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Three reasons the American church is ignoring Christian persecution

Woman joins a demonstration by Egyptian Copts in protest of the demolition of a Christian church - Image courtesy of Maggie Osama (
Woman joins a demonstration by Egyptian Copts in protest of the demolition of a Christian church - Image courtesy of Maggie Osama (

Woman joins a demonstration by Egyptian Copts in protest of the demolition of a church and attacks on Christians – Photo credit: Maggie Osama (

In her September 27th Daily Beast column, Kirsten Powers drew attention to the woeful silence of the American church in the face of a global epidemic of Christian persecution. She offered a litany of examples of Christian persecution including the recent oppression of Syrian Christians who’ve suffered at the hands of rebel extremists and the two-thirds of Christians who have left Iraq in order to survive.

“Christians in the Middle East and Africa are being slaughtered, tortured, raped, kidnapped, beheaded, and forced to flee the birthplace of Christianity,” she wrote. “One would think the horror might be consuming the pulpits and pews of American churches. Not so. The silence has been nearly deafening.”

Powers deftly exposes the what—American Christians’ failure to advocate for their brothers and sisters around the world—but her column begs the question of why. Namely, why aren’t Western Jesus-followers more aware or engaged on this issue. As I see it, there are at least three reasons:

1) The Media

I am not one who believes there is a concerted, cryptic liberal bias in the media. Firstly, I nurture no illusions that there is such a thing as “unbiased news”. (A person cannot be completely divorced from their experiences or worldview, so the goal in journalism is not to eliminate bias but rather to minimize it.) And secondly, I have come to know too many journalists, columnists and reporters at too many outlets who are genuine in their attempt to deliver an accurate picture of reality to their readers. “Bias” is often what we call a message that doesn’t square with our imaginations of the way the world is or should be.

And yet, I do think Christian persecution is under-reported by the media in general. Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute says that persecution, if you include discrimination, is affecting approximately 600 to 700 million Christians globally. According to a 2011 Pew Forum study, Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world with followers of the faith being actively harassed in 130 countries.

If a population of half a billion people are so blatantly oppressed, it’s difficult to understand why it isn’t making much news? The answer, in my opinion, is the location where much of the persecution occurs: the Middle East. Many journalists I speak with seem timid to delve too deeply into the topic or to report on it too often for fear of being perceived as Islamaphobes or outright racists.

I agree with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who remarked in USA Today that the persecution of Christians in the Middle East is “one of the most undercovered stories in international news.” People can’t advocate for issues they aren’t aware of and, to borrow from the Apostle Paul in Romans 10:14, “how will they hear if no one tells them.”

2) The Recession

A 2010 LifeWay Research survey reported that 79% of churches said the flailing economy had negatively impacted their congregation. I’ve worked for and with numerous churches during this recession, and my experience is that the tendency during these periods is to go brainstorm ways to protect the institution. In order to tighten their belts, churches will trim international missions and ministry budgets to avoid personnel and salary reductions. During recessions, churches often turn inward, not outward.

When this happens, congregations disconnect from international communities where they previously maintained partnerships and subsequently grow less aware of the problems facing the global church. It’s not that they don’t care, but rather that they don’t know or perhaps they do know but are so focused on “more important” initiatives that they can’t muster the energy to address them.

3) The Culture Wars 

American Christians are engaged on some political issues. The powerful conservative faction, for example, are focused almost exclusively on abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty. The last issue refers to the belief held by some that American Christians are under attack. Some are so worried about the drummed up pseudo-persecution of the American church that they are ignoring the actual persecution of the global church, particularly in the Middle East.

My April 3rd column for “On Faith & Culture” addressed this at length:

Claims about American persecution of Christians are a form of low comedy in a country where two-thirds of citizens claim to be Christians, where financial gifts to Christian churches are tax deductible, where Christian pastors can opt out of social security, and where no one is restricted from worshipping however, whenever, and wherever they wish.

…Why isn’t the mammoth Christian community of the world’s most influential nation in a tizzy over the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and around the world?

The answer, it seems, is that many of their attentions have been focused elsewhere. Some are too busy protesting Target employees who wish them “Happy Holidays” and others have been mobilizing to boycott JCPenney over selecting Ellen DeGeneres, an outspoken lesbian, to be their spokesperson. Isn’t it time that American Christians reinvest their energies in addressing the actual persecution of their brothers and sisters happening outside their borders?

While our gazes are set elsewhere, people are being tortured, displaced, and killed. American churches need to wake up to the suffering of their global brothers and sisters. We must commit to pray and advocate for the millions of Christians under attack around the world. In the face of such oppression, silence is not an option.

