We must stand against religious persecution

Religious persecution a "most unpleasant" rising trend, says former The Age religious affairs reporter Barney Zwartz.

By Barney Zwartz

February 7 2019Religious persecution is one of the most unpleasant rising trends worldwide as we enter 2019, with Christians far in front when it comes to the numbers in danger.

Open Doors, a welfare and advocacy NGO, estimates that 245 million Christians are experiencing strong levels of persecution in 2019, including in most Islamic countries. It says that every month on average 255 Christians are killed, 104 are abducted, 180 Christian women are raped, sexually harassed or forced into marriage, 66 churches are attacked, and 160 Christians are detained without trial and imprisoned.

Religious persecution is one of the least known global issues. In my 12 years covering religion for The Age, it was a privilege to bring it occasionally to readers’ attention, as it is here.

Each year Open Doors releases a list of the 50 most dangerous countries for Christians. The just-released 2019 list, reflecting events in 2018, names North Korea as the worst offender for the 17th year in a row.

I’m hardly surprised, nor by the claim that 32 of the worst countries are Muslim (and 13 of the top 20), but the rapid rise up the list of the world’s largest democracy, India, is ominous. It is driven by government-supported Hindu extremism, and one powerful Hindu group, Open Doors reports, has vowed to drive all Christians from the country by the end of 2021 – unlikely, but not good news for Christians.

The world watch list divides nations into five main categories: Islamic extremism, which is spreading in Asia (Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia) and Africa (Egypt, Nigeria, Somalia); dictatorial paranoia (North Korea, Uzbekistan and its neighbours), religious nationalism, both Hindu (India, Nepal, Bhutan) and Buddhist (Sri Lanka, Myanmar), communism (China, Vietnam) and organised corruption (Mexico, Colombia).

Of course Christians are not the only victims, as the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar can testify, while China, which rose from 43rd worst to 27th, is indiscriminate in its discrimination, targeting political dissidents, possible dissidents, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, Catholics, Protestants and the Falun Gong.

Most people in the West have little idea how bad the threats are for Christians elsewhere or how many are affected. The dominant narrative in the postmodern West is that Christians do or did the persecuting, thinking of slavery or colonialism, and therefore they don’t suffer it.

The truth is that most Christians are not white or rich, and almost everywhere that they live as a minority they face some sort of threat or harassment.

Some of this, such as devastating Middle East conflicts, is familiar in the West, but far fewer know of the barbaric behaviour of Pakistani mobs ready at one inflammatory speech to rush in and burn Christian homes, or the way the infamous blasphemy laws are exploited to deprive Christians of their businesses and homes. Asia Bibi, the Christian mother sentenced to death for blasphemy for drinking from a communal Muslim cup, has been freed by the Supreme Court but cannot leave the country because threats to riot and kill by thugs have cowed the government.

What is the United Nations doing? Toadying to the perpetrators, mostly. For example, in November last year, Saudi Arabia underwent its five-yearly review of human rights, with 75 of the 96 delegates from other countries congratulating the kingdom on its rights record. This follows the Saudis’ astounding election last June to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

Of course the complicating factors are too vast for a short account like this. Sometimes the persecutor is the state; sometimes the state tacitly approves; sometimes it simply stands by. And although violence is often perpetrated by non-state actors such as enraged mobs, politicians are often responsible for stirring up the trouble for political gain or power or land.

In many Muslim countries, authorities do not protect minorities because they are trying to appease fundamentalists by adopting more elements of Sharia law. Perpetrators know that they can act with complete impunity.

Another disturbing trend is that violence often begins locally. In Pakistan pogroms used to be caused by militants entering an area, raising hostility and leading violence. Increasingly it is ordinary citizens killing their next-door neighbours, led by local madrassa (school) leaders.

Then, of course, the motivation for much religious violence is not purely religious. Often conflict develops over land or resources – Nigeria or the Philippines are good examples – but religion is a much more powerful motivator because that is one of the key ways social groups identify themselves. But, increasingly, in Nigeria, Somalia and the like, religion alone is enough.

Western Christians must not leave their heads in the sand about this enormous and increasing challenge. Paul is quite explicit that we must do good to all but especially the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). We can pray, we can lobby, we can donate.

There are many Christians who work with the persecuted Church, and their neighbours of other faiths. Three that I support are Open Doors, the Barnabas Fund and Voice of the Martyrs. All three provide aid and support to the persecuted, keep the rest of us informed about what is happening, and show ways that we can help. 

Barney Zwartz is media adviser to the Anglican Primate, Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier, and a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.