Remembering Global Persecution of Christians during the Fortnight for Freedom

In 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, was gunned down just outside his home in Islamabad. Last year, Church officials in Pakistan opened a cause for his beatification. Bhatti’s life was striking for the depth of his vocation. He had taken up his post out of a calling to protect Pakistan’s downtrodden minorities. Knowing that his life was in danger, he had renounced marriage so as not to leave behind a fatherless family. Shortly before he was assassinated, he stated in a video, “I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us, and I am ready to die for a cause. I’m living for my community … and I will die to defend their rights.”

As the Church rightly draws our attention to the growing curtailment of religious freedom in the United States in recent years during this Fortnight for Freedom, let us not forget that Christians around the world like Bhatti suffer the violation of their religious freedom through killing, torture, arbitrary arrest, unjust interrogation, the burning of their churches and property, and numerous forms of heavy discrimination.

“How many people are being persecuted because of their faith, forced to abandon their homes, their places of worship, their lands, their loved ones!,” exclaimed Pope Francis in a recent video. A report published earlier this year by the Center for Studies on New Religions in Turin, Italy, held that some 90,ooo Christians were killed for their faith around the world in 2016 and that between 500 and 600 million Christians were in some manner persecuted or barred from living out their faith.

While the mainstream media and major human rights groups by and large have not given the global persecution of Christians the coverage that it deserves, we can be grateful that some important voices have brought the trend to the world’s attention. Critical, for instance, was the U.S. State Department’s decision to designate as genocide the persecution of Yazidis, Christians, and other religious minorities in Syria and Iraq in March 2016.

Once the world comes to acknowledge the persecution of Christians, the question must then be asked: What do Christians do when they are persecuted? How do they respond?

Bhatti responded to persecution not only through being ready to accept martyrdom but also through constructively promoting religious freedom through political means. For instance, he advocated for the reform of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws, constructed coalitions of religious communities, and counseled the forgiveness of his enemies.

How Christians around the world respond to persecution is the subject of the Under Caesar’s Sword project, based at the University of Notre Dame and the Religious Freedom Institute. The project’s premise is that with good answers to these questions in hand, the rest of the world can exercise more effective solidarity with persecuted Christians.

On a generous grant from the Templeton Religion Trust, the project assembled a team of fourteen world class scholars of global Christianity and sent them out to investigate how Christian communities respond to persecution in countries ranging from Iran to Indonesia, Syria to Sri Lanka.

The findings were numerous (and reported here). The most common responses to persecution were strategies of survival, through which communities seek to remain alive and to practice their most basic activities. The second most common response was strategies of accommodation, through which they seek to strengthen their position by constructing relationships with other churches, religious communities, and secular actors – much like Bhatti did. The least common was strategies of confrontation, which involves direct opposition to persecuting regimes, including martyrdom, the fate that Bhatti ultimately met. Striking was the rarity of violence as a response to persecution. Evangelicals and Pentecostals suffered more persecution, and reacted more assertively to persecution, than older, established churches like Catholic and Orthodox communities. The most central finding was that Christian communities engage in a creative pragmatism by which they undertake short-term measures to build their position with the long-term theological hope that one day the persecuting regime will fall and that they will then blossom.

With these findings in hand, we who live in relatively free environments may actively support our beleaguered brothers and sisters who, like Bhatti, struggle to respond faithfully to persecution.

“I ask you: how many of you pray for persecuted Christians?,” queries Pope Francis.

No time is better to undertake such prayer – as well as other forms of support – than the Fortnight For Freedom.

 Daniel Philpott is Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame


Religious freedom | It is more than freedom to worship

In a class I co-taught on religious freedom last fall, many of the students seemed to arrive with a sense that there wasn’t much to talk about. In the U.S., we have always given individuals religious freedom, and we should keep doing that. If any question should arise the maxim of John Stuart Mill— “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins”—would resolve the matter quickly.

Happily, our location at least suggested the topic’s rich history. Our class took place in Providence, Rhode Island, two miles or so from the spot where Roger Williams, banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony on account of his views, stumbled out of the wilderness to begin a radical new experiment. In Massachusetts, Williams had spoken publicly against the punishment of religious dissenters. In Providence, he worked with others to establish bold protections for individual “liberty of conscience.” The fruits of that experiment were new forms of religious freedom, and protections for many religious minorities. Indeed, the proximity to our classroom was no accident. Among the religious minorities who sought out this liberty were Catholics, and there is a clear link to Rhode Island’s ultimate (and current) status as the most heavily Catholic state in the union.

As conversation got underway, however, I realized that many of our students held to assumptions that had to be challenged. In our conversations, the complexity and importance of religious freedom began to emerge.

First, many of our students understood freedom of religion as reducible to freedom of worship. Freedom to worship is certainly a crucial freedom, but freedom of religion is a much broader category, and one that goes beyond the private sphere into the public square. Freedom of religion involves the ability to organize schools and other charitable organizations, to enter into the political process with religious commitments, and generally to conduct oneself in accordance with one’s religious convictions and conscience. It is here, of course, in interaction with those whose religious convictions differ, that challenges can arise.

Second, many of our students assumed that the only interpretation of the First Amendment consisted in a Jeffersonian sense of a “wall of separation” between church and state. Thomas Jefferson used this phrase in a letter he penned in 1802, and it offers a metaphor that seems to be extremely stark: these two entities are to be separated in an absolute, with neither touching the other in any way. In the last fifty years or so, this has become an increasingly prevalent interpretation of the First Amendment. But it was not always so. Jefferson himself was more complicated in practice. As governor of Virginia, he called for public days of prayer, and as president, he directed federal funds to Christian missionaries and encouraged local governments to make land available for Christian purposes. John Adams, meanwhile, leaned more in the direction of what has come to be called the “accommodationist” view: the belief that religion is essential is fostering moral values required for maintaining civil order, and that religion is part of the national heritage. The precise meaning of the First Amendment is not simple, but it is crucial for the way in which we understand freedom of religion.

Finally, many of our students were simply unfamiliar with the tradition at the very heart of Christianity that requires fidelity to God before fidelity to any other authority, including civil government. They might have heard of early Christian martyrs, but they did not know that martyrs could have escaped their fate, if they would only have offered worship to Caesar. Even more immediately relevant, they did not know of the Thomistic tradition—essential to modern civil disobedience—that insists that laws not rooted in the larger ideal of justice are not to be regarded as laws at all. In some cases, disobedience to laws of this kind is actually a moral imperative.

Over the course of the semester, we discussed many topics, but these three especially made us all more aware of what is at stake in advancing claims of religious freedom—and why such claims must be treated with great care.

Holly Taylor Coolman is Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College.