Some in the West may see Christianity as an archaic religious construct in constant danger of extinction, but the religion is rapidly building strongholds in lands as foreign to Christian churches as Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.
Warnings of the death knell of Christian faith echoed yet again this week–just in time for Christmas–as Prince Charles noted ominously that Christians in the Middle East are “deliberately targeted by fundamentalist Islamist militants,” just as the number of devout Christians in Britain continues to dwindle. A report this May found that Christianity in the UK is diminishing at a 50% faster pace than believed, and in the United States, the fastest growing religion is Wicca. Similarly, in the ancient cradles of Christianity, persecution has triggered alarm from even tolerant Muslims that this religion is not long for this world.
However, while London, Paris, Cairo, and Aleppo may face unprecedented challenges to their Christian populations, the Christian history of non-Europeans in what is often labeled the Global South is just beginning, and the future of the religion lies with reaching the furthest corners of the world from its cradle.
The so-called decline of modern Christianity is more of a relocation than a decline, with Christianity consuming a broader percentage of the globe every decade. According to a June 2013 report by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, the countries with the largest increase in Christian populations are currently Nepal, China, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. The list also includes some of Africa’s poorest nations: Benin, Burika Faso, South Sudan, and Mali. No European countries made the list.
A 2013 Pew Research Center study corroborates this shift, noting that Europe and the Americas, which once housed 93% of the world’s Christians, account for only 63% today. Sub-Saharan Africa’s Christian population rose from 9% to 63% in the century between 1910-2010. Meanwhile, a different Pew study puts countries like China, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ethiopia on the list of most Christian-populated nations. In Malaysia, where Islam dominates both culture and politics, Christians are making inroads at the top of their political tickets.
The statistics alone do not show this steadily louder presence of Christians in foreign lands, however. Unfortunately, conflict among those who practice native faiths and growing numbers of Christians has become a staple in some parts of the globe. A study from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity in the United States released this year suggested that about 100,000 Christians have been killed every year for the past decade as a result of their faith. These attacks are most commonly reported in the Muslim world. Tens of thousands of Syrian Christians have left the nation fleeing persecution; in Iran, Christians face lashings for participating in the ceremony of the Eucharist.
But the Middle East and Near Asia are not alone in this phenomenon of increased conflict where Christianity is spreading, though perhaps suffer of an excess of violence because the first Christians came from there and this tension has had millennia to simmer. The Central African Republic made headlines this week for its sudden outburst of violence as its Christian population huddled together to avoid massacre by the Muslim half of the country. Widespread but barely publicized reports of beatings and arrests of Christians in China have become yet another staple of the communist nation’s oppression. Incidents of Hindu extremists in India physically attacking known Christians on the street are on the rise. Buddhist extremists alarmed by Christianity’s prevalence in Sri Lanka began to call for further persecution of Christians in the second half of this year. And the world’s greatest oppressor of Christians is a country barely anyone associates with the religion, or any religion at all: North Korea.
The spread of the Christian faith outside of its traditional European stomping grounds has become so dangerous to the status quo of many nations that Christians face a life-or-death situation in avowing their faith publicly. This makes the members of this new Christian world phenomenally courageous, but serves to highlight that they are poorer and increasingly less European than the Christians of the past century–a fact that will keep the faith thriving while contributing greatly to its evolving global face.