Elephants in the Room

Religious Persecution Is on the Rise. It’s Time for Policymakers and Academics to Take Notice.

“Under Caesar’s Sword,” a new book on the repression of Christians, sheds light on issues that officials from around the world have gathered in Washington to discuss.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, and Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, at a press event for the launch of the department's 2017 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom on May 29 in Washington. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, and Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, at a press event for the launch of the department's 2017 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom on May 29 in Washington. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Beginning Tuesday, the U.S. State Department will host its first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. Under the leadership of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sam Brownback, the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, foreign ministers and other senior officials from around the world—along with religious and philanthropic leaders and religious activists—will convene to share best practices and galvanize a unified vision for the promotion of religious freedom moving forward.

The ministerial is a welcome development and innovative idea, especially considering that the Trump administration has thus far otherwise neglected the promotion of human rights and human liberty in its foreign policy. The most recent example of this neglect comes from this month’s news that German Chancellor Angela Merkel played the leading role in pressing China to release Liu Xia, China’s most prominent dissident and the widow of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. As welcome as Liu’s freedom is, it also marks the first time in three decades that the United States did not lead the diplomatic advocacy for a Chinese prisoner of conscience.

Pompeo and Brownback appear to be the driving forces in convening the ministerial, which will address the plight of persecuted religious believers around the world. One hopes that the ministerial may represent the beginning of a broader administration commitment to human rights promotion, but regardless it comes at a needful time for those who are oppressed for their faith.

Even a cursory glance at the State Department’s most recent “International Religious Freedom Report” reveals a bleak global landscape of growing persecution and restrictions on religious freedom. Similarly, the ninth annual Pew Research Center report on global religious restrictions, released last month, shows an increase in the percentage of countries with high or very high levels of state-sanctioned religious repression, the highest percentage since 2013. This rising tide of persecution knows no geographic or sectarian boundaries; it afflicts religious believers of virtually every faith, on every continent. Accordingly, it is official U.S. policy, as codified in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, to promote religious freedom worldwide irrespective of creed or confession.

Unfortunately, even as religious repression has increased over the past decade, scholars have devoted comparatively little attention to studying religious persecution as a particularly virulent form of human rights abuse. One modest hope for the upcoming State Department ministerial is that it will help spur more careful research on the problem, in addition to heightened policy attention. After all, a sophisticated policy of opposing religious persecution means understanding the various types of persecution that can afflict different faiths in different countries and regions—and crafting responses accordingly. Thus, in the case of China, most of the persecution of Buddhists takes place in Tibetan areas, especially targeting Tibetan Buddhists loyal to the Dalai Lama, and most of China’s persecution of Muslims is targeted against Uighurs in Xinjiang province. Whereas in Iran, one of the most religiously intolerant nations in the world, the government targets Bahais, Jews, and Christians.

As the largest religion in the world as well as the most globally dispersed faith, Christianity in this century also holds the distinction of being the world’s most persecuted faith. “Christians have been harassed in more countries than any other religious group,” Pew found in 2015. It is against this backdrop that Daniel Philpott and Timothy Samuel Shah bring together leading experts to explore the various types of persecution targeting Christians in their new book, Under Caesar’s Sword: How Christians Respond to Persecution. An edited volume featuring 15 scholars examining 24 countries, it reveals that just as the motivations and mechanisms used to repress religion differ, the responses to persecution vary widely from country to country and from tradition to tradition. It is an apt theme to explore not only for what can be learned about Christian responses to persecution but also for what helpful insights these case studies might reveal for non-Christian faiths experiencing oppression. Specifically, the collection reiterates the necessity of creating and maintaining close, albeit often unlikely, alliances within and between religious groups. Rallying around the shared desire for freedom of conscience, rather than a specific case of persecution, can increase the size and duration of influence. Finally, the volume also illuminates the voices of the victims of repression themselves—a perspective that the policy debates on how to address religious intolerance too often neglect.

Philpott and Shah argue that Christian responses to persecution are generally creative and pragmatic, focused on achieving short-term safety while maintaining (or obtaining) the ability to exercise the basic tenets of their faith. To understand this, the authors construct a valuable and flexible typology to classify Christian responses to persecution. Using the case studies in their collection, they identify three primary responses: strategies of survival, strategies of association, and strategies of confrontation. The employment of these strategies is dependent upon political and social contexts, intensity of the persecution endured, denominational affiliation, and theological conviction. Philpott and Shah stay descriptive in the development of the typology, and they avoid attaching moral value or judgments to the response types.

Most Christian responses to persecution described in this volume involve strategies of survival. Examples of these survival strategies include fleeing, cultural adaptation, feigning conversion, and accommodating authorities. In short, survival strategies extend “no further than remaining alive and conducting basic religious activities,” Philpott and Shah write.