**RELATED: “Fox News’ evangelical democrat: An interview with Kirsten Powers”

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • There is a link between ignoring the persecution of Christians elsewhere and culture war attacks on (more accurately – disregarding the opinions of) Christians in the West. Seeing Christianity ‘defeated’ appeals to the world-view of the secular mass media. Arab Christians are then ‘sacrificed’ (their plight is both under-reported and misreported) to meet the goal of minimising the influence of Christians back home.

  • I guess the Pope is too busy too. He talks about everything else while millions of Christians and other religious minorities are persecuted.

  • How sad that people who call themselves Christian are more concerned with legitimizing sinful behavior than persecution.

  • The Southern Baptists and other Christian Rightists are persecuting Christians, perhaps even more than alleged threats from hardline Islamists.

    The U.S. Christian Right drove Christians out of Palestine and Iraq by aiding extremist Israeli settlers and by bombing an innocent country into ruin (and then failing to rebuild it, instead enriching corrupt U.S. contractors).

    The U.S. Christian Right slaughtered Christians in Latin America and South Africa in the 1980s by aiding the contras, death squads, and apartheid. If you had been alive then, you would remember Christianity Today and Campus Life not only defending apartheid, but also opposing U.S. interracial dating.

    More recently, the U.S. Christian Right has harassed liberal Christian churches, Jews and Muslims — especially in the armed services — while looting taxpayer funds through “faith-based initiatives” that are effectively limited to evangelicals.

    Until the Christian Right cares more about human rights for all, than its own short-term prosperity, Christians will continue to be persecuted — by your own denomination, Jonathan.

  • Thanks for this. I have to say, #3 is the reason I feel inhibited from speaking about this, even within the walls of church. The decision by some Christians to cry “Persecution!” when someone wishes them “Happy Holidays,” makes it feel like we are forever crying wolf. And I’m afraid that talk about the real thing will inadvertently fuel the persecution complex of those who are upset that we no longer pray “in Jesus’ name” before high school football games. One of the commenters here seems to file both the real suffering and this sort of stuff in the same folder. I do not.

    His language was strong, but when Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury told western Christians who complain about persecution to “grow up,” lots of us were in quiet agreement.

    By the way, this confusion of real and phony suffering affects other communities too. We are put off my Islamic terrorists, so don’t pay so much attention to the real suffering in Palestine, for example. We are conditioned to turn off whole subjects when they are close to things we know aren’t real.

  • Jonathan, I edited a diocesan newspaper for 10 years. I can assure you that the Episcopal Church has not been silent on the persecution of Christians, but it has not been one of our principle concerns. We do advocate formally and informally with our government on behalf of Palestinian Christians and make our Middle Eastern dioceses the beneficiaries of our single church-wide special offering each year.
    This issue is much too complicated to describe in three bullet headings. For one thing, tribal identities are more likely to be closely associated with a particular religion in places where persecution is common. For us, living as we do in a nation where tribal identities are very loosely connected to a particular religion (not every Irish-American is Roman Catholic, nor would we expect her/him to be), it is hard for us to appreciate how what is essentially tribal conflict can be blamed on religious differences. Is it really religious persecution when one tribe makes war on another? Is is really religious persecution when one Christian tribe makes war on another Christian tribe? A few years ago I heard an Anglican archbishop in Nigerian threaten violence against the Muslims in his territory; what we in the West failed to appreciate was that in his area the two religions were associated with specific tribal groups. He was speaking as a powerful leader of his group.
    Try The Lost History of Christianity by Phillip Jenkiins.

  • Really! Until the Christian Left stops disregarding the word of God by trying to re-write the Scriptures to satisfy their worldly passions and editing the Gospels to remove the really hard saying of Jesus– this crap will continue.

  • BTW Jonathan– You’re young and a bit wet behind the ears to think there is no liberal bias in themedia. The fact is over 90% of journalists that declare any political affiliation select Democrat. That’s a huge disparity which arises from our higher education being hijacked by a bunch of leftist, draft-dodging professors with tenure. We can all do the work of Christ here on earth by actively showing our faith with works– without inventing really bad doctrine.

  • Great column. I think you hit the nail on the head when you gave this as one of the reasons for Christian silence:

    [Many journalists I speak with seem timid to delve too deeply into the topic or to report on it too often for fear of being perceived as Islamaphobes or outright racists.]

    Worse yet, it’s not just journalists who find themselves subject to such “PC” onslaught, but Christian leaders and even the laity.

