We are set to learn a lot more about the current state of Christian persecution from an innovative three-year global research project, and – no surprise – the early findings are distressing. But also – and this too should not be a surprise – amidst the gloom are some significant rays of hope.
The project, titled “Under Caesar’s Sword,” is intended to study how different Christian communities around the world have responded to persecution, as well as why they acted in the way they did and what kind of outcomes were achieved.
It is a partnership of two American academic institutions, the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.
In an introduction to the project, the organizers make clear their stance. Christians around the world are “being brutally persecuted, facing imprisonment, torture and even death,” they state.
Yet they also point to signs of promise: “Christian communities have been instrumental in ousting governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia, South Korea, Chile, South Africa, Malawi and elsewhere. Other responses, like diplomatic accommodation, might succeed in allowing a church to continue its activities. Forgiveness and interreligious dialogue might reduce tensions between a church and hostile societal actors. Martyrdom might offer spiritual encouragement to other Christians and even increase the adherents of a repressed church.”
Some tentative, initial findings – and some emotional testimonies – came at a conference last month in Rome. A Pakistani Christian leader, Paul Bhatti, spoke of how he had forgiven the assassins of his brother, who had dedicated his life to protecting religious minorities in Pakistan. Dr Bhatti is now continuing his brother’s work, despite death threats against his own life.
Purdue University scholar Fenggang Yang told how the underground Chinese church actually expanded strongly during the Cultural Revolution, a time of intense persecution, sowing the seeds for today’s vibrant growth.
Former missionary Reg Reimer reported that evangelical Christians in Vietnam and Laos expect persecution, and this has helped strengthen the church.
Helen Berhane, a singer from Eritrea, spoke of how she was imprisoned and tortured for more than two years after releasing an album of Christian music and then refusing to sign a document pledging to end all her Christian activities. She was released only after becoming seriously ill. At the conference she sang a song composed while in captivity.
But overall the mood of the conference was somber. One Mideast leader said Middle Eastern Christians had been “forgotten, abandoned and betrayed” by the West. The whole world “turned a blind eye” in 2014 when Islamic State drove 140,000 Christians from their homes in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, he said. Another Christian leader stated bluntly that military intervention by Western countries was urgently needed in the region.
The Under Caesar’s Sword project has a team of 14 scholars studying some 100 beleaguered Christian communities in over 30 countries. We can be sure they will uncover many inspiring stories of God at work in even the most desperate of circumstances. But it is difficult to imagine that their final report will be anything but grim.