Perhaps the gravest under-publicized atrocity in the world is the persecution of Christians. A comprehensive Pew Forum study last year found that Christians are persecuted in 131 countries containing 70 percent of the world’s population, out of 197 countries in the world (if Palestine, Taiwan, South Sudan, and the Vatican are included). Best estimates are that about 200 million Christians are in communities where they are persecuted. There is not the slightest question of the scale and barbarity of this persecution, and a little of it is adequately publicized. But this highlights the second half of the atrocity: the passivity and blasé indifference of most of the West’s media and governments.
It is not generally appreciated that over 100,000 Christians a year are murdered because of their faith. Because Christianity is, by a wide margin, the world’s largest religion, the leading religion in the traditionally most advanced areas of the world, and, despite its many fissures, the best organized, largely because of the relatively tight and authoritarian structure of the Roman Catholic Church, the West is not accustomed to thinking of Christians as a minority, much less a persecuted one.
The ratings of offending countries always put North Korea as the worst, followed by Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, the Maldives, Yemen, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Laos, Pakistan, Sudan, and, farther back but still prominently odious, Libya, Syria, Oman, Egypt, Kuwait, the Palestinian Authority, Vietnam, Cuba, and China. While there is no shortage of incidents in India, where there is serious religious friction between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs as well, most offending countries are Islamic or Communist.
The reluctance of the leading predominantly Christian countries to speak out against these outrages is remarkable. Many of the delinquent countries are ostensible allies such as Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Oman, Egypt, and Kuwait. Obviously, some countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, etc.) are in too chaotic a condition to be expected to maintain religious liberties, but Saudi Arabia is a tightly controlled state that in many respects cooperates closely with the United States. It is a joint government of the royal House of Saud with the leadership of the extremist Wahhabi Islamist sect, and while the Saudi government is a functioning ally, especially against any extension of Iranian influence among Shiites in Sunni-led countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia also pays for 95 percent of externally financed Islamist institutions across the Muslim world. And these are overwhelmingly fundamentalist and virulently hostile to the West and to all non-Islamic religions. Official Saudi media regularly condemn and incite violence against Christians and Jews.
The recent Muslim attacks on Egypt’s Christian Copts caused the military to intervene against the Christians, killing dozens of them, which action the military government then blamed on the “inexperience” of the soldiers involved. (Unlimited experience is not required to foretell the consequences of firing automatic weapons and rifles at unarmed demonstrators at point-blank range.)
Many of the outrages are perpetrated by groups the West is conditioned to thinking of as minorities, especially Muslims in general. But the response of the Western secular leaders to these monstrous events has been achingly slow. British prime minister David Cameron did recently promise that there would be no British aid to countries that mistreated religious minorities. But it has become almost a cliché for shabby leaders of underdeveloped countries to attack Christian minorities. Zimbabwe under the infamous Robert Mugabe is one of the latest regimes routinely to attack Christian institutions because of Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Evangelical criticism of the violence and corruption of his governing ZANU party. South Sudan was the scene of perhaps the vilest and most widespread abuse, as the Muslim Sudanese government killed approximately a million South Sudanese Christians and animists over the last decade or so. (Unfortunately, tribalism in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, has partly replaced the oppression of the Muslim north.) The Palestinians, despite their generations-old and very effective portrayal of themselves as a dispossessed and brutally abused minority, discriminate scandalously against Christians, even though the local Roman Catholic authority for many years, Michael Sabah, was obsequiously deferential to the terrorist Arafat regime. And the anti-Christian violence in Nigeria has flared up dangerously, though in that country the Christians are almost as numerous as, and more prosperous than, the Muslims, and the frictions are largely on tribal, geographic, and economic as well as sectarian lines.
In general, secular oppression strengthens the Christian churches, a lesson the Chinese are already starting to learn, to their embarrassment. They admit to 80 million Christians in China, though the real number is probably about 120 million, or almost 10 percent of the country’s population. There are about 30 million people combined in the Protestant front organization and the Catholic Patriotic Association, the state-dominated Catholic “Church” that John Paul II and Benedict XVI have refused to acknowledge (causing the Vatican to continue, with commendable unconcern for diplomatic fashion, to recognize Taiwan as China). This official framework conforms exactly to Napoleon’s famous dictum that “of course, the people must have their religion and of course, the state must control it.” But as many as 90 million Chinese are in “house churches,” semi-secret Christian, mainly Roman Catholic, congregations that evade the overlordship of the Communist state and are growing rapidly.
In the 20th century, the number of Roman Catholics in Africa grew from 1.9 million to 130 million, an advance of over 6,700 percent (and most of the 1.9 million who started the century were French North Africans). In 1900, one-quarter of the world’s Roman Catholics were in the southern hemisphere. If present trends continue, the corresponding total will be three-quarters in 2050.
In the end, the effort to stamp out spirituality, exalt materialism, and reduce religious structures to mere appendages of discredited pagan and atheistic governments that commit the ancient Roman heresy of elevating the incumbent rulers to the status of presumptive deities is bound to fail. Man is not perfectible; men are not gods; and spiritual forces exist. Even horrible crises like the sexual-abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church are matters of defective and sinning personnel, not invalidations of the Ark of eternal truths, which is why Roman Catholic Church attendance and recruitment have not been much affected by it.
However great the suffering and oppression inflicted on Christians by Godless regimes, the effort won’t succeed. Where the problem is religions’ persecuting other religions, as in the mistreatment of other sects in Islamic countries, the more frequent outcome is the flight of the oppressed, as the Jews and most of the Middle Eastern Christians have shown.
This raises again the troubling indulgence of the persecution of Christianity by the West. It is an Achilles’ heel of Western tolerance that it causes the West to hesitate to complain of the conduct of communities regarded in the West as underdogs, even when they are oppressing Christians. Christianity is, after all, the beneficiary of 1,700 years of establishment and dominant market share and the author of no mean sequence of abuses itself, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to Victorian humbug.
That, unfortunately, is not a full explanation of this inattentive lassitude. The shameful truth is that most Western media are atheistic and consider Christianity fundamentally no better than the Muslims who attack and kill Christians and desecrate the moral and religious foundations of the West.
The diverting but insubstantial gadfly Christopher Hitchens was more widely mourned in the Western media than any Christian victim of the Muslims or Communists in recent memory. The atheism of most of the Western media and academia has made the West vulnerable to the outrageous allegations of the Muslims that the West is an anthill of infidels. And it has left our political leaders relatively indifferent to Islamic and Communist oppression of Christians, as their electorates are under-informed of these atrocities by the media and don’t require a robust official response to them. This encourages the Islamists and Communists to believe that they may continue to impress their followers and gratify their own ideological and intellectual inferiorities by beating up the local hostages of the brand leader with impunity.
The West must resolve to defend human rights whenever it is not wholly impractical to do so, at least with splendid tongue lashings such as the Holy See regularly administers in these matters (without, as Stalin remarked, the benefit of any military divisions to hand to enforce them). And, where possible, Western society and its governments must insist on adequate publicity of these atrocities and appropriate punishment of them.
More generally, we, the whole West, are going to have to come to grips, eventually, with the Enlightenment. A quest for knowledge is not a war with faith; spirituality is not usually an infelicitous amalgam of superstition and philistinism; and moral relativism, taken outside midfield, leads inexorably both to heresy and to secular wickedness, which are often identical. The failure to grasp this intellectual and philosophical nettle for 250 years rests heavily upon us today, and can only become more onerous.