LOPEZ: Besides praying for them, what can an American actually do to help the plight of a Christian in Nigeria?
SHEA: The United States should designate as a terrorist group Boko Haram, the Islamist group killing Christians and burning and bombing scores of churches in Nigeria. This designation would lead to security training for Nigeria’s armed forces, blocking aid to the Islamist militants, and other policy changes that would help protect the Christians. Current U.S. analysis, as evidenced in State Department speeches, is that Boko Haram — whose name means “Western education is a sin” — has arisen because of “poverty” and “poor government service delivery,” and that “religion is not driving extremist violence in . . . northern Nigeria.” The policies that flow from that flawed analysis include allowing American funds to Boko Haram sympathizers and their families. This is a dangerous policy. Americans need to press their elected officials to voice concern for religious freedom, the security of Nigeria’s Christians, and the designation of Boko Haram as a terrorist group.
: Is that who we should be most worried about in your global picture of Christian persecution?
SHEA: We are most concerned about the current ascendancy of Islamism within the Muslim world. This phenomenon of politicized Islam entails persecuting and suppressing the religious “other,” including Christians — old churches and new churches, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, evangelical, and every other Christian tradition. It has led to ongoing, brutal religious cleansing campaigns in Somalia, Iraq, and Syria, and brutal purges in Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Egypt. Saudi Arabia bans all Christian worship, and its police hunt down those who dare to pray as Christians in private homes. A decade ago, Sudan’s Islamist government was pressing a forcible Islamization campaign that caused the deaths of some 2 million from the Christian and animist homelands in the central and southern parts of the country; that genocidal violence was ended, but now that same government is forcing Christians out of north Sudan. Such extreme intolerance is spreading, even in some moderate Muslim countries.
LOPEZ: Are Christians the most persecuted religious group? Why?
SHEA: We say that Christians are the most widely persecuted. That is, wherever there is religious persecution, for example in China and Vietnam, and in Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, persecuted groups vary; but there are, everywhere, Christians among them. There are three main reasons for the persecution. In some extremely secular countries, particularly atheistic communist and post-communist regimes such as North Korea, China, and Turkmenistan, Christians are viewed by authorities as a threat because their ultimate allegiance is to God. In some Muslim countries — Saudi Arabia, which bans all churches, is a prominent example– their beliefs or even their mere presence is viewed as a blasphemy, an offense against Allah. In other areas, such as parts of India and Burma, which are majority Hindu and Buddhist, respectively, Christians are seen to disturb authorities’ nationalistic goals.
LOPEZ: Can we ever know the numbers of Christians suffering persecution? It’s not as if persecutors are keeping headcounts and issuing press releases.
SHEA: The numbers are soft, mainly because we lack documentation from the persecuted communities and their churches. Christians killed for their religious identity and beliefs probably numbered a couple of thousand over the past year, with many of those from Nigeria and Syria. But many thousands more are persecuted short of martyrdom, through physical assaults, maiming, rape, imprisonment, torture, kidnappings, banning or thwarting of religious practice, etc. (The discrepancy in numbers often occurs because of definitional differences of who is a martyr. We use the standards of the International Religious Freedom Act, and do not count those who die or are killed for reasons unrelated to religion; for example, the many Christians killed in the tragic but essentially non-religious Congo conflict.) Behind the Iron Curtain, underground human-rights groups, labor unions, intellectuals, and religious leaders kept records of atrocities and smuggled them to the Free World. In Latin America, during the 1980s dictatorships, the Catholic Church played an important role in documenting human-rights abuses. There is a great need for human-rights training and for record keeping of religious persecution in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and elsewhere today. This would be a terrific project for Notre Dame University, a law-school clinic, or some other institution with the capacity to partner with various churches abroad and teach such human-rights documentation workshops to talented and committed lay people.