In his 18th-century classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, English historian Edward Gibbon famously attributed the fall of the Roman Empire primarily to the rise of the Christian religion. The Christian belief in eternal life, paired with the gospel teachings on love of neighbor and the demand to turn the other cheek, were responsible, Gibbon believed, for the weakening of the Roman peoples’ concern with this earthly state.
In his account, Gibbon observed, “When the promise of eternal happiness was proposed to mankind on condition of adopting the faith, and of observing the precepts, of the Gospel, it is no wonder that so advantageous an offer should have been accepted by great numbers of every religion, of every rank, and of every province in the Roman empire. The ancient Christians were animated by a contempt for their present existence, and by a just confidence of immortality, of which the doubtful and imperfect faith of modern ages cannot give us any adequate notion.”
While Gibbon’s interpretation of this history has been widely debated, one thing remains undeniable: the influence of Christianity on the Roman Empire forever changed the rest of the world. Critics argue about whether this influence has been for good or ill, but what’s clear is that it has mattered significantly.
Christians now represent almost a third of the world population. And among the 2.2 billion Christians around the globe, over 100 million are the victims of religious persecution. According to Vatican analyst John Allen, Jr., author of the newly released The Global War on Christians, these Christians are indisputably “the most persecuted religious body on the planet.” Too often, he explains in detail, their persecution is either silent or misunderstood.
In recent years there’s been much talk of a “war on religion” in the United States. Controversy over the Health and Human Services mandate requiring religious employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception and abortifacients have prompted many Christian institutions to protest the Obama administration’s narrow religious exemptions. Others have pointed to cases where religious opposition to same-sex marriage has led to charges of prejudice and bias and limited the practices of adoption and foster care agencies and other faith-based services. When talk of religious freedom occurs, these stories tend to dominate the discussion. While these examples present real and serious limitations of religious freedom, Allen expands the scope much wider, and introduces a world in which Christians of all backgrounds are being silenced, punished, and—in a disturbing number of cases—killed for their faith.
Meet Bishop Umar Mulinde, a leader in the Pentecostal Church in Uganda who converted to Christianity from Islam 20 years ago. On Christmas Eve 2011, he was attacked by a Muslim extremist, who threw acid on his face in protest of Mulinde’s vocal criticism of the Ugandan parliament’s proposal to grant legal recognition to sharia courts. While Christians make up more than 80 percent of the Ugandan population, this fact hasn’t reduced the threat to Mulinde’s life or to other prominent Christians in the country. In fact, the 2011 attack was merely one of the many made against him since his conversion to Christianity. Despite such threats, Mulinde remains resolute: “I am not happy about getting hurt, but it’s a price I’m happy to pay in order to be faithful to what I believe.”
According to the latest data, Christians make up 63 percent of the African population—a grand total of 380 million souls. Yet while the continent can boast of the world’s fastest-growing Christian population, it’s coming at an equally high cost to the faithful on the ground.
Consider the more prominent story of Aaiya Noreen Bibi, better known as Asia Bibi, the 43-year-old Catholic mother of five who was charged with blasphemy in Pakistan in 2009. Her crime? After picking berries in 100-degree heat, she was thirsty and drank water out of a local well. Upon doing so, local Muslim women blamed her for defiling the well and the conversation soon erupted into a dispute about Jesus and Muhammad. Although the conversation never turned violent, Bibi was arrested, charged, and sentenced to death by hanging. Since then her case has drawn much international criticism and her death sentence has not been carried out. Even so, she remains in solitary confinement and one Pakistani mullah has advertised a $10,000 reward for anyone who kills her. While this case has drawn widespread attention, it’s not an unfamiliar tale. According to the Pew Research Center, 47 percent of the countries in the world have laws or policies that criminalize blasphemy, apostasy, or defamation of religion. Given the treatment of Asia Bibi, it seems clear that even minor offenses can result in severe charges under these categories.
Bishop Mulinde and Asia Bibi are not outliers, and Allen’s engaging book provides dozens of similar profiles and anecdotes. What’s clear, however, is the persecution that he describes is not localized to any specific geographic area or toward Christians of a particular sect. This persecution is as widespread as it is discriminatory. According to the International Society for Human Rights, 80 percent of religious discrimination in the world is against Christians. Based on the annual report produced by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, “Status of Global Mission,” more than 100,000 Christians were killed each year between 2000 and 2010—effectively, 11 Christians every hour. Since the time of Christ there have been 70 million Christian martyrs. More than half of those—45 million—lost their lives during the 20th century. In other words, there’s never been a more dangerous time to be a Christian than the present.
Contrary to popular belief, Christian persecution is not simply the result of radical Islamic terrorism. In our post-September 11th world, attacks on Christians that take place in the Middle East are likely to garner more mass media attention than those occurring in other regions. Yet based on the numbers, the majority of Christians that have suffered persecution have been in non-Muslim countries, most notably Communist societies with state-sponsored subjugation. In fact, the largest segment of martyrdoms in the 20th century took place in the Soviet Union. Similar persecution is underway in places like Colombia and the Republic of the Congo, where Christians are the predominant population, proving that demographics don’t dictate destiny. There’s always more to the story.
The “why” of martyrdom
Allen’s work, however, in not merely descriptive. While the profiles and anecdotes of these brave Christian martyrs and victims of persecution are both sobering and heartening, the real merit of this book is his consideration of the greater question of why. Why is it, Allen asks, that “beyond all the frustrations Christians feel—beyond the scandal, crises, and failures that frequently mar the churches—there’s something so precious about faith in Christ and membership in the church that, when push comes to shove, ordinary people will pay in blood rather than let it go?” The answer is, of course, deeply personal—as is faith, in general. Even so, there is always a public exercise of one’s private faith that can never be ignored or minimized.
Christianity began as a missionary religion and continues to operate as one today. The missionary aspect of the faith requires service in breadlines, orphanages, hospitals, and schools, and this is not limited by location. In recent decades, it was the faith of Christians that inspired the resistance movement leading to the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, demonstrating that Christianity can operate as a worldwide force for democracy and human rights. These attributes make the Christian witness attractive, and have contributed to its extraordinary growth around the world—not just in places like Africa and Latin America, but also Eastern Europe and Asia. All of this has placed Christians on the front lines of their communities wherever they are, and this public witness has resulted in the very public attacks from Christianity’s enemies.
Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, once remarked that the greatest witnesses to the Christian faith are her saints and the art she has produced and inspired. If saints are those Christians whose lives have been ones of heroic virtue, then surely these modern-day martyrs and victims of persecution are counted in their number. Their earthly lives are likely to produce far more spiritual fruits than their persecutors could have ever imagined.
Gibbon believed that Christian faith served as an impediment to participation in this present life. Yet if that’s so, how are we to account for the fact that Christians today are the greatest contributors to charities around the world, provide the largest volunteer corps, are among the most effective disaster relief workers, and are continual voices for causes that promote human freedom and flourishing? Gibbon was wrong to describe Christians as only interested in the world to come. As Allen ably demonstrates, for many Christians their witness of faith is the here and now.
The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution
By John L. Allen, Jr.
(Image Books, October 2013)