Review of The Global War on Christians
According to estimates by religious demographers David Barrett and Todd Johnson, 45 million Christians were martyred for their faith in 20th century. In the present day, the International Society for Human Rights estimates that 80% of all acts of religious persecution are perpetrated against Christians. On this day alone, somewhere between 20 and 250 Christians will be killed as a result of their beliefs.
Despite these jarring figures, there is relatively little general awareness or media coverage of anti-Christian persecution. In response to this unfamiliarity and silence, John L. Allen, Jr., Associate Editor of the Boston Globe and a longtime observer of issues involving Christianity and the Catholic Church, writes his book, The Global War on Christians, to “tell the stories” of persecuted Christians and to “debunk the myths that too often surround it,” and raise public consciousness about this issue often hidden from our eyes.
Surveying the globe continent by continent, Allen relates the horrific, saddening, and often infuriating personal stories of persecuted Christians as well as alarming statistics from different regions. They are too numerous to reproduce here, but a sampling will give readers an idea of the magnitude of the storm buffeting Christians around the world today. In Nigeria, the terrorist group Boko Haram attacked Christian churches and homes during the Christmas season each year from 2010 to 2012, resulting in numerous deaths and property loss. Asia sees the repressive regimes of China and North Korea imprisoning millions of Christians. China prevents worship of Christians if not approved beforehand, and demands the right to control selections for episcopal appointments in Catholic dioceses, imprisoning bishops like Thaddeus Ma Daqin who dare to speak out against such oppression. Fully a quarter of North Korean Christians are jailed in prison camps. The Middle East is also a powder keg for Christians. Christians in the Syrian city of Qusayr received an ultimatum to flee within six days or risk unnamed punishment, a scene that has played out in other areas as well. Iraqi Christians in the city of Mosul were forced to flee when members of ISIS marked their homes with letters denoting that Christians lived there, making them targets for future assaults. This overview serves as only a snapshot of the persecution seen by Christians all over the globe. Allen’s account was published just before ISIS gained more widespread fame for their brutal beheadings of persons caught in their wake, many of whom are Christians who refuse to convert to their radical version of Islam, a development which underscores the urgency of Allen’s concerns.
Christians are not safe even in places where they constitute the majority of the population. The evangelical group Rescue Christians reports that “25 to 30 Colombian pastors are murdered by armed groups every year” and that hundreds of churches have been closed by such groups. Mexican clergy and laity who stand up to drug cartels and government corruption are targeted for retribution. For example, journalist Maria Elizabeth Macías Castro, who used her blog to criticize the Zetas drug cartel, was kidnapped and decapitated in Nuevo Laredo. Fr. Francisco Sánchez Durán was killed near Mexico City for criticizing thieves who targeted local families and businesses. Despite being in a country where over 90% are Christian, the preaching of Christian justice is not a safe occupation. Eastern Europeans also experience repression at the hands of Muslim radicals in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as authoritarian governments in Ukraine and Russia, among others. These examples lay bare the reality of Christian persecution even in majority Christian nations, and cast aside the stereotypical belief that persecution is only a problem for minority Christians in Muslim-majority states.
Allen further examines the reasons why Christians are disproportionately targeted for persecution, as well as recent trends of growth in repression and violence. Besides being the largest religion in the world, Christianity is also undergoing extraordinary growth around the globe, leading to tension with existing religious majorities or, in some cases, nationalist factions who feel Christianity is “western.” Further, Allen contends, Christians are often some of the most outspoken critics of corruption, and are “advocates for human rights and democracy,” which threatens authoritarian figures. This often places Christians in the crosshairs, as was seen in the cases of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, killed for helping in the plot to assassinate Hitler, and Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, assassinated because of his criticism of corruption within the government and human rights violations by the military. Far from stagnating in recent years, Allen notes that anti-Christian persecution has risen dramatically in the last century and even the last decade. Of all Christian martyrs (about 70 million) since the life of Christ, over half were killed in the 20th century alone. In some areas, the explicit violence grows exponentially. Allen cites analysis by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism estimating that “explicit” attacks on Christians in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East grew by 309% in only seven years (2003-2010). Persecution, it seems, is not slowing down at all, but is increasing in frequency.
Given these dramatic personal accounts and eye-opening statistics, Allen wonders why there is relatively limited discussion or awareness of the plight of Christians on the part of believers and secularists alike. Allen contends that silence of secular media outlets towards the alarming amount of violence and persecution directed towards Christians is due to people being conditioned to see Christianity as the perpetrator of oppression, not as its recipient. It is unpopular to challenge this stereotype in the media, so even if a media outlet recognizes anti-Christian persecution at home or abroad, they may not report on it. Furthermore, Christians in the West are sensitive to political correctness, and don’t wish to offend these common views, or appear to be laying blame on another religious or ethnic group, further hindering news outlets from drawing attention to this serious issue.
