Religious persecution is not a contest


Cartoon depiction of Christian cross besieged by thrown stonesIn recent years much attention has been given to the persecution of Christians, initially behind the Iron Curtain and more recently in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. This research is invaluable because it brings to notice abuses that could otherwise be hidden, and helps their alleviation.

But in popular discussion the persecution of Christians is often compared with that undergone by other groups, like Muslims. The discussion takes on a competitive and proprietorial edge. This has unfortunate consequences.

In the first place it encourages an exclusive focus on the religious reasons for persecution. In fact religious belief is only one of many complex factors in persecution. Hazaras in Afghanistan, for example, have often suffered persecution on the grounds that they are Shiite, but this is only one reason among many which masks the tribal difference that underlies their persecution.

Similarly, the recently appointed Cardinal John Onaiyen has often cautioned against seeing the violence directed against Christians in the Obujan region as primarily religious. It reflects a wider tribal and economic conflict.

The real, if periodic, persecution of Christians in China also needs to be seen against a broader context. Chinese rulers fear small, committed groups that they cannot control. The memory of the catastrophically destructive Taiping rebellion, whose origins lay in a sick man's chance reading of texts from Isaiah, lingers. The persecution of Christians today needs to be set alongside the even more implacable hostility to the Falun Gong.

In the Middle East the position of Christians is particularly parlous. They have often suffered violence and discrimination in the name of intolerant forms of Islam. But the recent violence and dispersal of these churches have been provoked in no small measure by the reckless Western invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. After many Muslims identified the armies of the West with Christianity, local Christians were easy targets.

These complexities are likely to be lost when the persecution of Christians is made part of a comparison between religions.

Those with a competitive focus will also be more likely to associate serious persecution with the subtle forms of prejudice, discrimination and limitation of religious freedom experienced in Western societies. The broader context lends these experiences a gravity and and significance that they would not have when studied in isolation.

When seen as part of international persecution, discriminatory attitudes and action become part of a large and grandiloquent story in which Christians see themselves as the victims of real or imagined enemies, whether they be large forces such as secularism or ecofeminism, or their representatives, such as politicians, the media or educated elites.

That in turn leads away from engagement in the task of building a fairer society for all citizens to an attempt to redress the wrongs suffered by the victimised group.

These are the risks of focusing on the persecution of Christians in a competitive way.

But it is right to focus on the reality and wrongness of persecution wherever it is found. The persecution of Muslim groups are as abhorrent as violations of the human dignity of Christians. All persecution is an offence against our shared humanity, and so to be deplored and its victims embraced. That is the insight that led an earlier and more generous generation of Australians to endorse the UNHCR Convention on the Status of Refugees.

It is also right for Christians to have a special care for their fellow members who are persecuted elsewhere. This will naturally express itself in sympathy for their plight, advocacy for them, and in practical help. 

It would be also decent for them to recognise that the military actions undertaken by their own governments have contributed to the persecution of Christians, and to deplore them.

The temptation to weave public prejudices, laws and regulations in Western societies into a wider pattern of persecution against Christianity should be resisted. Each regulation, attitude and action should be looked at on its own terms, the issues at stake considered coolly, and unjustified discrimination opposed.

This piecemeal approach may suggest that the causes of discrimination are wider than hostility to Christians. In particular, the tendency of all Western governments to try to act outside the rule of law, as has been egregiously evident in the Australian treatment of asylum seekers, will infringe on religious freedom as on other freedoms.

This has nothing to do with secularism but with the abuse of power. If Christians were drawn into a crusade, this might be an appropriate cause. 

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Image credit: Tayo Fatunla



Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, religious persecution, Islam



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Existing comments

Oh yes, the cry of 'we're persecuted' is heard more and more from Christians in the UK and Australia and not only is it tiresome, but also wrong. The problem is that being overladen with 'faith', in fact, the 'one and only faith' seems to equip many Christians with a giant chip on their shoulder when told they have to pay attention to other people too. Evangelical types are particularly good at this, while trampling on everyone else. But without this faux persecution, these Christians would have no purpose in life, would they?

janice wallace | 08 November 2012  

As a Muslim, I would like to thank you for this article. There is a reality that amongst the forms of oppression around the world. There are groups or individuals who call themselves Muslims who may oppress members of their own community who would identify as Christians, so I appreciate your attempts to clarify that it's not a purely religious clash and that the context is much more indepth than just religion.

Nasser | 08 November 2012  

A timely reminder from Andrew that Christians have no monopoly on being persecuted. Nor have Christians been immune from their own acts of persecution. There is no difference between 'Jihad' and 'Crusade'; they mean the same thing and carry the same baggage.

Ginger Meggs | 08 November 2012  

I'm currently reading Geoffrey Blainey's "A Short History of Christianity". I chose the book because of my regard for Blainey, a gifted historian and storyteller, who is not a Christian. In my view, these 'attributes' make him highly qualified to write a history of Christianity. I'm halfway through the book and what strikes me is the amount of persecution between Christians. We are very good at persecuting each other. I think this weakens us in the view of secular society and this may contribute (a little) to our being persecuted for other than religious reasons.

