Last month, the Christian world celebrated Easter. On this holiest of days, Catholic churches across the world welcomed new converts to the faith. Many parishes in the United States reported record numbers received into the Church.
And it’s a good bet that during the Lent and Easter season, many Protestant churches welcomed former Catholics into their folds. It’s also very likely a lot of Catholics shrugged off the religious holiday. A handful of former Catholics may even have spent Easter mocking the risen Christ.
But whatever Catholics decided to do that day in relation to their faith, they did so freely and without fear of reprisal. No member of the Spanish Inquisition arrived at their door to cart them off. No Vatican court held a trial to condemn them for apostasy. (Some may have received phone calls from upset mothers, but that’s another story.)
Catholicism, like most religions in the 21st century, puts the onus of practicing one’s faith upon the individual. It’s been 189 years since the Catholic Church put anyone to death for heresy. Pope Francis says freedom of religion is one of mankind’s most fundamental human rights. The attitude of today’s Church, like most of Christianity, is to live and let live — or as the pope says, “Move forward and let others do the same.”
This undated image made from a video released by Islamic State militants on April 19 shows a group of captured Ethiopian Christians taken to a beach before they were killed by Islamic State militants in Libya. The 29-minute video shows captives being shot dead and beheaded.
Unfortunately, not all religious elements hold that same philosophy — especially not regarding Christianity. In the past year, the Holy See, in unison with numerous Christian leaders and organizations worldwide, has expressed deep concern over the growing attacks on Christianity in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The Vatican says that in the 21st century alone, more Christians have been martyred than during all of the Church’s first five centuries.
Pew Research confirms that Christianity is the world’s most persecuted religion. According to the group Open Doors International, 2014 was a particularly deadly year for Christians. Twice as many followers of Christ were killed in 2014 as in 2012. The top five nations where the worst offenses are happening are North Korea, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The human rights group says it has documented proof of 2,123 Christians killed because of their faith last year.
Thomas Schirrmacher, president of the Council of the International Society for Human Rights, estimates the number of martyred Christians to be between 7,000 and 8,000. The Vatican puts the number closer to 100,000.
Last year may have been the worst year for Christian persecution in the religion’s 2,000-year history. Christian oppression in Asia has been a problem for years. North Korea’s 300,000 Christians live in constant fear of discovery. Just the whispered suggestion to authorities of a hidden Bible can mean the disappearance of an entire family. In China, the destruction of churches continues, and professed Christians are often jailed or sent to re-education camps on the most minimal charges.
But it is the Middle East and Africa that have seen the most deadly and horrific campaigns to eradicate Christianity. In 2014, the world became all too familiar with the brutal Islamic militant groups Boko Haram, al-Shabab and the rapidly expanding Islamic State — all of which seek to create societies ruled by their strict interpretations of Shariah law. These terrorists are imposing their will by the most brutal means possible. Their methods include displacement, forced conversions, rape, torture and murder.
Throughout Iraq and Syria especially, untold numbers of Christians have been killed or forced to flee their homes. Hundreds of ancient churches have been desecrated or destroyed. For more than 2,000 years, Christians lived and worshipped in the ancient Iraqi city of Mosul. In 2003, there were 60,000 Christians living in the city. Today, there are zero — a scenario being repeated in cities and towns throughout Iraq and Syria.
Sister Hatune Dogan is an Orthodox Christian nun who has made it her life’s mission to alert the Western world to the atrocities being committed by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. She has spoken to anyone who will listen. She tells of Iraqi girls as young as 5 being raped and tortured. She recently smuggled a video out of Iraq showing the mental torture and beheading of three Iraqi boys between the ages of 5 and 6 by their ISIS captors.
Despite the Islamic State’s brutal methods, many counter-terrorism experts are concerned that it is growing in popularity far beyond its self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria — and that its philosophy may be spreading throughout the Muslim world. Recently, Boko Haram proclaimed its allegiance to ISIS.
Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, explains the Islamic State’s strong appeal for its recruits: “It’s religion, but it’s broader than just the religion itself. It’s wanting to share in a culture in which that religion is central. That is a place for them to go that will provide a religious homeland for them — and that they will be able to serve in a number of capacities.”
Stephen Long, University of Richmond associate professor of political science and international studies, told members of the Richmond World Affairs Council on Tuesday that another appeal of ISIS is the pay that its recruits receive, often exceeding $1,000 a month — a fantastic sum for those who have lived in extreme poverty their entire lives.
The growing persecution of Christians is a form of ethnic cleansing — on a scale that demands the attention of the entire world. It requires international solutions.
Pope Francis has done an outstanding job speaking out against the attacks on Christianity — and he has denounced the “complicit silence” of much of the world and its leaders. The Vatican has also expressed alarm that in many Western nations, there is a pattern of marginalizing and mocking Christianity while ignoring its historic and social contributions — and its dire need for assistance.
So where are the Western leaders and the mainstream media?
Why won’t the leader of the free world speak to the ongoing slaughter?
President Obama’s silence last month after the deaths of 12 Christians who were thrown off a boat in the Mediterranean by Islamic refugees was disgraceful, but his remarks earlier this year at the National Prayer Breakfast may confirm the Vatican’s marginalization concerns: “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” Obama said. “In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
Is the president insinuating that millennium-old crusades in the Holy Land or decades-old bigotry in the U.S. are justification for turning a blind eye to the mass exterminations and horrors happening today in the Middle East? (Surely, he realizes that much of what is happening in Iraq and Syria, as well as in Yemen and Libya, is due in no small part to American interference in the region — by both his administration and the previous one.)
Christianity’s existence is not in danger (except perhaps in the cradle of its birth). Historically, it has been during times of greatest oppression that the religion has grown fastest.
But remember that 80 years ago, Germany passed the Nuremberg Laws that stripped German Jews of their citizenship and imposed many limits on their civil rights. It was part of a horrific effort to exterminate Jews in the Unterland. Elsewhere in the world, few seemed to notice — and those who did seemed not to care.
It wasn’t until Germany’s defeat in 1945 that the true horror of what was happening in its concentration camps came to light.
God willing, today’s world leaders won’t turn a similar blind eye to what is happening right now to Christians in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.