Is it possible that more Christians are persecuted (or that Christians are more persecuted) today than in the ancient world or than at any other time in history? This sounds like a trick question or like the introduction to a paradoxical argument. In fact, it is a perfectly straightforward inquiry aroused by the crisscross of two arguments that have just landed on my desk.
The first is a new book, The Myth of Persecution, by Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and early Christianity at Notre Dame, and — full disclosure — my goddaughter. She argues in her book that early Christians (that is, after about a.d. 300) exaggerated the degree to which earlier Christians had suffered persecution for their beliefs. Individual martyrdoms were either invented or heavily edited, sometimes by Christians, sometimes by their Roman critics. These exaggerations established a myth of anti-Christian persecution, she argues, that has ever since distorted how Christians think of their faith and interpret criticisms of it. They see it as embattled because its beliefs are both true and a challenge to secular and other religious authorities: The persecution confirms its truth.
Moss does not deny that some early Christians were imprisoned or executed by the Romans. But she believes that Christians were one religious sect among several that the Roman authorities repressed from time to time in response to perceived threats to political order. Nero’s blaming of Christians for the great fire of Rome, for instance, was largely invented by Tacitus 50 years later when disquiet about Christianity was rife in the Roman establishment. Nero certainly had many people brutally murdered, perhaps to deflect blame for the fire from his own person, but he had probably never heard of Christians, who had not reached the city in large numbers by a.d. 64. Moss also examines pious stories of the faith’s early martyrs with forensic skepticism, pointing to inconsistencies, revisions, borrowings from other martyrdoms, suspensions of disbelief by the authors, and so on. She persuades me, at least, that some of these events never happened or at least never happened as traditionally reported.
I shall never watch movies like Quo Vadis in the same trusting spirit again.
But there is nothing unorthodox in all this. The Catholic Church itself concluded some years ago that many long-venerated saints had never actually existed. As I recall, the British tabloids were particularly upset at Rome’s brusque dismissal of Saint George, England’s patron saint, who, if he existed at all, never set foot outside the Caucasus. Nor does Moss deny that some of her martyrs were actually executed. She merely casts doubt on the details of how they met their ends — especially those details that nonbelieving witnesses failed to notice — and on whether they were ill treated from specifically religious motives. But persecution may depend on where you are sitting. Though the Romans doubtless had motives other than anti-Christian fervor for executing Christians — for instance, punishing them for draft-dodging — those facing execution would nonetheless see their fate as stemming directly from their faith.
If so, they would be largely right. Consider the first few pages of Moss’s book, where she describes the murder of Mariam Fekry, a young Coptic Christian in Egypt who was among those killed when a bomb exploded in an Alexandrian church where she was attending midnight Mass on the last day of 2010. Moss believes that Mariam was not a martyr (as she was then hailed). She is right. There is a distinction to be made between martyrdom and persecution. A martyr is someone who, confronted with a choice between death and his faith, chooses to undergo death; a victim of persecution is someone who is killed or brutally abused because of his faith without being given a choice.
Mariam was not confronted with a choice between death and her faith. But, as Moss states, she was killed because she was a Christian; she is therefore a victim of persecution. The anti-Christian persecution by Islamist zealots that struck Mariam down, moreover, is not an ambiguous matter of Christians’ being one of many groups suffering for political reasons under a more general repression. They are being attacked, killed, and ethnically cleansed from the Middle East and elsewhere precisely because they are Christians and therefore infidels. Their murderers often state this explicitly.
That brings me to the second item that crossed my desk, namely an article in Standpoint magazine by Robin Harris (again, full disclosure: an old friend) on the failure of Western governments to protect Christians in the Middle East against an Islamist persecution that is threatening to drive Christians from countries where they have lived since the early days of Christianity. Millions of people and atrocious crimes are involved in these pogroms. Iraqi Christians, for instance, have fallen in number from about 1.2 million to 400,000 people since the Iraq War. Syrian Christians are flooding into Turkey and Lebanon to escape not only the civil war but also the Islamist repression already beginning in areas controlled by anti-Assad forces. As the fate of Mariam Fekry illustrates, the Copts in Egypt are under attack both from freelance Islamist groups and from authorities unwilling to protect the Copts.
Such anti-Christian attacks are not confined to the Middle East, however. A Christian cabinet minister was murdered in Pakistan because he was seeking to repeal a blasphemy law being used as an instrument to repress Christians. Converts to Christianity there and in Afghanistan have suffered official sanctions, including the death penalty, as well as fatal attacks by mobs drunk on religious extremism (if not alcohol). Churches have been bombed and hundreds of worshippers murdered in Nigeria by Islamist terrorists, sometimes on the most fatuous of pretexts (e.g., a non-Christian tabloid article suggesting that Mohammed might have found a suitable bride among the Miss World contestants). Nor are religious attacks directed only at Christians. The Bali bombings of nine years ago by local allies of al-Qaeda were directed at what the bombers called Hindu “idolators.” Nor, indeed, are ordinary non-fanatical Muslims spared violence at the hands of Islamists. Muslims have been attacked, beaten, and killed for coming to the help of their Christian neighbors or for defending Christians in the courts. That said, the main impetus behind such brutalities is clearly an animus against Christians and Christianity, probably from a sense that Christianity is the main religious competitor to Islam in the developing world and, moreover, is winning the contest.
That brings me back to my original question: Are more Christians suffering from persecution today than in the past, particularly in late antiquity? My sense after reading The Myth of Persecution – in fact, I’m still reading it, so this is not a final judgment and therefore not a review — is that the answer to that question is yes. But that answer raises two further questions: Why? And what should be done about it?
Robin Harris argues convincingly that one of the main reasons for this spread of persecution is that Western governments have signaled by their inaction that they are not prepared to make a fuss about it with governments in Arab and Muslim countries. Sectarian blasphemy laws and violent attacks on Christians and members of other minority religions in Muslim countries continue unabated either because Muslim governments sympathize with them (arguably the Egyptian case) or because they are reluctant to spend political capital on fighting Islamist zealots and their parties (arguably the case of Pakistan).
Outside pressure seems an obvious solution. Yet Western governments resist intervening in behalf of embattled Christians lest that mark them as sectarian “Christian powers” or cast doubt on their status as purveyors of universal values and human rights. There is no such reluctance on the other side. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has treaties with the European Union about protecting specifically Muslim rights in Europe. In practice, however, the Europeans shy away from protecting Christians even on “universal” human-rights grounds. They want untroubled relationships with Arab governments on strategic and business grounds. They prefer a quiet life. And even if they were minded to intervene, they apparently haven’t found the right language to justify this particular “responsibility to protect.”
What they mainly need is a spine. But guile, diplomacy, and language are important too. Moss would like to avoid the language of “persecution,” since it raises an obstacle to negotiation and compromise with the alleged persecutor; Harris wants the West to take a clear and robust stand in defense of the persecuted. These two positions do not exactly contradict each other, but there is certainly a tension between them. Maybe the U.S. has found a (partial) answer in the International Religious Freedom Act, which employs the universal language of rights, focuses it on violations of religious freedom, and establishes a commission independent of the State Department to keep America aware of them. That commission has been relatively dormant in recent years. But with the recent addition of such commissioners as Katrina Lantos Swett and Princeton’s Robbie George, it is starting to look and act like a formidable ally for all those, including Christians, who are suffering for their faith. We shall see.
In the meantime, whatever the reason (and whatever the language we use), there is something very disturbing in the thought that compared with earlier times, our present age is the Age of Christian Persecution.
— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.