A forthcoming new film from famed director Martin Scorsese is set to confront the movie-going public with the issue of the persecution of Christians.
It is “Silence,” based on the celebrated 1966 historical novel by Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize.
“Silence,” Endo’s masterpiece, is set in seventeenth-century Japan and tells the story of an idealistic Portuguese missionary trying to help his Christian brethren in Japan, while the authorities work to eradicate the religion.
It is based on real people and real events, and it is striking to read of the cruelty that was employed by the Japanese shogun – military leader – and his officials, so determined were they to rid Japan of Christianity and all that it stood for.
A favored torture method was to hang a Christian upside-down over a pit of excrement, with a tiny cut behind the ear sending blood – one slow drop at a time – running down the victim’s face. Merciful death could take a week.
At other times a Christian was tied to a pole that was secured in the sea. High tide would come up just to the victim’s neck, then the water would abate. Again, death was slow.
Now we are seeing something similar happening in Iraq and Syria, with Christianity under attack from a merciless campaign of genocide by the criminals of ISIS.
It is difficult to obtain reliable news from the region, but it is clear that ISIS has already blown up and destroyed churches, monasteries and historic sites, such as the tomb in Nineveh where, according to tradition, the prophet Jonah was buried. Hundreds of thousands have fled.
Nineveh is part of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, and large numbers of Christians lived and worshipped there for nearly 2,000 years. It is now possible that not one Christian remains.
The seventeenth-century Japanese authorities were equally relentless and brutal as they forced hundreds of thousands of believers to renounce their faith. They achieved almost total success in uprooting Christianity from their homeland.
Yet when the country was opened up again to the West, 200 years later, visitors were amazed to discover scattered remnants of secret believers, still covertly practising their faith.
This might be some cause for comfort, as we witness the holocaust now taking place in the Mideast. But we must also remember that, despite all the intense efforts of missionaries over the past 150 years, fewer than one per cent of Japan’s population today are Christian.
Yes, a remnant of secret believers might linger in ISIS-controlled territory. But I repeat what I have already written – the events that we see unfold before us in the Middle East today are a tragedy of monumental proportions.
The new Scorsese movie may well spark outrage among the general public about the persecution of Christians. I hope it does. But it will come too late for the faithful of Iraq and Syria.