persecution of Christians and other religious groups wherever and whenever we can, and should be unashamed in doing so." German chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly stressed that Christians are the world's most widely persecuted religious group. Probably most outspoken of all is Vladimir Putin; no doubt this reflects geopolitical calculation, but the fact remains that he is stressing the matter.

The Italian Foreign Ministry has established an "Observatory on Religious Freedom." Quite properly, it is concerned with all religions, but its genesis was the upsurge in killings of Christians. Two years ago it hosted a conference on "Stopping the Massacre of Christians in Nigeria." Former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner established a similar agency in the Quai d'Orsay, and later the ministry gave financial backing to an "Observatory of Cultural and Religious Pluralism" devoted to monitoring "attacks on freedom of conscience, on freedom of expression, and freedom of religion around the world," particularly with respect to the Arab Spring. Canada now has an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, a title borrowed from the United States.

In the United States, meanwhile, the position of U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom is vacant, as it has been for over half of President Barack Obama's tenure. Even when the position has been filled, in the last decade it has usually been marginalized. President Obama gave a great speech on religious freedom at the National Prayer Breakfast, but little action followed.

The United States has marginalized the issue in other ways, too.

After the massacre of 25 Copts by the Egyptian military on October 9, 2011, the White House lamented the "tragic loss of life among demonstrators and security forces" (emphasis added) and called for "restraint on all sides." As my colleague Sam Tadros commented, "I call upon the security forces to refrain from killing Christians, and upon Christians to refrain from dying."

On Easter morning in 2012, a church in Kaduna, Nigeria, was the target of a Boko Haram suicide car bombing that killed 39 and wounded dozens. (The previous Christmas, Boko Haram had bombed St. Theresa's Catholic Church outside the capital, Abuja, killing 44 worshipers, and also attacked churches in the towns of Jos, Kano, Gadaka, and Damaturu.) There was no official comment from the Obama administration about the Kaduna massacre on Christians' holiest day. Instead, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a press release celebrating the Romani people and demanding that Europe become more inclusive of them.

At the beginning of the State Department's annual report on international religious freedom for 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry stated, "While Christians were a leading target of societal discrimination, abuse, and violence in some parts of the world, members of other religions, particularly Muslims, suffered as well." The assertion is incontrovertible, yet the wording elides the truth: Christians are not just "a leading target," they are the leading target. American officials seem so scared of being accused of selectively defending Christians that they consistently overcompensate and minimize what is happening.

The Catholic and Orthodox churches are more outspoken now than they were in the past, partly because the plight of their brethren, especially in the Middle East, is so stark. Pope Benedict XVI raised the issue many times. Pope Francis, speaking three days after the September 22, 2013, suicide bombing of All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, in which over 80 congregants were killed, urged Christians to examine their consciences about their response to anti-Christian persecution: "Am I indifferent to that, or does it affect me like it's a member of the family? .  .  . Does it touch my heart, or doesn't it really affect me, [to know that] so many brothers and sisters in the family are giving their lives for Jesus Christ?"

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, in his November 11, 2013, address as he stepped down from chairing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke of the "Via Crucis currently being walked by so many of our Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, who are experiencing lethal persecution on a scale that defies belief."