The protection of religious freedom is fundamental to the protection of human rights. Franklin Roosevelt rightly included it in his “four freedoms”—freedom from fear and want, freedom of speech and religion. It is integral to the common good and fostering conditions that are compatible with human dignity. If we care about human flourishing, we must be conscious of threats to this cornerstone of human rights and freedom.
We should therefore be grateful that one of our finest journalists, John Allen, has written a book that highlights a myriad of grave threats to religious freedom around the world, The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution. Allen shows that in the real “war on religion,” Christians are facing beatings, starvation, and even murder. This book is essential reading for Christians who are concerned about their coreligionists’ plight and for every person on the planet who cares about human rights. It addresses an issue that is grossly underreported and too often ignored. And it is an exceptionally balanced account. In sectarian hands, focusing on the plight of Christians in particular would almost certainly be an absolute trainwreck, an abandonment of the universal values at the heart of the Christian faith and an authentic commitment to human rights. In the hands of Allen, the book is excellent, engrossing, and extremely valuable.
What makes the book so valuable is that it is so deeply nuanced and willing to address counterarguments and counter-narratives, all while describing the grave threats Christians face with clarity and precision. The book is both interesting and challenging.
As someone who studies human rights and mass atrocities closely, this topic is of great interest to me. At the same time, I have been incredibly disappointed by the number of my fellow Christians who have embraced this cause with a sectarian mentality. I have seen them use the persecution of Christians to justify Bashar al-Assad’s campaign of mass murder in Syria, to argue that life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein was just fine (not even relative to today, but overall), and to flatly reject Church teaching on universal human rights. Such behavior is disgraceful.
One cannot value the lives of Christians over others while adhering to the basic principles of the Christian faith. It is a catholic faith—God creates every person with worth and dignity; God doesn’t create an elect few whose rights should trump the rights of others. When one is more upset about the destruction of a Christian church in Eastern Syria than a Sunni child killed in his or her own bed in Aleppo, one is simply not thinking like a Christian.
John Allen rejects this sectarian mindset. He does, however, claim that Christians have a special responsibility to look out for other members of the Body of Christ, citing St. Paul. This may very well be true.
We are all members of a variety of communities and our duties reflect membership in these various communities. Membership in a family creates special responsibilities for family members, but these do not negate the duties we have to broader communities. A parallel to the Christian responsibility to shine a light on Christian persecution might be the responsibility of parents to stop the bullying of children at school. Parents are uniquely positioned to do something about their child being bullied (or bullying others). At the same time, they have a responsibility to support measures that protect other children at the school and even other schools in their district or state due to their membership in these communities.
So it is with Christians addressing Christian persecution. Christians may have a special responsibility to shine a light on these human rights abuses (particularly when no one else has or will), but they must not ignore other threats to human dignity and they certainly cannot do so in a sectarian way that would deny the human rights of others and undermine the common good.
The sheer number of Christians facing persecution makes it clear that this issue should be a central human rights concern for Christians and non-Christians alike. Sadly, many of us hear more about a farcical “war on Christmas” in the United States than Christians being killed in cold blood because of their faith or because they are fighting for others to live in dignity. Allen shows the gravity and breadth of the problem in this book.
The war he describes is truly global, reaching from North Korea to Saudi Arabia to Nigeria to India. The forms of persecution range from various forms of discrimination to the suppression of missionary activity to violence against individual persons and whole communities.
Why it so widespread? Allen describes the numerous causes, from the mixing of nationalism and religion to Christian support for human rights and democracy to Christianity being seen as a product of the West (which is often untrue). There is no single cause, nor is there a simple solution.
Allen also tackles a number of myths one might have about Christian persecution, including: Christians are only vulnerable when they are a minority, anti-Christian violence is random and unpreventable, and Islamic radicalism is the sole cause.
Allen uses a broader definition of martyrdom than some might, including “martyrs of charity”—those killed because their faith made them stand up for social justice and human rights. He rightly calls on us to recognize the Christian witness of those who are killed because they went to the margins, the peripheries to defend the poor and vulnerable. A martyr who is killed for exposing a drug cartel, protecting the rainforest and farmers, or resisting a totalitarian regime is living out (and dying for) the Christian faith.
Allen talks about the “spiritual fruits” of the global war on Christians, and many Christians will be inspired to hear of the resolute faith displayed by many of the martyrs Allen describes. It should elicit a certain feeling or sense that Allen describes, 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.”
These ordinary people who are willing to choose love over their physical well-being are the witnesses that help to renew the Church. While we often squabble over petty disputes in relative comfort, they are showing us what the Christian faith looks like when put to the test. They deserve our attention and admiration. But even more than that, they deserve our protection.