The World's Christians -- a New Wave of Persecution
While Americans were cozily gathered for family festivities over the Christmas and New Year's holidays, a rather different scene was being played out in Alexandria, Egypt. As Egypt's Coptic Christians gathered to enter the Two Saints Church in Alexandria for worship, a horrendous bomb went off, killing 21 of them and injuring more than 70. More sinister than the fact that the Christians had been jeered at by Muslim mobs shouting the militant "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) was the fact that extremist Muslim websites had listed 64 Coptic churches as their targets. Two Saints Church was the first on the list; some of the other churches on the extremist website list were in Canada and Australia. Canadian Copts took care to ensure that better-than-usual security was arranged for their church services. Christmas was not so cozy in other countries either. In the Philippines, a Catholic church was bombed on Christmas Day. In Jos, Nigeria, 38 Christians were killed in a Christmas Eve church bomb blast set by militant Muslims. Nor did the Muslim attacks end with the passing of the Christian holiday season of Christmas. On January 11, an Egyptian policeman on a train north of Cairo shot deliberately at five Egyptian Copts, killing one of them. He also was heard to shout "Allahu Akbar" as he fired his weapon. The point here is not to single out militant Muslims, who are known almost always to harbor a deep rage against Christians that sometimes escalates into murder. Some government regimes, notably atheist ones, have fostered an environment of deep animosity toward Christians.
• In the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, U.S. diplomat Christian Marchant was brutally manhandled in early January by government security forces when he tried to visit a Roman Catholic priest, Father Van Ly, who had spent 15 years in prison since he was first picked up by the authorities in 1977. (Read that story)
• In China, one of the country's best-known Christian lawyers, Gao Zhisheng, was being held over Christmas by secret police who had kidnapped him in April 2010 because of his leading role in China's growing human rights movement. Gao had previously disappeared into police custody for 14 months, when he was beaten mercilessly, tied up with plastic bags, and told, "You must forget you are human. You're a beast." During even earlier kidnappings by secret police, Gao's torture had included having his genitals pricked by toothpicks. (Read my earlier commentary on Gao Zhisheng)
cross in cuffs persecutionThe world's Christian community, at about 2.1 billion, is so large that many people find it hard to imagine that Christians anywhere could be under threat. But that would be a tragic misconception. Mark Seddon, a journalist for Britain's Independent newspaper -- hardly a "right-wing" publication -- wrote: "We may be witnessing a new age of Christian persecution" around the world. Fortunately, even the U.S. State Department has taken notice and since 1999 has issued an annual report on the findings of its diplomats about the state of religious freedom around the world. The report is tasked with singling out various "countries of particular concern" for the way they treat Christians and followers of other faiths. Not surprisingly, countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Iran, Burma, Iraq and Vietnam regularly show up on the State Department list and the 2010 report was no exception. Christians of all stripes, from Roman Catholics to evangelicals, are understandably concerned when their brothers and sisters in the faith face persecution, suffering, and even death. But even agnostics and atheists ought to pay attention when followers of any religion, anywhere in the world, are singled out for persecution. The state of religious liberty in any country is like the proverbial canary in the coal mine as an indicator of that country's overall political freedom. After all, it was the wave after wave of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish immigrants washing up on the shores of America for the first three centuries after the Pilgrims arrived in 1620 who brought to America an awareness of the supreme value of freedom of conscience. In many parts of the world, however, persecuted Christians are not in a position to pick up and leave as entire communities, let alone come to the United States. For that reason, it is the responsibility of us who are free to practice our faith to tirelessly call to account those regimes which either actively persecute or passively tolerate persecution of Christians. I don't think this means that we should have refused to host a White House state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao last week. After all, whether we like his regime or not, Americans can hardly ignore it because our mutual economic futures are apparently inseparable. But ordinary Americans should be standing up and doing the equivalent of banging sauce-pans in the streets, making as much public noise as possible, to express our disgust at regime-approved, and even regime-organized, persecution. From Aasia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman under death sentence for "blasphemy," to Iranian Christians rounded up in a regime crackdown on "house churches" and held in brutal conditions in Tehran's Evin Prison, if we make enough noise, even the prisoners might hear and be encouraged.