Christianity is the world’s largest religion. And with more than 1 billion members, the Roman Catholic Church is its largest denomination. Anyone who watched the recent installation of Pope Francis I, attended by luminaries from 132 nations, would have taken away the enduring impression of a powerful, influential faith that commands respect even from its detractors.
But in other parts of the world, it’s a very different story. In the dusty alleyways of Lahore in Pakistan, or in the choked streets of northern Nigeria’s cities, Christians lead a fragile, endangered existence, never quite certain that their next visit to church isn’t going to end in the carnage of a bomb, never quite confident that their homes won’t be targeted by baying, angry mobs as night falls.
Herein lies the paradox: the world’s largest religion is also the world’s most-persecuted faith. Advocacy groups working on behalf of the persecuted church estimate that from 1-200 million Christians live with varying degrees of oppression. Just as astonishing as that number is the sheer variety of countries where expressing Christian faith can be, literally, life threatening. These include Turkey, which is commonly, if erroneously, regarded as a western-style democracy, North Korea, the world’s largest concentration camp, and Muslim countries like Egypt and Iran. Islamists, ultranationalists, communists—all these and more have declared themselves enemies of the Christian religion.
I would readily submit that there is no graver human rights emergency in the world today than the persecution of Christians. And yet getting that simple point across can be extraordinarily frustrating. Particularly among liberals, in many ways the most promising constituency when it comes to promoting a human rights agenda, there is a good deal of skepticism. In part, that’s based on the sense that an institution that can mount the kind of pomp and circumstance display we saw at The Vatican cannot possibly be a victim. It also reflects the fact that many churches adopt extremely conservative positions on matters dear to enlightened western hearts, like the use of contraception or gay rights.
I don’t agree with those positions either. But I fail to see why that means we should turn a blind eye to the appalling bigotry, and consequent violence, that defines the experience of too many Christians today.
How, then, can we get the reality of Christian persecution across—a state of affairs that brings to mind some of the ugliest episodes of human history, like the enslavement of Africans or the legally-enshrined persecution of the Jews by Nazi Germany on the eve of the Holocaust?
One might reasonably assume that the inauguration of a new pope will give this issue both new momentum and an undoubtedly fresh, kind face to make sense of it for the rest of us. Will Pope Francis I become the pontiff who made the persecuted church emblematic of his reign, in much the same way that the late John Paul II highlighted the vulnerability of the church in his native Poland, and in other eastern European countries suffering from the yoke of communism?
Keith Roderick, the newly appointed Provost of the Episcopal Cathedral in Springfield, Ill., who is also a storied activist on behalf of persecuted Christians, pointed out in an email to me that this is very much an open question. Roderick reminded me of the 2005 spat between Francis (who was then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio) and his predecessor, Benedict XVI, after the latter delivered an unusually sharp rebuke to the Muslim world for its treatment of Christians during a speech to the University of Regensburg in Germany. In the course of his remarks, Benedict described the Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman.”
That phrasing rang alarm bells with many senior members of the Catholic hierarchy, including Bergoglio, who declared, “Pope Benedict’s statement doesn’t reflect my own opinions. These statements will serve to destroy in 20 seconds the careful construction of a relationship with Islam that Pope John Paul II built over the last 20 years.”
While it’s true that there’s no need for such provocative language, Bergoglio’s reaction served to further obscure the real issue: that Christians can no longer expect to lead peaceful lives under Islamic rule. It also pushed the imperatives of interfaith dialogue—which too often descends into a meaningless kumbaya exercise involving clerics of all faiths—above the more pressing matter of telling the world just how bad the persecution of Christians has become.
Still, Keith Roderick doesn’t draw any absolute conclusions from that episode. “His witness of humility and concern for the most vulnerable is important,” Roderick told me. “I hope that witness will include an equally powerful and courageous stand for Christians who are persecuted.” Meanwhile, Jeff Sellers, the editor of Morning Star News, a media outlet that diligently reports on Christian persecution throughout the world, is cautiously optimistic.
“[Pope Francis] places great importance on personal conversion to Jesus Christ, and, as persecution is the increasingly common response of the narrow-minded to evangelizing and new converts, the new pope will have no choice but to place equal importance on defending against persecution,” Sellers told me. “Secondly, he is a pastor first and foremost rather than an academic, so concern for the persecuted should naturally follow.”
Nevertheless, for Christian persecution to be taken seriously, we need more than concern. A cursory survey of the events of the last month suggests that the crisis is now reaching unprecedented proportions. In Pakistan, the Christian inhabitants of the Joseph Colony neighborhood in Lahore experienced what can only be described as a pogrom. Pakistan is also the country that imprisoned Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who is facing the death penalty under that country’s blasphemy laws. In Iran, Muslim converts to Christianity are being incarcerated, and could very like face execution. In Middle Eastern countries like Egypt and Iraq, Christian communities that are thousands of years old are slowly being extinguished because of Islamist fanaticism.
Perhaps Pope Francis will act decisively if he knows that he can count on allies in doing so. In that sense, the U.S., which passed the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998, has a critical role to play. And American Jews should be pushing the State Department and the White House with appropriate vigor; our own history requires nothing less.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.