‘Many Christians experience daily affronts and often live in fear because of their pursuit of truth, their faith in Jesus Christ, and their heartfelt plea for respect for religious freedom,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his 2011 message for the World Day of Peace. “This situation is unacceptable, since it represents an insult to God and to human dignity; furthermore, it is a threat to security and peace, and an obstacle to the achievement of authentic and integral human development,” he continued. This “global war on Christians is in many ways the greatest story never told about the 21st century,” John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, writes in his The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution. He took questions from NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about his contribution to unmasking “silence and indifference” surrounding their plight.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: “Christians today indisputably are the most persecuted religious body on the planet, and too often their new martyrs suffer in silence.” Do we really know that?
JOHN ALLEN: Yes, we do know that, in part because there are more Christians in the world than followers of any other religion, 2.3 billion in total, so their numbers on anything, including religious persecution, are naturally going to be larger. In part, too, it’s because Christianity’s greatest areas of growth are coming in some fairly rough neighborhoods where there’s a serious problem with religious freedom.
LOPEZ: So if that’s all as you say, why aren’t we talking about it all the time?
ALLEN: Great question. The answer is complicated, but I think a lot of it has to do with the power of pre-existing narratives in shaping perceptions. The narrative about Christianity in the West is that it’s a massive, rich, politically powerful institution, which makes it tough for a lot of people to get their minds around the fact that Christians can actually be the victims of persecution. In part, too, I think many Americans shy away from the subject for fear of being drawn into faux debates over an alleged “war on Christmas” and similar sideshows.
LOPEZ: You scan the world in The Global War on Christians. Who is worst off?
ALLEN: I’m not really sure how you parse “worst off” when it comes to direct threats to life and limb, but probably the spots on the map today where not just individual Christians are at risk, but entire communities, would be Syria and Egypt.
LOPEZ: Who is most helpable?
ALLEN: I’d like to think the Christians of Iraq, given the massive investment of American resources in that nation, though we’ve been doing a fairly lousy job of making their lives any better so far.
LOPEZ: You quote Tertullian: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” How and why is that so? How is that not lousy of God to allow?
ALLEN: Rule of thumb: Don’t turn to a journalist for theological wisdom. As a descriptive matter, however, it’s true both in the distant past and today that growth cycles in Christianity have tended to coincide with periods of persecution.
LOPEZ: Is there something about Christianity that brings this on?
ALLEN: In many parts of the developing world, Christians are identified with the West, so whatever frustrations people have with Western governments tend to get dumped onto the Christians in their own backyard. Another factor is that Christians are often a “soft target,” in the sense that they typically don’t fight back — they don’t organize militias, etc., to defend themselves in the way that some other minority groups do.
LOPEZ: Is there anything we really can do? Obviously, that’s a big, multi-layered question. How can the average American reading your book do anything besides pray for persecuted Christians throughout the world?
ALLEN: First of all, don’t dismiss the power of prayer. That said, there’s plenty we can do, from supporting organizations that deliver humanitarian aid to Christians at risk to insisting that their voices are brought more thoroughly into Western foreign-policy debates. Fundamentally, we can make sure that suffering sisters and brothers in the faith don’t feel abandoned and alone.
LOPEZ: Who are some of the heroes and martyrs everyone should know?
ALLEN: They’re legion, but two good names to start with are Consolata Sister Leonella Sgorbati, who was killed in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 2006, and the Muslim man who died with her, Mohamed Osman Mohamud. When Islamic radicals showed up at the hospital where Sgorbati served, Osman tried to shield her body with his own, and took the first bullet. They died together, their blood mingling on the floor. They’re not only martyrs, but symbols of Christian/Muslim friendship at its best. Sgorbati’s last words reportedly were perdono, perdono, meaning “I forgive.”
LOPEZ: What is Me’eter and why should it be a household name?
ALLEN: It’s a concentration camp for religious prisoners, mostly Christians, in Eritrea. It’s home to some of the most appalling violations of human rights anywhere on the planet, so any person of conscience ought to be concerned about what’s going on there.
LOPEZ: Is it realistic to think Americans have the time or attention spans to think about Me’eter? Do most of us even know where Eritrea is? Or that it is?
ALLEN: Well, we figured out where Abu Ghraib is, didn’t we? Back in the ’80s, we could locate Robben Island Prison in South Africa, a premier symbol of the apartheid regime. We found time to pay attention to the gulags where Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn served his time. If we’re sufficiently interested in something, we’ll learn what we need to know to engage it.
LOPEZ: Who are Boko Haram and what can be done about them?
ALLEN: A fairly amorphous constellation of radical Islamic groups in Nigeria that are a menace for lots of folks, including the country’s Christians. Among other things, we ought to be pressing the Nigerians to take advantage of offers of help to identify these terrorists and hold them accountable for their crimes.
LOPEZ: Many of us know of Youcef Nadarkhani. How many others are there we should know?
ALLEN: There are plenty of others we should know, but every cause needs a symbol, and Nadarkhani is a compelling one for religious freedom in Iran.
LOPEZ: Will Shahbaz Bhatti be canonized?
ALLEN: Bhatti was murdered in Pakistan on March 2, 2011. He was the lone Catholic in Pakistan’s cabinet, serving as minister of minority affairs, and a beloved champion of tolerance and religious freedom for all faiths. The bishops of Pakistan in 2011 petitioned the Vatican to name Bhatti a martyr, which would eliminate the need to await a miracle before his beatification. There’s a groundswell around the world in favor of the idea, and one hopes it will happen soon. I’ve written in favor of the swiftest possible process, with the idea being that Bhatti could become the patron saint of the suffering Christians of our time.
LOPEZ: What’s the worst Christian persecution happening in the Americas?