Regardless of geography, some type of fleeing emerges in most of the case studies. Perhaps the most startling example comes from the chapter by Kent Hill, the executive director of the Religious Freedom Institute, on Iraq and Syria. Both countries have witnessed the complete decimation of their respective Christian populations. The number of Christians in Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion hovered at 1.5 million. In 2017, some 100,000 to 300,000 remain. Similarly, in the early 1900s, Christians made up a quarter of the Syrian population. Today, the population share has decreased to 5 percent, its steady decline over the past century accelerated by the ghastly civil war. The barbarity of the Islamic State has precipitated one of the largest refugee crises of the 21st century.

Other examples of survival strategies are unique to individual contexts. For example, in Reg Reimer’s astute essay on Vietnam and Laos, he describes the intense persecution by the Vietnamese communists of the Montagnard evangelicals in Vietnam’s Central Highlands in the 1970s. Due in large part to the Montagnards’ anti-communist stance during the Vietnam War, following Hanoi’s victory the Vietnamese communists closed churches and imprisoned their leaders in brutal work camps. After this onslaught, many church members publicly recanted their faith in an effort to survive. While corporate religious activity slowed during this period, eventually the church was reinstated, and many congregants reconverted.

Strategies of association are more proactive and involve the development of “relationships, bridges, partnerships, enterprises,” Philpott and Shah write. Interfaith dialogue and forging alliances can be a formidable force in coping with existing persecution and preventing it in the future. Maryann Cusimano Love describes the work of the resilient Dominican sisters who engaged transnational advocacy networks to lobby before the U.S. Congress. Chad Bauman and James Ponniah describe the profound cooperation occurring between Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans through the National Peace Council. District inter-religious committees of the council include community leaders and clergy of various religions and have helped ease long-standing tensions and promote compromise.

Attempts at fostering interfaith and interdenominational dialogue are not always successful. With few notable exceptions, Kathleen Collins’s chapter on repression and survival in Central Asia describes the deep roots of distrust between religions and denominations. Unfortunately, after being “[c]onditioned by a Soviet culture of fear, they avoid collaborative solutions,” she writes. At times, distrust has created a barrier within Christian communities. Matthew Kukah, a bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sokoto in Nigeria, laments in the book the disunity in his own country. In an urgent plea for unity, he challenges Christians to “do a better job of coming together to speak with one voice if they expect government and international bodies to listen to them.”

The rarest type of response came in the form of open defiance or confrontation. Fenggang Yang of Purdue University, perhaps the leading scholar of Christianity in China today, describes the Chinese clergy’s open refusal of government-imposed church structures. Their defiance was met with decades in prison. Physical violence was even less common, occurring in only six countries—Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Kenya, Indonesia, and India. These confrontations were all against extremist militant groups.

The primary challenge of Under Caesar’s Sword mimics the challenge facing policymakers: the ambition of its scope is admirable but overwhelming. The volume’s geographical approach provides the reader with a general overview of how Christians respond to persecution worldwide, but, at times, the expansive scope inhibits the depth of its analysis. Other times, the expansiveness of the scope and quick transitions between vastly different cases are disorienting to the reader. This is particularly difficult when a single chapter contains disparate cases. For example, Robert Dowd’s expert comparison of societal hostility in Nigeria and Kenya has more than enough content for one essay, without the addition of the comparison of the persecution meted out by the government in Sudan.

The essays would feel more connected if the contributors had hewed to an unambiguous and consistent definition of persecution throughout. Charles Tieszen’s definition, as used by Reimer in his essay about communist Vietnam and Laos, may be useful here. Tiezen defines persecution as “[a]ny unjust action of varying levels of hostility directed to religious believers through systematic oppression or through irregular harassment or discrimination resulting in various levels of harm as it is considered from the victim’s perspective, each action having religion as its primary motivator.”

Perhaps the most engaging, albeit disturbing, quality of the volume is its masterful ability to shift between statistical overviews and individual stories. Each time desensitization creeps in as the reader is confronted with the great magnitude of persecution, the authors share an individual narrative, reminding the reader of the very personal effects of such large-scale atrocities.

The book is a gut-wrenching read. Its pages are filled with stories of lives upended, displaced, and brutally cut short. In Pakistan, strict blasphemy laws continue to claim the lives of innocent Christians, such as that of the pastor Shahbaz Bhatti. In the Xinjiang region of China, thousands of Uighur Muslims are currently detained in re-education camps, enduring harsh conditions and often separated indefinitely from family members. But, with the help of Under Caesar’s Sword and works like it, these lives will not be forgotten or ignored. As sobering as this volume is, its pages are also dotted with hope. There are stories of clergy sacrificing without hesitation for their beloved parishioners, men and women expressing unwavering commitment to their personal convictions despite unimaginable suffering and the willingness to form unlikely alliances in the pursuit of freedom for all.

The State Department Ministerial on Religious Freedom approaches. One of its purposes is to collect and share information about both the statistics and the human faces of religious persecution so that policymakers and activists can understand the scope of the problem. This volume is an essential resource for that purpose. Nonetheless, we hope all of the participants in the ministerial will bear in mind that while persecuted religious believers around the globe trust ultimately in their god, they also hope they are not forgotten by the free nations of the world.

Ashlyn Webb is a doctoral student in public policy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and a graduate fellow with the Clements Center for National Security, both at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.