GetGetReligion: The “Persecution” of Christians

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The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1883)

Public Domain

The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1883)

The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1883)

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1883)

The apparent slaughter of 30 Ethiopian Christians by ISIS militants in Libya has provoked GetReligion’s Terry Mattingly to ask whether “our elites (journalists included)” can “still deny the persecution of Christians?” Approvingly, Mattingly quotes the elite Boston Globe journalist John Allen, for whom the slaughter’s “silver lining” is that it has “put an end to a longstanding climate of denial that violent anti-Christian persecution around the world is a genuine, and mounting, human rights menace.”

The charge is an old one, dating back a couple of decades, and helps explain how the elites in Washington came to pass the International Religious Freedom Act, which Bill Clinton signed into law in 1998. Whether the charge is true is another question.

Consider the ill-treatment of Chinese Christians. The New York Times has written about that for many years, as in this pre-ISIS article by Andrew Jacobs about Christian leaders in China “calling for the government to end its persecution” of the underground church. Likewise, the Times has regularly published articles about attacks on Christians in Pakistan (e.g. this pre-ISIS piece, “Hate Engulfs Christians in Pakistan,” by Sabrina Tavernise). And that’s not to mention Laurie Goodstein’s 1998 article on the movement to defend Christians from persecution around the world.

Whether there’s been enough coverage of this sort, in the Times and elsewhere, is a question we could discuss. Apart from that, however, it’s worth bearing in mind that the word “persecution” has a particular history and resonance going back to early Christian times. In the Book of Acts, Stephen asks the Sanhedrin, “Which of the prophets have your fathers not persecuted (non sunt persecuti)?” After he’s stoned to death, “a great persecution” (persecutio magna) descends on the nascent church in Jerusalem. In a letter assailing the Roman proconsul Scapula for attacking Christians in Africa, Tertullian refers to the recent persecution of Christians in Asia by the Emperor Antoninus Pius (Arrius Antoninus in Asia cum persequeretur). And so on.

To this day, “persecution” connotes action by the authorities, whoever they may be. Violence directed against Christians (or any other community) by mobs or armed guerrillas or individual terrorists is not persecution. In the case of ISIS, it may indeed be so, when the violence is committed in territory the organization controls. But that doesn’t seem to have been the case in Libya.

In any event, when Mattingly or Allen criticizes “the climate of denial,” the implication is that something similar to ancient persecutions is happening around the world today, perhaps even aided and abetted by our elites (journalists included). Here and there that’s true. In many places, not so much.

  • Glenn Harrell

    I have a strong feeling that if this “persecution”, “violence”, or whatever name any of us want to assign it, were happening to us or any member of our personal family, such discrimination’s of the English language would be of no concern. Your writing is cold to me, given that death is death.

    Or is this just about you and Mr. Mattingly. Forgive me, but this seems to be a response more about “our elites journalists”. I can’t tell if your journalistic nerve is smitten or you really care about persecution of any variety as long as we don’t misspell “hatred against people, murder, rape and pillage”, claiming it in any way constitutes “persecution”.

    I hope the readers will reference the article by John L. Allen Jr..
    It is compassionate, and in no way insinuates that Christians are the only group at the end of sword or gun. Any group of people, religious or not, associated with the West/USA is a target for death by ISIS and a host of other extremists.

  • Chaplain Martin

    Yes, Mark, the Western media only seems to publish stories of persecution of Christians when it becomes difficult to ignore. Pastors, religious leaders, converts suffer every day in areas where just being Christian they are denied their rights. The communities around them are hostile to them. While Christian NGO’s are allowed in some primarily Muslim countries if they are doing a social work needed in the country, any convert to Christianity is subject to persecution, outcast by the community.

    One of the very best articles on Christianity in China was from the Economist magazine. Dated November 1, 2014 entitled “Cracks in the atheist edifice”. Quote:”Christianity is hard to control in China, and getting harder all the time. It is spreading rapidly, and infiltrating the party’s own ranks”. Persecution continues, arresting pastors, bulldozing churches, still it grows. The ethics of Christian business people is praised in the article.

  • Carpenter

    Whenever a person is ill-treated for their faith, violently or otherwise, it is persecution.

    Until we walk in the shoes of the persecuted we will never know the pain, grief, torment and suffering persecution causes.

    Persecution whether violent or not, is not okay in the 21st century.

    Religious freedom is a fundamental human right, persecution must stop.

  • Frank

    True. It’s nice to sit and pontificate as to what constitutes ‘persecution’ when you are not the one facing persecution in China, Middle East or Africa as a Christian and God knows where else.

