As Christians around the world gather to celebrate Christmas, thousands will be taking their lives in their own hands when they go to their places of worship.
Recent news reports have drawn attention to church bombings in Nigeria and arrests of Christians in Iran. Behind these cases is a dark and startling trend: Millions of Christians today are being persecuted for their faith.
In fact, Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world, according to religion writer Rupert Shortt, author of a new book called “Christianophobia” (Rider Books, $32) that builds on three years of research to detail the persecution most of the West never hears about.
About 200 million of the world’s Christians face violence and discrimination daily because of their faith, according to Mr. Shortt.
After Sept. 11, 2001, he said, polarization of the Middle East accelerated, increasing politically motivated attacks against Christians and driving them from their homes.
There were more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than the previous 19 centuries combined, according to Mr. Shortt.
“It’s not very fashionable to be a persecuted Christian,” he said, explaining why the persecution of other religious groups tends to draw much more attention. His book is an attempt to uncover the atrocities mainstream media have been silent about.
Mr. Shortt explains further in “Christianophobia” why the most widespread persecution in the world is also the most underreported:
First, most Christians do not become “radicalized” and persecuted Christians do not usually respond with violence.
Second, he writes, “Parts of the media have been influenced by the logical error that equates criticism of Muslims with racism, and therefore as wrong by definition.”
Christianity’s roots go deep into Middle Eastern history, dating back hundreds of years before Islam began, but Mr. Shortt says the faith could soon be eradicated from its Biblical homeland. In some countries, this is no accident.
“As I write, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Amdullah, has officially declared that ‘it is necessary to destroy all the churches’ on the Arabian Peninsula,” Mr. Shortt writes.
Egypt, home to the largest Christian community in the Middle East, has seen an exodus of 600,000 Christians in the past 30 years. In the 1950s the Christian community comprised almost 20 percent of Egypt’s population; today, emigration and attrition have whittled that number down to 12 percent.
“It’s the most significant country in the region for obvious historical reasons and simple statistical fact,” Mr. Shortt said.
Hundreds of Egyptian Christians, mainly Copts, are killed and injured in attacks on churches each year. Thirteen people were killed leaving St. George’s Church in Nag Hammadi in 2010; on New Year’s Eve the same year, 20 worshippers were slain and 70 more wounded in a bombing at Two Saints’ Church in Alexandria. The second attack allegedly was prompted by a rumor that the church was holding two converts to Islam against their will.
Isolated examples cannot give a full picture of the danger, but these dozens of deaths, when taken together, serve to illustrate the scope of the danger Christians face daily around the world.
The region has become even more important since the Arab Spring began two years ago in Tunisia. Though there were legitimate reasons for hope when revolutionaries called for democracy, Mr. Shortt said, that hope turned to concern when Mohammed Morsi ascended to the presidency of Egypt, opening the door to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamist group harbors many extremists whose push to enshrine Shariah law in the country’s constitution will prove dangerous for Christians, he said.
The close connection between political instability and religious persecution helps explain why the Christian community faces such oppression in the Middle East. Many strains of Islam don’t distinguish between religion and politics, Mr. Shortt explained. When the West challenges the Muslim world, Christians often face the backlash.
This motivation is often behind Islamist attacks responding to perceived Western threats to their Shariah-based culture, Mr. Shortt said. Citing Nigerian church leader Benjamin Kwashi, whose home and family have been attacked multiple times, Mr. Shortt writes:
“He [Kwashi] ascribes such violence to the rising popularity of Christians, seeing a proxy conflict between Islam and the West playing itself in Africa: ‘The Islamic world wants to conquer the Christian West. They don’t understand that Christianity isn’t the West. The church is just a scapegoat for the West, and no one wants to come to its help.’ ”
Persecution is widespread in Archbishop Kwashi’s home country of Nigeria, where an estimated 60,000 non-Muslims, many of them Christians, have been killed because of the expansion of Shariah law, according to Mr. Shortt. In 2009 alone, pro-Shariah militant group Boko Haram is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 people and the damage or destruction of 26 churches, he writes.
Boko Haram has continued to target Christian churches and their congregations. Last Christmas the group claimed responsibility for a wave of Christmas Day bombings that killed dozens of worshippers across the country. In October this year, 30 Christian students were slain at a Nigerian university.
In Iran, several cases of Christian pastors being imprisoned for church work have drawn international attention in the past two years. Last week, an Iranian-born U.S. citizen was pulled off a bus and thrown in jail for Christian church work he did there before he emigrated to the United States.
In 2010, the imprisonment of Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani drew international attention when he was sentenced to death by the Iranian Supreme Court for apostasy. Mr. Nadarkhani was acquitted and released this year amid international pressure, but not before the court charged him with the crime of evangelizing Muslims.
Dozens of Iranian Christians are imprisoned or killed each year, Mr. Shortt writes in his chapter on Iran. The tense relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims there has been called “religious apartheid.” Religious and ethnic minorities face imprisonment, state-sanctioned discrimination and even death. The hardline government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has maintained a disregard for the freedom of ethnic and religious minorities, according to Mr. Shortt.
“The clerical establishment retains its grip through a terror network — torture, arbitrary detention, disappearance, summary trial, and frequent use of the death penalty,” Mr. Shortt writes. “The past few years have seen a renewed crackdown on non-Muslims, especially Bahai’s and converts to Christianity.”
Muslims are not the only group to persecute Christians, a point Mr. Shortt emphasizes in his book. Hindus, Buddhists and communists have unleashed similar campaigns against Christian minorities to diminish their political and cultural influence.
However, the intensity of the Islamist campaign against Christianity cannot be ignored. The political unrest in the Middle East will have a significant bearing on the fate of Christians in the region. The watching world optimistically hoped the Arab Spring would lead to democracy and greater freedom for all citizens, but those countries are systematically installing Islamist governments that do not bode well for individual liberty.
Religious liberty “is the canary in the mine for liberty more generally,” declares the publisher of “Christianophobia.” The fate of Christians reveals a great deal about the state of democracy and freedom in countries that have seen upheaval and uncertainty in the wake of the Arab Spring.
“If people are allowed to believe what they want, the implication of that is that their dignity is respected,” Mr. Shortt said. “By and large, countries that don’t allow freedom of belief tend not to allow other freedoms either.”
“Christianophobia” was published by Rider in the United Kingdom in November and will be released by Eerdmans Publishing in the U.S. this spring.
Michal Conger is a digital editor for Times247.