Is there a global war?

CH: How do we define persecution? What defines a martyr?

JA: There are two different questions here. First, there is the technical ecclesiastical question—how does a particular faith community define martyrdom and venerate their martyrs? But there is a broader question: how do we define anti-Christian persecution? 

CH: Let’s talk about that some more. We know that in your tradition [Allen is Roman Catholic], a distinction is made between those who are killed in odium fidei (in hatred of the faith) and in odium iustitiae (in hatred of truth and justice).

JA: In my book I argue for a pretty broad standard. One example I give is that of a Croatian nun, Lukrecija Mamić, killed in Kiremba, Burundi. Classic “wrong place at the wrong time”: a group of thugs wanted to rip off the convent. They burst into the convent, killed her, and also kidnapped Francesco Bazzani, a layman who was fixing the generator.

One way to look at this is to say that it’s tragic, but not anti-Christian. Quite likely the assailants were also Christians and just wanted the people’s stuff. 

But there’s a larger question: why were this nun and lay volunteer in Burundi in the first place? They felt called to serve a forgotten people. These two people felt that’s where God wanted them to be. Even if they were not being killed because they wouldn’t sacrifice to pagan gods, they were making choices that put themselves in harm’s way. 

I think we need less emphasis on what was in the head of the guy pulling the trigger and more on what was in the heart of the person being shot.

One often gets pushback: don’t Christians bring persecution on themselves by being overly aggressive or insensitive? Christians do need to be respectful and responsible about how they propose their faith to others. But at the same time, Christianity is a missionary religion. It’s not irresponsible to introduce people to the faith.

The standard I have adopted is if someone is putting themselves in a situation where it is reasonable to think they will be in danger because of their Christianity, then that counts as part of the global phenomenon of anti-Christian violence. 

CH: What about the recent debate over counting martyrs?

JA:This is one of the most confusing aspects of the entire discussion. We do not have hard numbers. The reason is obvious. Most of the killing zones are places where we can’t take accurate counts, even if we have a clear definition. We can’t get observers into Eritrea, South Sudan, China, North Korea, and places like that.

Todd Johnson from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates 100,000 Christians are killed for their faith every year. Christof Sauer (see “Father, forgive them,” pp. 4–9) says 8,000 to 9,000. 

The absolute low-end estimate is about 400 people a year. That’s still more than one every day, still a global scourge, and still needs to be dealt with. 

CH: How does persecution of Christians by Muslims elsewhere affect the way Christians treat Muslims in this country? And to what extent should we be concerned about religious intolerance in the United States toward Christians? 

JA: It’s reasonable to raise the question. Is raising the issue of anti-Christian violence by Muslims going to make us more likely to lash out at Muslims here? 

I hesitated in the book to use the language of global war, because I don’t want to encourage a twenty-first-century version of the Crusades. If we are going to speak out in support of persecuted Christians, we need to do it in a recognizably Christian, peaceful manner.

I hear more often the worry that sticking up for persecuted Christians makes it harder on the Christians themselves. We need to work out our strategies along with persecuted Christians so as not to cause them harm.

Is it legitimate to worry about minor infringements on religious freedom in this country? Yes. For the most part, our religious freedom issues are institutional. In the United States, a threat to your religious freedom means you might get sued. In other parts of the world, it means that you might get shot. In the U.S., people are not getting blown up when they go to Mass, but faith-based institutions are finding it difficult to play their roles.

Is a society that allows faith-based institutions to erode ultimately going to stick up for the religious freedom of individuals? While it was probably said for shock value to start a conversation and shouldn’t be taken as a straight-line prediction, Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, once said that he expects to die in bed, his successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. 

CH: What should we do for persecuted Christians?

JA:When I grew up in Kansas, my idea of persecution was eating fish sticks and mac and cheese on Fridays in Lent. But during my travels with the pope [as Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter], I met so many victims of serious persecution. The number-one thing they said was, “Don’t forget about us. We feel isolated and abandoned and that no one cares.” So we need to talk about it in every way that’s under our control.

Point two: we do not have to reinvent the wheel. Plenty of organizations are devoted to assisting persecuted Christians. The Voice of the Martyrs, Aid to the Church in Need, Barnabas Aid, Open Doors. Find those and help them.

Point three: we dare not forget the power of prayer to change the world. Apart from its spiritual effects, prayer has the effect of creating a culture in the church. Prior to Vatican II, my church prayed for the conversion of Russia, and it had the effect of reminding Catholics that there was a church suffering behind the Iron Curtain. Pray. CH

By John Allen Jr.

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #109 in 2014]

John Allen Jr. is the author of The Global War on Christians and an associate editor at the Boston Globe.
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