  • Lively Granddad

    Persecution anywhere of other religions by the dominant cultural religion (or atheistic governments) which manifests itself in those events mentioned is indeed persecution, and until all religions are allowed to exist in equality of practice, this will be a problem.

    However, when American Christians complain of being persecuted while attending church on Sunday, with a church on every other block, their use of the word has voided its meaning. The American church’s concept of persecution would sound incredulous to those who have indeed lost their lives and had their families and livelihood taken from them. When one complains that “We are being persecuted” while going to church on Sunday and living your lives as you would like, it’s no wonder no one listens when real persecution is taking place. And they have no one to blame but themselves.

  • opheliart

    With all those prayers from the pews and the platforms, you would think the persecution would end not increase. So …

  • opheliart

    Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.


  • Glenn Harrell

    He actually said, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” (Jesus didn’t know or speak Old English)

    He also said, “If the people of this world hate you, just remember that they hated me first.” May we call this hate by association?

    When a child is “abused” we don’t become all technical and say, “Well, this was only verbal abuse–I don’t see any scars or bruises.”

    Thanks Mr. Silk for not going all Greek on us, but if you had, it might have assisted us. Persecutions range can be from false accusation, oppression, and harassment to death. It is even a form of blessing as seen in the Beatitudes.

    The word persecution is certainly not for the child to use on the school playground, “my persecutions bigger than you persecution.”

    Christians do not uniformly minimize the lesser over the greater, so there is no active “concept” in force as implied by Lively. As for me, give me a good tongue lashing any day over death.

  • Heroh

    “He actually said, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” (Jesus didn’t know or speak Old English)” He didn’t know English AT ALL. So he didn’t ‘say’ any of those things, since you want to get technical about it.

  • Glenn Harrell


    How right you are.Touche awarded.
    Is it not further doubtful that we have anything Jesus ever said, since we must rely on such shaky and flaky historical evolution of document?

    Jesus may well have spoken some Old English if we believe the TV Producers version of Him– a long-haired, handsome (to keep the ladies engaged), gentlemanly British Bloak with the great accent.

  • Thecla

    Of course American Christians aren’t ‘persecuted’–I agree. But they are subjected to ridicule and contempt, and elite media pundits are, many of whom have probably never met a religious believer of any kind socially are often ignorant and misinformed.

    Of course these strident charges of persecution are counterproductive: Christians in the US do have something to complain about and construing it as ‘persecution’ leads people to ignore the very real hostility and lack of respect for religious belief of any kind–other than possibly Buddhism–that we face.

  • samuel Johnston

    Hi Thecia,
    “But they (Christians) are subjected to ridicule and contempt”
    Where I live (Alabama) it is the non believers like myself who are subjected to ridicule and contempt. Evangelicals of one sort or another come to my door regularly, politicians speak like Baptist ministers (they often are), and the whole tribe “knows” rather than opines. Their contempt of non believers is the result of their being constantly told two things: 1) non believers are going to hell as the JUST punishment for their non belief 2) Christians are under orders to “rescue” these poor, sinful lost souls.
    Now, if I take a similar a view and “witness” according to the same standards, the Christians quickly take offense. The word for this behavior is hypocrisy. If you want respect you must grant respect to others. Christianity has no respect for other world-views, and their history is one of persecution of other religions.

  • Thecla

    Hello, Samuel Johnston, I’m well aware that there are places where it’s non-believers who are subjected to ridicule and contempt. But fewer and fewer people live there. Among the educated urban-coastal upper middle class, religion is regarded as, at best, peculiar—a folkway trailer-dwellers in fly-over country, the urban poor and immigrants, a mark of low socio-economic status.

    This elite is contemptuous of us. And they don’t make fine distinctions between mainline Christians and Fundagelicals. Like you, they assume we all think non-believers are going to hell and are out to rescue lost souls. Members of this elite—academics, journalists and other ‘knowledge workers’ have prestige and form public opinion. Christianity is dying out among affluent educated people in the US, as it has in Europe, so we Christians have our backs to the wall.

    Most of us don’t live in Alabama.

  • Glenn Harrell

    I just went to hear the St. Paul choir, visiting from London.
    We are in Georgia, so this is close enough for much of the peculiar folkway Alabamians to rub off on us and dumb us down far enough to believe in Jesus too.

    Each of them showed us pictures of their trailer park residences. We gave them money to try and assist them through high school as most are drop-outs (a result of their Christian faith)

    They were contemptuous little brats too. They sang only about God, Jesus and the like. Rather disappointing given Europe is so advanced, educated and non-religious these days.

