Religious persecution, be it against Christians or other religious groups, is as old as human history. Early on, Christians were stoned, dragged into colosseums to be slaughtered, and nailed to crosses to die.
The persecution of Christians has been the focus of discussion this past week at a conference in Rome organized jointly by the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame and the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. Much of the news on the persecuted church appears grim.
At the conference, Middle East researchers acknowledged the terrible threat that ISIS poses to religious freedom, virtually wiping out minority communities, including Christians. Bishop Angelos of the Coptic Church in the United Kingdom said that Western nations don't want to defend the Christians of the Middle East because they fear being seen as biased.
If Western nations won't step in to stop ISIS, who will?
Part of the problem could be that the West has lost a vision of what it's fighting for. Patrick Kelly of the Knights of Columbus asserted that the West needs to recover its vision of religious freedom in order to be of any use in promoting it around the world. Those governments need to start by acknowledging that our rights come from God, not the state.
But not all the discussion was doom and gloom. Conference-goers also heard impassioned testimonies. One of them was of Helen Berhane, an Eritrean gospel singer who was put in a metal shipping container for 32 months after she released a Christian music album and refused to sign a pledge renouncing participation in evangelical activities. Ms. Berhane later sang for those gathered about how God inspired her while she was helpless in a metal box.
Perhaps the most heartening news came from the People's Republic of China, where Protestants have grown by 10% per year since 1979, and have grown to about 57 million currently. Catholics have grown to from 3 million in 1979 to 9 million today. At this rate, by 2030 there could be more Christians in China than there are Christians in the United States. Despite official campaigns to suppress the growth in the number of Christians, evangelism in all sectors of society -- even in prisons -- are driving this uptick and causing the government to lose control of the growth of the church.
According to researchers, the idea of Christian congregational community and fellowship is very appealing to the Chinese, especially after the communes were dissolved, and the government has destroyed the family structure over time.
Conference organizers summed up the broad and diverse findings: The threats Christians face range widely in terms of severity, and in terms of the types of regimes threatening them. Primarily non-state actors are doing the threatening, but religious nationalism is also a problem.
Christians have exhibited both reactive and proactive responses to these threats:
Though the threats and responses to religious freedom do not paint a uniform picture, one theme was Christian forgiveness after persecution. This is a powerful witness all believers might do well to follow.