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“Christianity now faces the possibility of being wiped-out in parts of the Middle East where its roots go back furthest.”
It is a given that American Christians will gather in churches this Advent season to celebrate the miracle of Christmas. We will hear the familiar passage from Isaiah 9:6: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us,” words that foretold a messiah’s birth. We will sing “Silent Night” in candlelit sanctuaries. We will do these things because they are the comfortable routines of Christian faith.
There are places in the world, however, where such routines are subversive acts. There will be no reading of the Bible at the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, China. The pastor there, Wang Yi, was arrested last December for organizing a prayer meeting marking the 10-year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake. There will be no public worship in Pakistan where “members of the Christian minority and others remain at risk of blasphemy accusations that can arise from trivial disputes and escalate to criminal prosecution and mob violence,” according to Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom in the World report.
Prayers will be shared quietly and only between friends in northern Nigeria where the militant group Boko Haram terrorizes believers and has “set out to eliminate Christianity and pave the way for the total Islamization of the country,” as reported by the Catholic Bishop Conference of Nigeria. There will be no mention of Christmas in North Korea, whose citizens are encouraged to spend Dec. 24 remembering the birthday of Kim Jong-un’s late grandmother, the “sacred mother” of that country’s 1948 communist revolution.
Safe in our pluralistic and mostly tolerant western world, American Christians take for granted the free exercise of religion and are oblivious to the geographic spread of prejudice against people of faith. Earlier this year, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued an independent study of Christian persecution worldwide, incidents ranging from church bombings to clergy kidnapping to unsubstantiated blasphemy charges. The report concluded that, “In some regions, the level and nature of persecution is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide” and that “Christianity now faces the possibility of being wiped-out in parts of the Middle East where its roots go back furthest.” As examples: In Syria, the Christian population has dropped from 1.7 million in 2011 to under 450,000 today. In Iraq, ethnic cleansing has diminished the size of ancient Christian communities from 1.5 million in 2003 to 120,000.
In a country that prides itself on the First Amendment’s free expression clauses, what explains our inattention to the denial of religious freedoms elsewhere? Perhaps Christians are unaware of the issue in light of more extensive media coverage of anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish hate crimes here and abroad. The British study, “Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review for the Foreign Secretary of FCO Support for Persecuted Christians,” speculates that western guilt has kept Britain and others from confronting persecution in countries where their previous interactions may have been unwelcome or unwanted, as occurred in colonial relationships in Asia, the Middle East, or Africa. “But this is not about special pleading for Christians,” the authors write. “It is an equality issue. If one minority is on the receiving end of 80 percent of religiously motivated discrimination it is simply not just that they should receive so little attention.”
When Christian persecution is exposed, it will bring attention to all forms of religious oppression, the authors argue. “If Christians are being discriminated against in one context or another you can be confident other minorities are too. So renewing a focus on Christian persecution is actually a way of expressing our concern for all minorities who find themselves under pressure. And ignoring Christian persecution might well mean we’re ignoring other forms of repression as well.”
While alarming, the British study is not surprising. It affirms 10 years of Pew Research showing increasing governmental restrictions on religious activity worldwide. The latest Pew report indicated that Christian groups were harassed in 144 nations in 2016, up from 128 the year before, with China leading the world in government-sponsored restrictions on religious exercise. Muslims were second most targeted, persecuted in 142 countries.
The incidents are so routine that most receive little media coverage. On Dec. 1, gunmen attacked Christian worshippers in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, killing 14. As believers prayed, assailants on motorbikes sprayed bullets into the Protestant congregation. This Christmas, Americans should be both thankful for a First Amendment that protects our holiday routines and more aware that, for others around the globe, claiming Christ as Messiah is fraught with danger.
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at email@example.com.