    I say we get Jesus (you know, the homeless guy that claimed to be God, assured that those who believed not in Him would spend eternity separated from Him-and all that) to come back and settle this once and for all. Maybe He will just over look Alabama on His tour.

  • samuel Johnston

    “Among the educated urban-coastal upper middle class, religion is regarded as, at best, peculiar…”
    An overstatement, to say the least, but certainly the academic world reflects the world of scholarship, not faith. The scholarship of the last two or three centuries has been revolutionary. Modern Historians, starting with Gibbon, have been mostly secular, giving no comfort to mythologists, religionists, or traditionalists. Darwin has provided a brand new, alternative view of creation and meaning, which is supported by massive evidence and is useful for exposing the ever more complex nature of the universe. The Christian religion is purely speculative and lacks any supporting “hard” (scientific) evidence.
    Most Christians I talk with no nothing about chemical self assembly, have wildly inaccurate notions of evolution, and appear unaware of the necessarily distorting processing of sensory information by the mind, and its requirements for making narratives of information.

  • Thecla

    Your comment is a perfect example of the kind of prejudice I noted.

    Most Christians are not Fundamentalists. Most have no quarrel with current scientific accounts of the origin or species or the origin of life from the primordial soup, or with secular historians’ explanation of events. Theological doctrines are metaphysical claims—not accounts of how the material world operates or of the course of human history. They lack ‘hard (scientific) evidence’ because, like all metaphysical claims—e.g. claims about the existence or non-existence Platonic forms, about what numbers are, etc.—they don’t have empirical import.

    The assumption that all or most Christians reject current scientific or historical scholarship is a meme perpetuated in popular culture that elites endorse to define their social position and distance themselves from the great unwashed. It is as offensive and thoroughly inaccurate, as the notion that all or most atheists are amoral hedonists.

  • samuel Johnston

    “Theological doctrines are metaphysical claims” – yes, they are speculation, falsely presented under the banner of truth. Blood sacrifice, virgin births, unrestrained determinism, foreknowledge, and magical powers of all sort, are not respected because they are not respectable. Such bafflegab does much harm. It splits the mind into unreconcilable segments. “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no” is good advice. That is not prejudice. It is promoting mental health. It is your right to be wrong, but not to be free of criticism.

  • Thecla

    ‘Scuse me, but neither I nor any of the other Christian I know goes in for blood sacrifice or claims to have magical powers.

    ‘Speculative’ doesn’t mean ‘neither true nor false’. It means that we have no compelling evidence or proof of whether a claim is true of false. Fermat’s Last Theorem was a matter of speculation until Wiles proved it was true. Thales’ notion that all things were made of water was a matter of speculation that was shown to be false. Metaphysical claims, including theological doctrines, are either true or false—we just don’t have any compelling evidence or proof of whether they’re true or false. But there is compelling empirical evidence that, currently, most Christians do not practice blood sacrifice or reject the results of research in the sciences, history or the social sciences. Some are actively engaged in research.

    I of course agree that no one has a right not to be free of criticism. I’m criticizing you and you’re criticizing me. What else are blogs…

  • samuel Johnston

    I see denial of the obvious in your response. Must an emotional attachment rather than reason. Poor Thales fell into a well and had to be rescued by a milkmaid. His two most famous students disagreed with him (much to his credit). Christians however are not allowed to disagree with the highly improbable, and still stay in the club. “It’s just symbolic” begs the questioning of that topic.
    The Christ Myth- blood sacrifice, pure and simple (base primitivism).
    Resurrection- magic- simply impossible – probably from Egyptian religion
    The deal with God for after life as reward for faith. etc., – pure speculation with zero rational basis. It even violates Platonic dictum (God must be just). It is manifestly unjust.
    Religious mythologists, like yourself, do not restrict themselves to probabilities, nor even the scintilla rule. They invent flying spaghetti monsters. Possible-sure, likely-no. Not enough zeros after the dot, to express it in numbers.

  • samuel Johnston

    Hi Glenn,
    “Blessed are the cheese makers”
    Monty Python

  • Re: “But they are subjected to ridicule and contempt, and elite media pundits are, many of whom have probably never met a religious believer of any kind socially are often ignorant and misinformed.”

    First, I wasn’t aware that anyone had any right never to be ridiculed or condemned. All human beings are subject to those at one time or another … their beliefs, or lack thereof, notwithstanding.

    Second, non-believers are also subject to ridicule and contempt. For instance … and this is just one trope I could bring up! … believers often refer to them as Hitler or Nazis (see for specific examples). I don’t see that going away any time soon. On what grounds can anyone rationally expect never to be ridiculed or condemned, but simultaneously ridicule and condemn others?