    My home church in The Bronx does some missionary work in the Philippines; one of the pastors that we interface with recently visited and documented active persection of believers due to the ongoing struggle between the Philippine gov’t and Islamic extremists. As such, this is an issue that hits home. We’ve a lot of grace here in the States compared to many other nations.

  • Jonathan,

    I am very glad to see you highlight this. First, let me add a word of encouragement that there *are* individual churches and para church organizations that are working fervently to both bring these issues to our attention and to the attention of our political representatives who can do something structurally about the persecution. I think of Open Doors, Voice of the Martyrs, Christian Solidarity and several others. I think, in particular of my friend, Faith McDonnell’s tireless efforts on behalf of the people of Sudan with CANS (Church Alliance for a New Sudan). I also highly recommend her book, Girl Soldier, which is written with Grace Aikalo (a former child soldier in the LRA).

    I think so often that we don’t really understand the nature of the media’s bias. It’s not so much that there’s a liberal bent (look at the percentage that vote Dem in any presidential election and you will see that there is a bias to one side), but that the world view, if I may put it that way, affects where they look and what they look at as news.

    On the matter of persecution in this country, yes it looks very much like some are wingeing about silly, picayune matters. But I often wonder, at what point do we have legitimate cause for concern? There has to be a spot between “the boy who cried wolf” and the haunting end of that poem (?) by Pastor Neimoller. But if you think there is no genuine persecution of Christians in this country, talk to a Frank Turek, the Green family who own Hobby Lobby and the nuns who just filed a class action lawsuit against the Obama administration.

  • Jesus said if we will live Godly lives in Christ Jesus, we will suffer persecution.
    Most of the worlds Christians are suffering persecutions, and the one place that isn’t is North America. Can we therefore conclude that North American churches are not filled with ‘real’ Christians because the two distinguishing marks of outward Christian testimony is persecution, and caring for the persecuted; both absent here.
    That probably be the next thing we have a conversation about, but won’t, because of course, honesty is the third distinguishing mark of outward Christian testimony.

  • I believe you are correct, but I hope we won’t forget that there is good reason for our concern, not simply “political correctness.” When a man took a gun into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing worshippers because he thought they were Muslims, we know we have a problem with Islamaphobia. Here is an article from a year ago, documenting multiple cases of anti-Muslim violence in the US.

  • You’ve missed something important here. Most evangelicals I know don’t believe those Christians over there are true Christians at all because we haven’t yet evangelized them. God help us!

  • I agree with Maurice to a fairly large extent. For many Evangelicals, there is a suspicion that Catholics and Orthodox are not really Christians. So when they hear that Orthodox and Catholic churches are being attacked they respond much like the old adage in Nazi Germany that when they came for the Jews, I was not a Jew, and when they came for Catholics I was not a Catholic, etc. This is changing I think slowly. But it contributes from Christian quarters towards the under-reporting.

  • As a UCC Christian and deacon of my congregation, I can’t see why persecution of other Christians should concern me more than persecution of other people, period. I advocate for tolerance for all, whoever they may be. In my neighborhood, it’s persecution and harassment of Muslims that is the “man taken by robbers on the road” in front of me. Do what you can for anyone you can and don’t worry so about Christians, we will have our place. “Us” is everyone, right?

  • I believe he did use his platform to draw attention to it with a day of prayer and fasting he called for in regards to peace and suffering Christians in Syria and the mideast. He does speak on a lot of issues, but i would mot say he has ignored this

  • No one is saying not to help and support all of the oppressed. Good for you if you look to support those you know who locally suffer. The issue here is that Christians are the most oppressed group in the world with 11 new martyrs every hour. So to not highlight it or show special concern is troubling. Also, while k agree with you about helping all and seeing Christ in the face of all the oppressed, I do think it is important ro especially be there for those who are family.

  • Thanks for writing this. Though wisj i knew mire what to do. Couple things i want to note. Onr, while the mideast is really bad in regards to persecution, even if it wwnt away entirely we would still face so much persecution in the other cocontinents. Enugh to srill be appalled. Also, while you have made me feel a little guilty abouthow we can exaggerate or focus too much on our own problens that are far less significant, it doesnt mean that there is nothing of potential concern regarding a different kind of persecution that Is on the horizon here as well. We need perspective sometimes, but i wouldnt say we should being concerned locally either.

  • the majority of Christians are ignorant of the level of persecutions going on. if they are relying on the common news media such as the newspaper or evening new to get their information from.

