Comment Opinion & Features

The bitter reality of persecution shouldn’t drive us to despair

A bloodstained statue of Christ at St Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka

On Easter Sunday an image appeared on social media that seemed to sum up Christianity in the 21st century. It showed a statue of the Risen Christ, dressed in a flowing white garment, with his right arm raised in a gesture of victory, the mark of Crucifixion visible on his left hand. His robe was spattered with blood, great clots of it as well as small specks, freshly shed that very morning. The statue stands in one of the three churches in Sri Lanka targeted by suicide bombers on what should have been the most joyful day of the year.

The bombers carried out a coordinated assault on the churches, and four hotels frequented by Westerners, on Easter Sunday morning. As we went to press, the death toll had reached 321 and was still rising, with at least 500 injured.

More than 50 were killed at St Sebastian’s, a church north of the capital, Colombo, in a predominantly Catholic area known as “little Rome”. Amateur footage showed twisted bodies lying between shattered pews and gaping holes in the roof. This is the church with the blood-flecked statue of the Risen Christ. At St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, a blast ripped pews to pieces and left the floor and ceiling covered in blood. The church, which contains a precious relic of St Anthony of Padua, is a designated national shrine. The third church attacked by bombers was the Evangelical Zion Church in Batticaloa, on Sri Lanka’s east coast.

This was the first major attack on the Indian Ocean island since a ferocious civil war ended a decade ago. A government spokesman said that a local Islamist group known as National Thowheed Jamath carried out the attacks with the help of an “international network”.

In a heartening sign, the Muslim council of Sri Lanka condemned the atrocities against “our Christian brothers and sisters on their holy day of Easter”. Meanwhile, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the seat of Sunni Muslim learning, deplored the violence, saying: “I cannot imagine a human being could target the peaceful on their celebration day.”

The mass media’s reaction was also striking. For years, Western media have given scant coverage to atrocities against Christians. But for a full 24 hours the Sri Lanka bombings dominated the news cycle. Cynics might argue that this was because dozens of holidaying Westerners were among the victims. Nevertheless, the coverage will have raised awareness of the dire situation of Christian minorities around the world.

According to the group World Watch International, an estimated 200 million Christians face some form of persecution today. As the Catholic commentator John Allen says, “The low-end estimate for the number of new Christian martyrs every year is around 8,000, while the high end runs to 100,000. That works out to either one new martyr every hour, or every five minutes – in any event, a human rights scourge of astonishing proportions.”

Some Western leaders are beginning to grasp this reality. In her Easter message, Theresa May acknowledged that across the world “churches have been attacked, Christians murdered [and] families forced to flee their homes”. The Prime Minister promised that Britain would in future “stand up for the right of everyone, no matter what their religion, to practise their faith in peace”.

That is easier said than done, because it is almost impossible to guarantee the security of the hundreds of thousands of churches worldwide. Terrorists will always be able to find a soft target. This creates what John Allen calls “an ugly and utterly predictable dynamic”: that on every major feast day for the foreseeable future Christian communities will face attacks as dreadful as those in Sri Lanka.

But we should not despair: Christianity was born amid persecution and has grown despite it into the world’s largest faith. Violence harms the body of Christ, but it can never destroy it. Jesus himself not only predicted that his followers would be persecuted, he also showed the daunting path that he wished them to follow: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).