Christian Persecution in Today’s World

A destroyed Protestant church is seen in Mallawi, Egypt, August 17. (CNS photo/Reuters)
A destroyed Protestant church is seen in Mallawi, Egypt, August 17. (CNS photo/Reuters)
Rowan Williams, the erudite former Archbishop of Canterbury, lamented that some Christians in the United Kingdom, the United States, and other Western nations claim “persecution” whenever they don’t get their way.

At the Edinburg International Book Festival, Williams said:

Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. I am always very uneasy when people sometimes in this country or the United States talk about persecution of Christians or rather believers. I think we are made to feel uncomfortable at times. We’re made to feel as if we’re idiots — perish the thought! But that kind of level of not being taken very seriously or being made fun of; I mean for goodness sake, grow up. You have to earn respect if you want to be taken seriously in society. But don’t confuse it with the systematic brutality and often murderous hostility which means that every morning you get up wondering if you and your children are going to make it through the day. That is different, it’s real. It’s not quite what we’re facing in Western society.

The brutality that Williams referenced is on full display for the world to see this summer.

In Syria, 11 people, mostly Christians, were killed near a village where Christians, who have been victims of the brutal violence plaguing that country, have fled for safety. Earlier in the week, a Jesuit priest was kidnapped and killed.

In Nigeria, 53 people, again mostly Christians, were killed in an Islamist attack aimed at the religious minority there.

And in Egypt, the military coup has turned violent, with police and military using deadly force against protesters loyal to ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi. Some Islamists there believe Christians were loyal to ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak and the new regime. As a result, Christians there have been targeted in brutal, systemic attacks meant to instill fear into the religious minority.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that Christians were blamed for initial attacks on protestors, resulting in the first raids on churches:

Hundreds of villagers marched on the Saint Virgin Mary Church. They broke down the gate and flooded the compound, shouting “Allahu akbar” and “Islam is the solution,” according to Christian neighbors.

“First they stole the valuable things, and then they torched the place,” says Sami Awad, a church member who lives across the narrow dirt alley from the church. “Whatever they couldn’t carry, they burned.”

Since that initial attack, authorities report at least six deaths and the destruction of at least 38 churches, as well as attacks on at least 23 more, according to the New York Times.

None of this should fan the flames of anti-Islamic sentiment. In fact, it’s worth noting this viral picture that is said to show Muslim men protecting an Egyptian Christian church, one of what are surely countless acts of common human decency. Also, it’s worth pausing to ask ourselves why reports of Christian persecution seem to affect us more than general violence that is so common around the world.

But I highlight these reports of persecution to show that there are indeed threats to religious liberty across the globe, and that we cheapen the suffering of our Christian brothers and sisters when we yell persecution here at home.

Here at home, claims of religious persecution tend to concern issues that are less, shall we say, weighty, than what’s happening around the world.

This week, a group of mostly Evangelical leaders, along with a smattering of Catholic lawyers, produced a report that claimed the religious rights of ministers are thwarted by the government. The problem, they say, is that the tax exemption enjoyed by churches and other religious institutions prohibits ministers from endorsing candidates for political office. From Religion News Service:

The commission called the regulation of speech of religious organizations “disturbing and chilling.”

“The IRS guidelines are very vague, so ministers and nonprofit leaders are afraid of the (appropriate) line,” said Michael Batts, the independent commission’s chairman. “We think it can be fixed without creating a monster of unintended consequences.”

Some clergy want to endorse political candidates from the pulpit while still maintaining their special tax-exempt status. In effect, they seek taxpayer subsidized political ads. Because current interpretation of IRS codes prevents this, they cry that their religious freedom is in jeopardy. Closer to home, we’ve seen our own leaders speak about threats to religious freedom with sometimes heightened hyperbole.

Christians can be persecuted here at home. And there can be government overreach into the free exercise of religion. But events around the world should put our own fears into perspective. Do we fear for our lives here, that we risk bodily harm or death because of our religious affiliation? What happens when we claim to be persecuted here? How do these claims affect the ability to support those who are actually being persecuted abroad? If Christians here at home convince ourselves we’re a persecuted minority (we’re not), how will that mentality affect our ability to engage culture and society?