Christianophobia

Article excerpt

In the introduction to his focused yet far-ranging Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack, Rupert Shortt points out that "[o]ne reason why Western audiences hear so little about religious oppression in the Muslim world is straightforward: young Christians in Europe and America do not become 'radicalized,' and persecuted Christians tend not to respond with terrorist violence."

Another reason for the silence, he adds, stems from the fear that criticizing Muslims will prompt charges of racism. A third explanation lies in the fact that many liberals in the West look askance at Christianity in the developing world due to a simplistic and often historically inaccurate belief that its spread was bound up with Western imperialism.

Shortt, religion editor at the (London) Times Literary Supplement and biographer of Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury), begins with the premise "that freedom of belief and association are unqualified goods" and proceeds to examine countries - including several non-Muslim ones - that deny them to Christians.

Shortt relies on interviews he conducted in seven countries he visited, reports released by international Christian aid organizations as well as Amnesty International, and scholarly and other books. In some ways, he follows in the footsteps of Paul Marshall and co-authors, who have long written about persecution of Christians and whose findings are among the references he cites. Throughout, he eschews polemics and unhesitatingly criticizes both historical and recent Christian violence against Muslims and others.

Shortt makes a very good point regarding the title of his book, which, technically, would refer to fear of Christianity. "I am aware that 'Christianophobia,' like 'Islamophobia,' is an elastic term, perhaps implying a passive attitude, unlike the more active 'anti- Semitism'; and that prejudice should be distinguished from more overt forms of ill will manifested in state ideology or various sorts of behavior," he observes. "However, neither 'anti-Muslimism' nor 'anti-Christianism' has caught on, so Christianophobia seems to me a valid term."

So, why are Christians discriminated against and even persecuted? Reasons are varied, and Shortt strives, with a good deal of success, to provide context. In Vietnam, China, and North Korea, all of which are totalitarian and have been Communist to varying degrees, the regimes fear alternative sources of authority, as well as some Christians' association with the West.

This has also historically applied to Myanmar - which Shortt refers to by the older name of Burma - though the situation is changing there. It remains the case in Turkey, where the mere presence of missionaries sends security services into a tizzy. Myanmar, Indonesia, Turkey, and Vietnam are countries where Christians are often also ethnically distinct from the majority population, thereby highlighting differences.

Relying on the work of Eliza Griswold, Shortt explains that in central Nigeria, an economic conflict was exacerbated by the differing ethno-religious identities of two groups competing for resources, though in the heavily Muslim north, where several states have applied Sharia, the friction is more inherently religious.

Shortt's exploration of religio-cultural attitudes fueling anti- Christian movements enriches his narrative. The chapter on India (concentrating on the states of Orissa and Karnataka), proves most informative, what with the author's discussion of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism. The treatment of Myanmar and Sri Lanka will disabuse many a reader of comfortable assumptions, "[s]ince the standard view of Buddhism in the West tends to be even more rose-tinted than that of Hinduism."

Shortt's chronicling of Buddhist campaigns against Christians in Myanmar and Sri Lanka is also notable given the more recent outbreak of anti-Muslim violence orchestrated by Buddhist monks in both countries. When it comes to Egypt, however, Shortt does not tackle anti-Coptic stereotypes among ordinary Muslims (as opposed to Islamists), of the sort that depict Copts as treacherous manipulators of the economy, and the Coptic Orthodox Church as a sinister and disloyal institution. …