A Little Perspective on 2016, from a Documentary on Christian Persecution

Under Caesar’s Sword (University of Notre Dame)
Under Caesar’s Sword shows that Christians worldwide face death and persecution and rarely respond with violence.

This year’s presidential election may well be the most divisive in U.S. history, pitting liberals and conservatives against one another perhaps more bitterly than ever before, and the two major-party candidates seem in many ways to reflect cultural ills and political corruption that have been brewing for decades. On both the right and the left, countless citizens appear to believe that one candidate or the other will bring about the “end of America.” Conservatives argue that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton will, among other things, transform the Supreme Court into a progressive super-legislature to impose its anti-democratic will for a generation. Meanwhile, liberals maintain that Republican nominee Donald Trump will deport millions of minorities and exacerbate existing racial tension to the detriment of less-privileged Americans.

It is easy to allow the evident failures of our political system — culminating in the simultaneous nomination of perhaps the two most dishonest, corrupt presidential nominees in U.S. history — to consume our focus and destroy our confidence in the future of our country. But as these seemingly endless debates absorb our attention and ongoing rancor pollutes our national dialogue, millions of people around the world face genocide, and they fear for their lives and those of their children.

Among them are millions of Christians, whose plight is revealed by the heartbreaking new documentary Under Caesar’s Sword, sponsored by a collaborative global-research project operated by the University of Notre Dame and the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University. The documentary asks the question “How do Christians worldwide respond to persecution?” Their situation, the film tells us, is “hell on earth,” as Christians are being forced to flee their homes and countries, imprisoned and tortured for seeking to improve interfaith relations, and murdered for refusing to denounce their faith in Christ. This eye-opening documentary has immense power to put this year’s hyper-partisan presidential election in perspective and remind Americans of our many rights and blessings.

Paul Bhatti, a former Pakistani minister, relates the story of his brother Shahbaz, who was murdered by anti-Christian attackers in front of his home in Pakistan. Their mother was inside their home at the time of the attack and heard the gunshots that killed her son, but she went on to encourage Paul to take on Shahbaz’s work for interfaith peace. “She explained that she had forgiven the killers of my brother, and she was free from a desire for the revenge or retaliation against them,” Bhatti said.

In India, the Kandhamal riots of 2008 were perpetrated by Hindu extremists to purge Christians, who were forced to convert to Hinduism or be killed. The attackers broke into and burned down homes, raped women, and vandalized and looted Christian churches. Forty-five people were killed, more than 80 churches were destroyed, and close to 18,500 Christians were forced to flee their villages. One woman tells the story of how her husband was tortured and killed in front of her and their two children. Crying, she explains how she managed to escape into the forest with their children after his death. This family was surely not alone in its horrific experience.

Helen Berhane, a gospel singer from Eritrea in East Africa, was imprisoned for over two years in a tiny shipping container as punishment for recording Christian music. “There is not enough air. It is not clean,” Berhane says in broken English. “They ask you to deny your faith. So I refused.”

Meanwhile, over the past decades, 2 million Christians have fled their homes in Iraq and Syria under threat of death, attempting to find refuge in neighboring Turkey, which is only slightly less hostile to their faith and from which their own ancestors had been expelled nearly a century earlier. “The whole Middle East is, without exception, engulfed in a nightmare that seems to have no end,” says Ignatius Youssef III Younan, patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church. According to Elizabeth Prodromou, professor of international relations at Tufts University, four of the five patriarchates of the early Catholic Church — divisions made up of Rome in the West, and Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria in the East — are in danger of disappearing entirely.

“Churches are being broken, houses being burned,”;one Middle Eastern woman explains. “There was a huge amount of rapes.”

Muslims “come and say ‘You should give us money or we will kill you or hurt your family,’” an Iraqi man says. “I decided to leave Iraq because there is no safety for my children.”

“We heard they were kidnapping young girls, so we ran away,” says another woman, her eyes filling with tears. Footage shows these and hundreds of other refugees, along with their children, abandoning their homes in search of a better future for their families.

In Turkey, Christians make up less than 1 percent of the country’s 80 million citizens. Everywhere, there is evidence of their minority status: Just this year, the Hagia Sophia — the largest Christian church in history until the construction of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris — was transformed into a mosque for the 30 days of Ramadan, upsetting many Christians.

Emre Karaali, pastor of Izmit Protestant Church in Turkey, reports that an assassination attempt plotted against him nearly succeeded. At his church, he must keep steel bars and screens over the windows to protect his congregation from attacks. “Is it easy?” he asks. “No. We want to pray in peace and practice our beliefs freely. Nevertheless, nobody in our community tries to hide their religious beliefs.”

Emre Karaali, pastor of Izmit Protestant Church in Turkey, must keep steel bars and screens over the windows to protect his congregation from attacks.

The most striking takeaway from the documentary is the fact that, like Bhatti’s mother, Christians rarely retaliate against their attackers, and, like Karaali, they never seek to hide their beliefs out of fear of reprisal. “One of the remarkable things that we have found among Christian communities around the world is how few of them have resorted to violence as the answer,” says Daniel Philpott, professor of political science and peace studies at Notre Dame, where he helps to run the “Under Caesar’s Sword” research project.

For example, in the wake of the Kandhamal riots, the Christians remaining in the region began to intentionally interact more openly with their communities, discussing their faith, attending Buddhist services as guests, and inviting their Hindu neighbors to Christian celebrations.

“Christians have spontaneously responded to their own suffering by enlarging their concern and compassion and work for justice to include others as well,” says Timothy Shah, associate director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown.

Laki Vingas is one man who did just that, serving as a representative in the Turkish General Assembly to defend the human rights of non-Muslim minority groups. “Why we have to be very vibrant and active is very simple: because we are part of this country,” Vingas explains of Turkish Christians. “We are the heritage, the history of this country. We try to explain ourselves, to [engage in] dialogue with people, because they don’t know us.”

“I hope one day our political leaders will treat all people as equals,” Karaali says of his efforts to protect and foster his vibrant Christian congregation in Turkey, despite fear of violence.

#related#“People of very different religions and ethnicities and national communities being able to live together in the same society, that’s critical to the dream of liberal democracy, the dream of human rights,” Philpott adds.

Despite the presidential quandary voters face tomorrow in the ballot box, we must remember that the U.S. has, for the most part, achieved that dream of human rights. Though our democracy may be under assault in unique ways this year and in the future, Under Caesar’s Sword reminds us of the plight of Christians around the globe, whose suffering should help us see more clearly the many blessings we have in America.


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