AT THE START OF the 21st century, the words of Christ prophesising the persecution of his followers ring as clearly as ever -- they’re accuracy echoed in a variety of international reports showing Christians to be the most persecuted faith group in the modern world.
Beheadings, torture, rape, kidnappings, mass killings, forced starvation, imprisonment and even crucifixions attest that the persecution of Christians did not end at the foot of the cross or the closed gates of the Roman Coliseum. Last year alone, sources indicate that an estimated 165, 000 Christians died because of religious or ethnic clashes.
When taken together, the reports -- from organisations such as Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF), Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) and Amnesty International (AI) -- open a window on Christian persecution in all parts of the world.
Approximately 10 per cent of the 2 billion Christians in the world suffer persecution, said Gyula Orban, an official of ACN, the Catholic relief agency founded by Norbertine priest Fr. Werenfried Von Straaten. Orban told the ZENIT news agency, this means that some 200 million Christians suffer harsh repercussions because of their religion.
A report presented in March to the United Nations in Geneva by the WEF, a global network of 160 million Evangelical Christians, also estimated that over 200 million Christians in at least 60 countries are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their faith. Moreover, persecution of Christians often serves as an indicator of the status of religious freedom for other minorities, since where Christians are persecuted, other religions tend also to suffer.
A more startling figure on Christian persecution was published by the German news agency, IDEA. It claimed that since the crucifixion of Christ, more than 43 million Christians have been killed for their faith.
Missionaries killed in action
About 30 active Catholic missionaries were among the persecuted Christians who died last year, according to Fides, the Vatican missionary agency. But Bernardo Cervellera, its director, said in an editorial that this number did not include the hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of Christians killed in the (Indonesian) Moluccas, the many nameless followers of Christ detained in prisons in China, in Sudan, in Rwanda, of whom nothing is known.
Fides also reported that in the decade ending in 2000, 603 missionaries were killed in action, an increase from 115 in the previous decade. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which almost 250 Catholic Church personnel were murdered, helped boost the numbers. Most of the persecution against Christians today is occurring in predominately Muslim populated countries, including Sudan, where the Islamic government is waging a decade-old war against Christians in the south. It is a battle that has seen over 2 million people killed, the majority of them Christians, and another 14 million displaced.
Christianity vs Islam
I have time and again told the world that the National Islamic Front regime in Khartoum has been, and is conducting a campaign of genocide aimed at exterminating the Christian, African and non-Arab populations of Sudan in order to establish a uniform Arab-Islamic state in the heart of Africa, Bishop Macram Max Gassis, of El Obeid, Sudan, has stated. Indonesia is another of the world’s hotspots of Christian persecution. Church and human rights organisations report deterioration in the human rights situation after Indonesia ‘s first year as a democratically elected government. They also claim that the government has failed to prevent hundreds of deaths as a result of fighting between Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas. Widespread human rights abuses in communist China, where millions of underground Christians -- including Catholics loyal to the pope -- face constant persecution, has also drawn the ire of the international community. The European Parliament has condemned the abuses in China and demanded the release of all those detained or imprisoned for peacefully exercising their internationally recognised rights to freedom of belief, religion and conscience. It pointed to reports that about 50, 000 members of the Falun Gong movement were arrested over a two-year period and that almost 25, 000 are in prison, have been sent to forced labour camps and have been forcibly committed to mental hospitals. Scores of practitioners of the banned spiritual movement have died after being ill-treated or tortured while under arrest. Tensions between the Chinese government and the Vatican also continue to be strained. Many prominent clergy of the non-official Catholic Church remain in prison or have had their movements restricted. Likewise, China has a policy of expulsion and the systematic arrest of foreign Protestant priests. Hundreds of Chinese Christians, from evangelical house church members and teachers to Roman Catholic priests and bishops, are currently in ‘re-education through labour’ camps, said organisers for the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, founded by the WEF. Many more have been arrested and have not been heard from since, said the organisation. Despite pressure from human rights groups, however, China was successful in convincing the International Olympic Committee that Beijing should host the Olympic Games in 2008. In Egypt, the Constitution promulgated in 1980 made Christians second-class citizens even though Christian Coptics represent about 10 percent of the population. The law does not allow them to be represented politically and Christians are discriminated against in a variety of other ways. Attacks by Muslim fundamentalists against Coptic Christians are reportedly common.
In Russia, the 1997 Law on freedom of conscience and on religious associations ended the brief period of religious freedom that came with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Russian government, headed by then President Boris Yeltsin, acceded to the pressure of the Muscovite Patriarchate and the international anti-sect movement. The result has been repression and increased violence against religious minorities, including Jews, Protestants, Catholics and dissident Orthodox groups. The list of countries in which Christians are reportedly persecuted is a lengthy one, with Amnesty International reporting on 149 of them in its annual report for 2001. Why are so many Christians being persecuted today? Rev. Johan Candelin, director of WEF, reasons that the persecution of Christians around the world goes hand in hand with several important trends. Conflicts are tending to be within states rather than between them, he observes. As well, more and more countries with a colonial past are seeking their own identify. Another factor behind the increase in persecution of Christians is the increased militancy of Muslims in the Islamic belt, from Morocco eastward to the southern Philippines, as Dr. Paul Marshall, of the Centre for Religious Freedom at Freedom House in Washington, observed in a magazine article. In countries where there is direct state persecution, any non-Islamic or dissident Islamic religious expression is forbidden, he noted. If Christian persecution is increasing, what can be done about it? Achille Tamburrini, ACN’s director, told ZENIT the objective is to create a permanent observatory on the state of religious liberty in the world. A denunciation, on its own, is sterile, he said. One objective ACN is pursuing is the mobilisation of Christians and lay people of good will to exert pressure on the political world, he said. We would like economic agreements with certain countries to stipulate the condition that human rights will be respected.