Religious Persecution

Commonweal, August 15, 1997 | Go to article overview

Religious Persecution


Murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment of Christians have been in the news. In places like Sudan (see, Commonweal, "For Sale: People," January 17,1997) and China (Richard Madsen, "China's Catholics: Devout and Divided," April 25, 1997), governments are the perpetrators. Elsewhere, Christians are the special targets of Islamic mobs or rebel forces attempting to overthrow their governments, for example, in Algeria and Egypt. And Christians - Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats - have persecuted each other.

On July 22 the State Department issued a report, "United States Policies in Support of Religious Freedom: Focus on Christians." The report, covering the state of religious freedom in seventy-eight countries, did not just happen. Organizations like Freedom House and the National Association of Evangelicals, individuals like Michael Horowitz, a former Reagan administration official now at the Hudson Institute, and Congressmen Frank Wolf (R-Va.) have prodded and politicked to get the issue of persecution of Christians on the public agenda. The Clinton administration and the Republican Congress have finally responded. In November 1996, then Secretary of State Warren Christopher named an Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad. This past June, there were congressional threats to revoke China's trade status, in part, because of its persecution of Protestants and Catholics. And now, there is the State Department report.

All of this is to the good. The international human-rights movement has traditionally focused on political prisoners, not persecuted believers. Because Christianity has been the dominant faith of the West, more likely to be in league with power than its victim, the persecution of Christians around the world often goes unnoticed; when pointed out, it is not often forthrightly acknowledged; when acknowledged, it is rarely protested.

Will this new attention to a very real problem be lasting? The current campaign, still in a formative phase, has to become a long-running effort, which may not be easy. The State Department report has the virtue of conveying the complexity of "religious freedom" in the real world. American responses - both government policy and the mobilization of public opinion - must be equally complex. That suggests some caveats:

First, the merits of focusing on one group, or claiming, as some advocates do, that Christians are the most persecuted group in the world is debatable. Religious communities should assist and support persecuted members abroad. But when the government of a pluralist society is called to act, the picture gets more complex. And what is the point of making claims that threaten to minimize the tragedies of others? Tibetan Buddhism, long persecuted by the Chinese government, lies on the brink of extinction. So do the religious practices of indigenous people around the world.

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