Last night, I asked my family what percentage of religious persecution in the world they thought was directed at Christians.
They guessed about 30%. After all, they said, Christians are about one-third of the global population so that would make sense, right?
When I told them it was closer to 80%, they initially refused to believe me. Safe in our prosperous, post-Christian Australian culture, it seemed almost absurd. Yet, we have daily, horrifying proof of this reality.
From Northern Iraq to Nigeria, from China to India, the cries of Christian suffering pierces the heavens: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.” (Mt 2:18)
In all this, our own hearts cry out asking why. Why is this happening? Why do Christians suffer so much persecution today? Why have there been more martyrs to the faith in the 20th Century than the preceding 19 put together?
In his book The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution John Allen cites the work of German scholar Thomas Schirrmacher, an Evangelical Christian human rights activist. Although Schirrmacher acknowledges the deep complexity of this global tragedy, he shows that there are some significant socio-political reasons Christians are so disproportionately persecuted.
He gives 10 points but I think we can summarise them in six — with one more reason which is by far the most important.
1. Christianity — Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal — is growing dramatically in the what is often called the Global South. Such growth is only possible because Christians actively evangelize, sharing the gospel of salvation with others. This missionary zeal is seen as a threat and directs attention towards Christians.
2. Christianity is growing rapidly in some of the most dangerous areas of the world, particularly in parts of Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and even in the Middle East. In these volatile areas, any disruption of the fragile status quo is potentially disastrous and Christians are suffering because of it.
3. Christianity is often seen as a form of Western imperialism and identified with “the West.” This makes Christians a natural target for many nationalist movements. Nationalism invariably seeks to unify the nation by excluding minorities. They create unity through hate and Christians, who live for another kingdom, are often the target of this nationalist hatred. An example of this is extreme Hindu nationalism which targets Christians as anti-Indian.
4. Christians are often at the forefront of promoting human rights and democracy as well as opposing violence, corruption, and exploitation of the poor. As such, they are often targeted by the powerful, whether governments or mob groups, who don’t hesitate to use violence or other forces of coercion to get what they want. For example, the Latin American drug lords who murder Catholic priests and other Christian leaders because they are the only ones defending the rights of the poor.
5. Christians have their ultimate allegiance to the Kingdom of God which is not of this world. As such, they are viewed with suspicion by totalitarian governments who, as their name suggests, want total control over the bodies and souls of the people. This is the reason behind much of the persecution in places like China and even more so in North Korea.
6. Christians, on the whole, reject violence and retribution. Persecution is invariably the strong oppressing the weak — or in the case of Christianity, the meek — simply because they can.
7. Christians are persecuted because Christ is persecuted. Satan “knows that his time is short” and so, unable to get to Christ or His Mother (Revelation 12:12), he makes war “on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.” (Revelation 12:17) This is the hidden reality behind all persecution. The world and the devil continue to persecute Christ through His people (cf. Acts 9:4-5) just as Christ said they would: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” (John 15:20)
It’s important to understand the social, historical and political reasons why Christians are being persecuted. Understanding them more fully might be able to help us reduce persecution. We must do whatever we can to protect our Christian brothers and sisters, not just in providing short-term relief but helping to build a global culture of religious freedom.
At the same time, we can’t lose sight of the fact that the real enemy here ultimately isn’t the terrorist with the gun or the bureaucrat with the agenda. They need our prayers and yes, our love.
The real enemy is Satan.
If we forget that and believe that people are our true enemies, then we will hate our neighbor and imperil our souls. We will forget the heart of the Christian faith, the merciful Heart of Jesus who willingly bore the persecution of the world for our sake.
Then, we will truly be lost.