Allen further examines the various stereotypes surrounding the persecution of Christians. Of particular interest is the idea that Islam is the only force against Christians; Allen lays out how many groups, including Buddhists, Hindus, and even rival Christian factions can become radicalized and support violence against Christians and other minorities. Totalitarian states and crime syndicates are also major contributors. In short, Islam is not the only source of persecution for Christians. Allen similarly quashes the misconception that martyrdom is a politically liberal or conservative issue. Both sides of the political spectrum have their martyrs. Oscar Romero supported justice for the poor and espoused economic views that clashed with the conservative interests of the ruling powers. Countless believers have been similarly slain by liberal communist governments like those in the Soviet Union or in China. It is a mistake to make such a basic human rights issue as religious freedom about political views.
A final notion treated by Allen in his attempt to correct mistaken stereotypes is the idea that harassment is only persecution if the motives of its perpetrators are religious in nature. Allen revolutionizes the discussion surrounding the rising tide of maltreatment of Christians by attempting to broaden the concept of what it means to suffer repression that is specifically anti-Christian. Allen argues that we must not only take into account the motives of the perpetrator, which may be religious or may instead be related to political power or finances, but also the reasons a victim was placed in a situation that they could be harassed or attacked. Christians harassed because of some stance they take based on their Christian convictions are victims of anti-Christian persecution, even if the perpetrator does not consciously think of it that way. Thus for Allen, for persecution to be anti-Christian, it does not need to be undertaken in odium fidei as traditionally understood.
Thus, for instance, a Christian who is killed for opposing a drug cartel (opposition driven explicitly by their Christian values) now “counts” as a martyr—another victim in the global war on Christians. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero, who were cited earlier, could not strictly speaking be called martyrs under old definitions that only focus on perpetrators’ motives. However, it is clear that while their murderers did not kill them by virtue of their being Christians, Romero and Bonhoeffer would not have been killed had they not been Christians. While Allen’s expanded definition of “anti-Christian” serves such cases as these well, it also encounters problems. For instance, in relating the story of Eric de Putter, a French missionary and professor serving for two years in Cameroon who was killed after he accused a student of plagiarism, marring the student’s pursuit of a Ph.D. Allen contends that this is a case of martyrdom, since de Putter’s presence in Cameroon was dependent on, and his and actions were perhaps motivated by, his Christian beliefs. However, such reasoning seems to stretch the truth. Surely de Putter was a man of faith, but to term his or other similar acts of violence anti-Christian persecution seems like an attempt to inflate numbers, something Allen certainly doesn’t need to do given the astounding frequency of other more explicit attacks. His intention of showing the scope of the struggle of Christians here veers a bit off course.
Another area of tension comes when Allen tries to draw a line between the more violent persecutions of Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America, and the more subtle ones in the United States and Europe, such as the Obama administration’s much-maligned weak conscience clauses in requiring contraception and abortifacient coverage by religious employers. Allen’s desire to distinguish between mild and serious forms of persecution is well intentioned. He states that he doesn’t want the humanitarian plight of Christians in other parts of the world, whose deaths and persecutions ought to be readily condemned by anyone as violations of basic human rights, to become trapped in the quagmire of western liberal/conservative politics. Indeed, Allen says, these issues are not of the right or the left: they are of humanity. However, Allen’s tone ends up coming across as dismissive of the difficulties of conscience faced by western Christians, even if these difficulties pale in comparison to the horrors endured by others around the globe, which distracts from his central argument.
These criticisms aside, Allen clearly accomplishes his primary objective in writing The Global War on Christians. Ignorance of the struggles faced by Christians in modern times allows violence and harassment to continue. Allen’s exhaustive presentation of relevant numerical summaries gives readers a vivid sense of the scale of persecution faced by Christians in the world. The innumerable personal testimonies Allen documents give a face to these statistics, and galvanize readers to reflect upon and share the horrific suffering about which they have learned. The realization that persecution still happens on a larger scale is an important one for 21st-century Christians. Understanding the plight of Christians abroad helps the Christian Church as a whole attempt to address their needs, as well as to defend fiercely against the spread of violence through awareness and social action.
Allen recalls toward the end of the book that he asked a group of Syrian Christian refugees what can be done to help embattled Christians worldwide. “The most common response,” he relates, was simply: “Don’t forget about us.” Allen’s account of the suffering of Christians is an outstanding response to that request.
I would like to express my thanks to Dr. Edmund Santurri for suggesting that I write about this pressing topic.
1 Allan, John L. Jr. The Global War on Christians: the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution. New York: Random House, 2013, 33.
2 Ibid., 33
3 Ibid., 42-45
4 Ibid., 22
5 Ibid., 59
6 Ibid., 71
7 Ibid., 84
8 Ibid., 144
9 Ibid., 100
10 Ibid., 106
11 Ibid., 157
12 Ibid., 38-39
13 Ibid., 33
14 Ibid., 36
15 Ibid., 15
16 Ibid., 216-217
17 Ibid., 283
Paul Escher ’16 majors in religion and biology, and is from La Crosse, WI.Tags: Catholicism, David Barrett, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric de Putter, Francisco Sánchez Durán, government, history, human rights, John L. Allen, Jr., Maria Elizabeth Macías Castro, Oscar Romero of El Salvador, persecution, suffering, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, Todd Johnson, violence