    On that day you will say:
    “I will praise You, Lord,
    although You were angry with me.
    Your anger has turned away,
    and You have had compassion on me.
    2 Indeed, God is my salvation;
    I will trust Him and not be afraid,
    for Yah, the Lord,
    is my strength and my song.
    He has become my salvation.”
    3 You will joyfully draw water
    from the springs of salvation,
    4 and on that day you will say:
    “Give thanks to Yahweh; proclaim His name!
    Celebrate His works among the peoples.
    Declare that His name is exalted.
    5 Sing to Yahweh, for He has done glorious things.
    Let this be known throughout the earth.

  • I’m wondering, is there anything we can do other than pray? I’d like to help somehow, but don’t know where to start.

  • How sad it is that for the overwhelming majority of American Christians, concerns about religious freedom only go as far as their right to act like obnoxious bigots and theocrats. They love to use “persecution” when people don’t kiss their collective behinds in public or under the color of law. It ruins it for the rest of the world.

    What concern do they have of their foreign brethren who face actual persecution? NONE WHATSOEVER.

    Frank, you are a perfect example of that. You are more concerned with imposing your obnoxious theocratic nonsense on fellow Americans than you about people suffering real actual harms abroad.

  • People like yourself should stop pretending that persecution of Christians refers to people disagreeing with you. Maybe the Christians actually being persecuted might get some of the attention they need.

  • Americans and their culture are under attack and Christians as well as all Americans feel the weight of their own discrimination.

    Look at public schools they act like Christmas trees, a strong American cultural symbol, are worse than Satan.

    Americans are being attacked by their own government. Americans are economically hurting all the while their culture is under attack. Seems they have their hands full.

  • Thanks for the good writeup. Them in reality once was the recreational bank account this. Start looking elaborate in order to way introduced agreeable by you! Mind you, how may possibly we all maintain a letters?

  • The people who call themselves are not true followers of Christ!!! The Churches, especially in the West use God just to make money. They usually go to church on Sundays’ and on Monday it is another story. More and more people are becoming wicked and hard to work with them. Imagine if these were Christians and truly follow Christ’s teachings why do we have so many problems. Why do we have all the greed, hatred, prejudice, poverty and crimes????

  • I completely agree with this article and it is very sad. I have been calling and emailing churches about a family getting ready to move to the USA. They have finally been granted refugee status but the UNHCA would like to know that they have a church here that will verify that they will have moral and spiritua support when they arrive. I can not get one single church to do this. It is discouraging and heartbreaking.
    Then I have been trying to raise money to help them with their airfare and it seems no one wants to even give a simple $5.00. I asked my entire family and no one cares. God said the hearts of many wax cold and He was not exaggerating for they have.

  • In the meantime I want to suggest we keep praying privately today and pray passionately and enjoy that with God and Jesus even in our ‘closets’ , but pray with energy from our hearts to Him in our daily lives to seek His face as we desire to , get even closer to Him as Christians to even listen to His words . Let us keep on being there and encourage one another in these dark days that appear before us . Know the bible as well and generously speak of it to all and each other .

  • At the core of it is a total lack of love, a cold dead Church. As Jesus foretold, ” the love of many shall wax cold.” No other explanation, that clear, that simple

  • I have been actively involved in attempting to make people aware of the very real Persecution of my Christian Brethren for 15+ years – which is now in 140+ countries all around the world – and there are VERY-VERY few ‘Amerikan Christian People’ that know – or even care.
    It is my Biblical Understanding that the massive ignorance of that which is actually written in the 66 Books of “the word of the Lord” – the Holy Bible is the primary reason – for the vast majority of those who occupy the ‘pulpit’ – and those who ‘warm the pew’ are Biblically illiterate.
    – And the massive anti-Biblical “pride” and “arrogancy” by the vast majority of the ‘Amerikan Christian People’ – in large part because of the Physical Prosperity – not only here in ‘Amerika’ – but all of the ‘First-World’ countries – has led to the ‘Spiritual Famine’ that is written about in Amos 8:11-14 [AV] – RIGHT NOW !
    Several years ago I heard one of my Chinese Christian Brothers who had been imprisoned for his faith in China – several times. He came here to ‘Amerika’ to tell ‘Christians’ about his personal experiences of Persecution.
    When asked by his Christian Brothers and Sisters after he got back to China what his greatest impression of the ‘Amerikan Church’ was
    – He told them that the ‘Amerikan Church’ is able to do so much – with NO help from “the Lord God Almighty” !

  • Sam – You wrote your comment 2 Years ago – and there were NO other responses until I posted mine (8 Jan 2019)
    Your comment is totally accurate – ‘At the core of it is a total lack of love, a cold dead Church.’
    – HOW VERY-VERY FEW ‘Amerikan Christian People’ EVEN CARE ? ! ? ! ? !