The year 2014 saw more global persecution of Christians than any other year in recent history, and can only be compared to the first centuries when Christians were hunted down as criminals in the Roman Empire. The policy of the Emperor Diocletian, in fact, who reigned from 284-305AD, was remarkably similar to that taken by the Islamic State and Boko Haram: “Convert or die.”
A look around the globe reveals an unprecedented pattern of persecution that has shifted from isolated incidents of hostility to a systematic campaign to exterminate Christians in places where they have lived peacefully for centuries.
From the kidnapped school girls and massacres in Nigeria and the displacement of thousands in the Central African Republic, to the believers arrested for having a Bible study in Central Asia, to Meriam Ibrahim being sentenced to death in Sudan, to the ISIS slaughters, to the couple burned alive for blasphemy and hundreds of girls kidnapped in Pakistan, Christians throughout the world saw a major escalation in persecution in 2014.
The Jerusalem Post has spoken of “the religious cleansing of Middle East Christians” and noted that “anti-Christian violence in 2014 saw a transformation from under-told news coverage, to routine reports of radical Islamists seeking to obliterate Christianity’s presence.”
Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, said that “persecution” no longer adequately describes the treatment of Christians in a growing number of Muslim areas. “Religious cleansing, a type of cultural genocide, which is a crime against humanity, is the more accurate description,” she said. “This is now occurring in Iraq, Syria, parts of Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia and Pakistan.”
As noted in World Affairs, in Iraq the Islamic State is undertaking a religious cleansing intended to eradicate the entire presence of the country’s non-Muslim citizens. This war on Christians is not restricted to Iraq, but is also underway in other countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Extermination campaigns are being carried out by a multitude of extremist groups and “are directed most commonly and with special zeal against Christian communities that in some cases have coexisted with Muslims for more than a thousand years.”
Archbishop Athanasius Toma Dawod of the Syriac Orthodox church in Iraq describes the systematic persecution of Christians in the Middle East as “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.” He has further said: “They are killing our people in the name of Allah and telling people that anyone who kills a Christian will go straight to heaven: that is their message.”
Dawod catalogs their activities in a grim list of offenses: “They have burned churches; they have burned very old books. They have damaged our crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary. They are occupying our churches and converting them into mosques.”
Things are no better in Syria, where Christians, both clerical and lay, have been the target of continual aggression. Last April 7, assassins broke into the monastery of Jesuit priest Frans van der Lugt in Homs, Syria, and shot him twice in the head. Although the priest had been doing humanitarian work nearly fifty years, suddenly in 2014 he was considered a symbol of the “infidel,” as one of a handful of Christians remaining in Homs of the population of eighty thousand Christians that lived there until recently.
With the rise of ISIS, “targeted violence against Christians has escalated.” Syria is undergoing a period of intense “Islamization” and Christians are becoming more exposed in all spheres of life. Many Christians have been abducted, physically abused or killed, and many churches damaged or destroyed. On October 21, jihadists invaded the ancient Christian settlement of Sadad, killing at least 45 people, and harming many more.
In northern Nigeria, the radical Islamist group Boko Haram has undertaken a ruthless program of forced conversions in its attempt to establish an Islamic Caliphate. Boko Haram soldiers storm Christian areas going from home to home demanding that every man convert to Islam. Those who refuse are shot dead on the spot. The radical group, which has proved more than a match for the Nigerian military, has killed as many as 350 Christians in a single week.
Boko Haram has repeatedly beheaded male opponents and forced Christian women to marry them and convert to Islam, and has been responsible for the deaths of at least 4,000 Nigerians in this year alone.
In 2014, China saw some of the most aggressive anti-Christian persecution since the times of Mao, which involved incarceration, the demolition of churches, and the systematic removal of crosses. An elderly woman in Sanjiang, in Zhejiang province, saw her church demolished. “During the Cultural Revolution they burned Bibles, but they didn’t remove the crosses,” she said.
A pastor in Beijing noted that “by making a clean sweep of Sanjiang, the government wants to set an example and show that nothing will stop it.” In May, six other churches were earmarked for demolition in Wenzhou, and one church was converted into a “cultural auditorium.” In the following weeks, the crosses on 15 churches in the Wenzhou region were smashed or removed by crane. Another local pastor said simply: “They want to remove every trace.”
Paradoxically, it is in some of these very areas where Christians are suffering most that are seeing the greatest growth in conversions to Christianity.
A second-century Church Father named Tertullian famously said that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians,” meaning that Christianity thrives under persecution. This certainly appears to be the case now, as Christianity is flourishing, for example, in China and Africa, while growth is markedly slower in Europe and much of the first world. If current trends continue, China will have the largest Christian population of any nation in the world in just 15 years.
So as Islamic extremists try to eradicate Christianity in its birthplace, and still others attempt to stamp it out in where it is growing fastest—Africa and China—the west seems somewhat complacent, and rests on the sacrifices of prior generations. Moreover, the western response seems often what has been called the “embarrassed silence of Christians in face of anti-Christian persecution.”
The true tragedy would be for those who take their religious freedom for granted to become numb to the sufferings of their brothers and sisters who are shedding their blood in faithfulness to their beliefs.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome