In Solidarity With Persecuted Christians: From a Conference in Rome

Last week, December 10-12, an international conference, “Under Caesar’s Sword: Christians in Response to Persecution,” took place in Rome, hosted by the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame and the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University. The conference was designed to learn how Christian communities around the world respond to persecution and to increase solidarity with them. It introduced the results of the world’s first systematic global investigation into the responses of Christian communities to the violation of their religious freedom. The conference was not just the reports of scholars, though, but also featured the testimonies from global church leaders as well as activists who have experienced persecution directly. A major theme was also recognizing the 50th anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. Here can be found the agenda, speakers, background information, and the like.

Here are some of the highlights of the conference:

** On the opening day, we heard from two patriarchs from the part of the world where the persecution of Christians is most in the headlines — Iraq and Syria.  Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq and Patriarch Youssef Younan of the Syriac Catholic Church both spoke emotionally about the plight of Christians in their region.  Patriarch Sako called for greater military intervention from the West in order to defeat the Islamic State.  Both lamented the exodus of communities that date back to the earliest times of Christianity and hoped that Christians would stay even while respecting the choice of people to leave or stay.

** What I think many of the participants, including myself, did not expect, were moving and inspiring testimonies from people who have suffered persecution at the grassroots.  There was Fr. Bernard Kinvi of the Central African Republic, who sheltered Muslims during his country’s war between Christians and Muslims. There was Helen Berhane, a gospel singer from Eritrea who spent over two years living in a shipping container because she would not renounce her faith. At the end of her panel she offered a song that she had composed while in captivity. Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church recounted his church’s long history of suffering underground under Soviet Communism and its heroic role more recently in the protests at Maidan Square in Kiev. Pakistan’s Paul Bhatti, a Catholic, spoke of his journey towards forgiveness and his decision to stay with the people of Pakistan after the assassination there of his brother, Shabhaz Bhatti, who had dedicated his life to protecting religious minorities in Pakistan.

** An extraordinary array of people attended the conference, portending the development of an integrated movement for religious freedom on behalf of persecuted Christians.  There were activist ngos like Aid to the Church in Need, Open Doors, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and Oasis International; scholars; diplomats and ambassadors; and clerics and laypeople from numerous Christian churches around the world.  In terms of numbers, my own (rough) estimate is that about 300 were in attendance at the opening session and then around 150-250 over the remaining two days.

** The conference received impressive media attention. In attendance were journalists from The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, National Public Radio, the Osservatore Romano, The Boston Globe, Commonweal, Ave Maria Radio, and numerous other media outlets. See, for instance, this piece by Ines San Martin at Crux.  Al Kresta of Ave Maria Radio, host of “Al Kresta in the Afternoon,” interviewed numerous speakers and attendees and has decided to make these interviews a major theme of his show. This very week, I have been gratified to hear his interviews broadcast, including one with Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma, the Iraq and Syria expert among our scholars. Kresta’s show is syndicated among over 300 stations around the U.S.

** The second night of the conference featured a beautiful and haunting ecumenical prayer service at the Church of San Bartolomeo, a shrine to contemporary martyrs established by Pope John Paul II. The church is now run by the Community of Sant’Egidio, who hosted the prayer. Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Nigeria gave the homily, reflecting on the place of martyrdom in the Christian life.

** Central to the conference was the presentation of the findings of Under Caesar’s Sword’s team of 14 scholars, who have been researching firsthand some 30 countries where Christians have suffered persecution.  Some findings:

** There are a strikingly diverse array of countries and regimes where persecution takes place.  It’s not all Islam or even close to it.  There are regnant Communist regimes like China, Vietnam, and North Korea.  There are surprising countries like India, which is pluralist and peaceful in the popular imagination.  There are democracies and semi-democracies like Pakistan, Indonesia, India, and Nigeria.  We also looked at the increasing curtailment of religious freedom in the West, where it is exaggerated to say that persecution is taking place but where serious restrictions on religious freedom are rising.

** Responses to persecution fall into three categories ranging from reactive to proactive.  First are strategies of survival, or “coping”; second are strategies of construction where churches assert their mission in ways ranging among building bridges to other faith communities to extending social services and education, but do not directly confront the regime; third are strategies of confrontation, including popular protest and underground organized opposition.

** Strikingly rare among persecuted Christian minorities are resorts to violence.  Certainly there are cases of Christian violence, usually undertaken in self-defense, as in Nigeria, Central African Republic, and Indonesia.  Sometimes it becomes disproportionate and indiscriminate, as in the Central African Republic.  There are almost no instances of the formation of terrorist cells, though, among the Christian communities we heard about.

** In some cases, responses to persecution vivify the Christian gospel in a striking way. For instance, some Christians practice forgiveness. Paul Bhatti is a prominent example.  Others are willing to accept martyrdom. Bhatti’s brother Shabhaz stands out here.

** In part, the kind of response that Christians muster to persecution depends on the degree of repression and the size of the community — common sense, right?  But that doesn’t explain everything. China scholar Fenggang Yang of Purdue University gave the example of small Protestant communities who practiced “evangelization under all circumstances” under China’s most repressive period, 1966-1979.  Today the spectacular growth of Christianity in China can be attributed to these communities.  The blood of martyrs is seed of the Church, said Tertullian.

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Daniel Philpott

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.