No one wants to admit that there’s a war on Christians

A displaced young woman prays in the makeshift Catholic chapel in Sudan (CNS)

Back in 1997, American author Paul Marshall said that anti-Christian persecution had been “all but totally ignored by the world at large”. To be sure, the situation has changed in the 16 years since Marshall’s classic work Their Blood Cries Out. A cluster of advocacy groups and relief organisations has emerged, and from time to time anti-Christian persecution has drawn coverage in major news outlets such as the Economist, Newsweek and Commentary. On the whole, however, the war on Christians remains the world’s best-kept secret. As recently as 2011, Italian journalist Francesca Paci – who writes for the Italian media market, which probably pays more attention to Christian topics than almost any other culture on earth, given the massive footprint of the Vatican – said about the fate of persecuted Christians in places such as Iraq, Algeria, and India: “We ignore too many things, and even more indefensibly, we pretend not to see too many things.”

In 2011, the Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, addressed the crisis facing Arab Christianity in the Middle East during a conference in London. He bluntly asked: “Does anybody hear our cry? How many atrocities must we endure before somebody, somewhere, comes to our aid?” Those are questions that deserve answers, and understanding the motives for the silence about the global war on Christians is a good place to begin.

In the secular milieu, several factors intersect to explain the relative indifference toward the global persecution of Christians. First is the basic point that some secularists have little personal experience of religion and can be strikingly ignorant on religious subjects. There’s also a reflexive hostility to institutional religion, especially Christianity, in some sectors of secular opinion. People conditioned by such views are inclined to see Christianity as the agent of repression, not its victim. Say “religious persecution,” and the images that come to mind are the Crusades, the Inquisition, the wars of religion, Bruno and Savonarola, the Salem witch trials – all chapters of history in which Christianity is cast as the villain. For many such folks today, “Christianity” means an all-male gerontocracy in Rome cracking down on progressive American nuns, or intemperate Evangelicals seeking to restrict a woman’s “right to choose” or a gay’s right to marry.

Victims of the global war on Christians challenge this narrative head-on, because they show Christianity not as the oppressor but as the oppressed. By 2012, almost two thirds of the 2.2 billion Christians in the world lived outside of the West, and that share should reach three quarters by mid-century. These Christians often carry a double or triple stigma, representing not only a faith that arouses suspicion but also an oppressed ethnic group (such as the Karen or Chin in Burma) or social class (such as Dalit converts in India, who may be as much as 60 per cent of the country’s Christian population). Given the facts on the ground, it’s time for secular thought to get past The Da Vinci Code. Today’s Christians aren’t the ones dispatching mad assassins; more often than not, they’re the ones fleeing the assassins others have dispatched.

For many people, the war on Christians is also simply too far away. Today’s martyrs often go to their deaths in Sri Lanka, the Maldive Islands, and Sudan – places that many people in the West would struggle to find on a map, to say nothing of feeling a personal investment in what’s happening there. The war on Christians is also incredibly complex, with no simple explanation and no simple remedy to advocate. What might work to combat Buddhist extremism in Bangladesh may be unsuited to deal with narco-terrorists in Colombia.

A further reason for paralysis is suggested by French intellectual Régis Debray, a veteran Leftist who fought alongside Che Guevara. Debray observes that anti-Christian persecution falls squarely into the political blind spot of the West. The victims, Debray argues, are “too Christian” to excite the Left, “too foreign” to interest the Right. Western politics also encourages people to see only part of the picture. Conservatives pounce on every outrage by Islamic radicals but shrink from condemning the way Israeli security policies often suck the life out of Arab Christianity. Liberals celebrate the martyrs to Right-wing regimes in Latin America but are often unwilling to acknowledge the reality of anti- Christian hatred in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, or the way that Leftist regimes often make Christians their first targets.

It might be disappointing that secular circles haven’t seized on anti-Christian persecution, but it’s probably not terribly surprising. What’s less obvious is why mainstream western Christianity hasn’t focused on it. It’s probably a safe bet that one could visit a variety of different Christian denominations over an extended period of time before hearing a sermon devoted to the subject of the global war on Christians, or finding an adult faith formation group studying it, or reading about it while browsing the collection of literature in the back of a church. At the political and social levels, the churches of the West have not yet driven anti-Christian persecution to the top of anybody’s to-do list, despite expending enormous resources on other questions.

Excerpted from The Global War on Christians by John L Allen Jr. Copyright © 2013 by John L Allen Jr. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher

The is article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated October 4, 2013