The Magazine

The War on Christians

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

Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By PAUL MARSHALL
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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.”

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople has observed that “even the simple admission of Christian identity places the very existence of [the] faithful in daily threat,” and Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department for External Church Relations, has been raising the issue with American churches for several years.

Happily, there are signs that some Americans are again paying attention to the issue. Last month on Capitol Hill, a wide coalition of Christian leaders was convened by the co-chairs of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus, representatives Frank Wolf of Virginia, a Republican, and Anna Eshoo of California, a Democrat. They committed themselves to a “Pledge of Solidarity and Call to Action for Religious Freedom in the Middle East.”

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