ALLEN: Probably it’s in Colombia, where since 1984, 70 Catholic priests, two bishops, eight nuns, and three seminarians have been slaughtered, most falling victim to the nation’s notorious narco-cartels. Scores of Pentecostal and Evangelical pastors and faithful also have lost their lives. Among other things, it’s a good illustration of two important points about anti-Christian persecution: First, the fact that Christians are a majority in a given country doesn’t mean they’re safe; and second, radical Islam is hardly the only threat out there.
LOPEZ: Who are the martyrs of Algeria?
ALLEN: They may form the most compelling martyrology of the last two decades. We’re talking about seven Catholic monks in Algeria who went to their deaths in 1996 amid that country’s bloody civil war, after having been kidnapped and held by militants for two months. They belonged to the legendary Trappist order, and lived in an Algerian monastery called Notre-Dame de l’Atlas de Tibhirine, developing deep friendships with their Muslim neighbors. The story of the Tibhirine monks has been told in books, in sermons, even in an award-winning dramatic 2010 French film titled Of Gods and Men.
LOPEZ: North Korea! China! It’s all overwhelming, isn’t it, after a while?
ALLEN: Yup, but that’s no excuse for ignoring it.
LOPEZ: How can we deal with radical Islam as Christians?
ALLEN: Again, I’m a journalist, not a pastor. I suppose we have to strike a balance between ignoring the very real threat posed by radical Islam, not just to Christians but to followers of other faiths as well as countless fellow Muslims, and ignoring the numerous counter-examples of Christian/Muslim friendship or the real center of gravity in Islam that rejects violence in the name of God.
LOPEZ: You readily admit that you are “not an expert on religious persecution,” but you wrote a book on it anyway. Do we simply have an obligation, if we live in this time, to not look away?
ALLEN: Yes. Enough said?
LOPEZ: Is religious persecution what some of the pope’s pleas to “weeping” and suffering with those who suffer are about?
ALLEN: The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace recently identified anti-Christian persecution as one of the “signs of the times” that the Church must address, and Pope Francis spoke movingly about the need for our hearts to be stirred by the suffering of fellow Christians during his General Audience on September 25.
LOPEZ: Can combating religious persecution help with Christian unity?
ALLEN: Solidarity with suffering Christians has an enormously powerful ecumenical component, since all branches of the Christian family have their martyrs and all are more or less equally at risk. Much of the momentum for the ecumenical movement in the middle of the 20th century came out of a shared fellowship of suffering in Europe, in Nazi concentration camps, and in Soviet gulags, and that common experience of martyrdom can have the same impact today.
LOPEZ: Are current religious-liberty controversies in the United States creating a solidarity that heretofore has not existed?
ALLEN: Perhaps, though I suspect the impact would be greater working in the other direction. The more we Americans become aware of the lethal threats that Christians and the followers of other faiths face around the world, the more likely we are to be protective of our legacy of religious freedom here at home. That said, one reason many Americans struggle to appreciate the realities facing Christians around the world is because we’ve never really experienced persecution, and perhaps the perceived threats facing faith-based groups in the country today are creating an environment in which Christians are more disposed to be concerned about what’s happening other places.
LOPEZ: You write that “Communications 101 . . . teaches us that sometimes the key to getting a point across is repetition.” That’s something Pope Francis knows well, isn’t it?
ALLEN: Absolutely. Consider his favorite mantra, “The Lord never tires of forgiving, it’s we who tire of asking forgiveness.” He’s said it so often he probably ought to have it printed on T-shirts!
LOPEZ: What do you make of some of the controversy in various parts over him?
ALLEN: He’s got a free-wheeling, spontaneous style of expressing himself that we aren’t really accustomed to hearing from popes, and it’s understandable, I suppose, that people who want more precision are a little uncomfortable. That said, let’s not miss the big picture — he’s got approval ratings that any politician or celebrity would kill for, and there’s a palpable sense out there that he’s giving the church a new lease on life. Before sweating the fine points of what it all means, we probably ought to stand back and think about how amazing it is that the pope — any pope — has that kind of platform.
LOPEZ: You write that “there’s something so precious about faith in Christ and membership in the church that, when push comes to shove, ordinary people will pay in blood rather than let it go.” How do you make sense of that? Many may think that absolutely crazy.
ALLEN: I’m hardly the first to remark that the border between sanctity and insanity sometimes is a little fuzzy. That said, I don’t think most of today’s Christian martyrs are fanatics who covet the Cross. More often they’re ordinary people with no aspirations to heroism, who simply find themselves in a circumstance where they have to make a root choice, and in that situation they discover how much the Gospel truly means to them.
LOPEZ: Do you believe American Christians who often aren’t the best witnesses — let’s talk our Catholic tribe in particular — can ever really relate to that?
ALLEN: For one thing, there are plenty of Americans among the new martyrs, such as Sister Dorothy Stang, the great martyr of the Amazon. More basically, Americans are idealists at heart and capable of great sacrifice when push comes to shove, so I do think they can appreciate the same qualities in others.
LOPEZ: Who among those you profile in The Global War on Christians do you find yourself thinking about the most?
ALLEN: I keep coming back to that young woman I met in Ukraine in 2001, during John Paul II’s trip, who told me about her grandfather, who was a Greek Catholic priest and had been killed in grotesque fashion in a Soviet gulag. It was really my first encounter with the stories of modern martyrs, and it began the journey that led to this book.
LOPEZ: Are you more encouraged or discouraged by the feedback you’re getting on the book regarding our collective American interest in this topic?
ALLEN: The bad news is that people generally haven’t heard these stories, and have no idea of the scope and scale of the threats Christians face. The good news is that once they do, there’s no debate about whether they should be concerned — they move immediately to, “What can we do about it?” That’s tremendously encouraging.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.