Pam | 08 November 2012  

without objection to generality of article it is like many things one reads trying to be fair to everyone. Interestingly Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor said that Christianity is"the most persecuted religion world wide" , that we needed to protect Christian minorities. This was said at a meeting of German protestant churches. If you read recent Pax Christi statements on events in Syria and indeed other reports I suspect she may be right.

Brian Poidevin | 08 November 2012  

Fr H ought recognise that martyrdom derives not from the motivation of the persecutors but from the heroism of the martyr in defence of his faith[or as with greater nuance, in positing of heroic charity[Maximilian kolbe] In the case of eg Chinese martyrs, the persecution may derive from political insecurity of Chinese communist vis a vis 'imperialist' Vatican, rather than explicit 'Odium Fidei; but whatever the cultural mixed motives of communists,the individual martyr 'in situ' is faced with rejecting his Catholic Faith[] or the Jurisdiction of Papacy[seen in political terms by communists, but subjectively the issue for the Chinese martyr is rejection of his faith or defense thereof [defensus fidei] [The answer of Fr H re his persecutors nuanced politico-cultural reductionism of martyrdom fails to address the in situ subjective heroic martyrdom at the ground level coming down to odium fidei etc there have been developments in canonization process over decades! In short whatever be the multiple political motives of persecutors,the subective motives of the martyr are pivotal.

father john george | 08 November 2012  

Trying to make out that Christians are to be blamed for the Moslem persecution of Christians in Moslem countries is ridiculous. The persecution of Christians in Moslem countries has always been carried out by extremists, fanatic Moslems (the Moslem Brotherhood) European Christians have lived in the Middle East and many parts of the African continent for many years. Developing and modernizing many native countries after being invited by the proper native authorities. European Christians never got involved in politic or religious issues. Many Arab nations have been taken over by Moslem extremists which has forced many foreigners to find refuge in other parts of the world. Sadly Christian's inhabitants in Moslem countries whose ancestors go back thousands of years e.g; "Coptics in Egypt" have nowhere to go and they are being persecuted by moslem extremists for being Christians. Since the begining of the 20th century, Copts in Egypt, Assyro-Chaldeans of Iraq, the South Sudanese, and the Lebanese Christians try to obtain independence, but the Islamic powers in the region denied these Christians their right to self-determination. My advice to contributors who feel that Moslems do not persecute Christians or Jews is to talk to Europeans who have lived in Moslem countries or talk to Lebanese Maronite or Melkite who have settle in Australia and found out what happened to Lebanese Christians.

Ron Cini | 08 November 2012  

May I add Fr H! The multiple political conniving machinations and motives of King Herod did not detract from the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents and their vicarious baptism of blood for the Divine Child. Technically there was a baptism of blood[instead of baptism of water;in both cases the recipient can be unaware of the full significance of the process.] While in most martyrdom processes the emphasis is primarily focussed on the heroic dispositions of the martyr-in case of Holy Innocents and others the evil strategy and diabolical hatred of christ[odium Christi is notable . Also a corroborating factor are the dispositions of the Innocents,freed from original sin, and full with sanctifying grace unblemished by personal sin upon their baptism of blood. In short;In the case of the Holy Innocents their implicit liturgical canonisation is rooted in 'odium Christi'[hatred of Christ] by Persecutor-verifiable in Herods evil machinating and diabolical motivations]. The politico cultural motives of persecutors are not defining factors in religious persecutions, otherwise Nero's martyrs would be decanonised being mere scapegoats for fire of Rome[OR FODDER FOR ARENA ENTERTAINMENT] though he abhored their non worship of himself[odium fidei-with mixed motivations]

father john george | 09 November 2012  

Pam, Re non christian being necessary attribute of top historian of christianity;caveats are in order! NB another eminent historian of similar 'detachment': cf "Radio Reoplies [Dr Rumble MSC]": Q. 156. Did not the historian Edward GIBBON, in his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", attribute the phenomenal expansion of Christianity to merely natural and human causes? Rumble:"He did. His verdict, however, was dictated, not by history itself, but by reading into it an interpretation based upon his own anti-religious prejudices. He was determined to grant nothing that might tell in favour of the divine origin of Christianity. He published the first volume of his work in 1776, the 15th and 18th chapters of which contained his attack on Christianity. The whole work was completed in 1788. Its vast erudition and mastery of style will forever rank him among the greatest of historical writers. But since in the writing of history a selection of facts has to be made and their significance interpreted, we have to ask what GIBBON's criterion was in his selection of certain facts and his omission of others; and what influenced his interpretation of those he chose. His own personal philosophy did that, and his own personal philosophy was that of a rationalist and sceptic."

father john george | 09 November 2012  

Father John George, we all write from our own experience. Even eminent historians. Like Geoffrey Blainey. However, I'm almost certain Professor Blainey would have factored this consideration into his writing. I am finding, as one reviewer noted, that Blainey, in his book, didn't come to bury Christianity but to what was that phrase?

Pam | 09 November 2012  

And so once again (ho-hum) the attitudes of some posting comments here are the reason why the current atheist craze can be seen as a good thing. (At least it's doing no harm, even if it doesn't do any good)

AURELIUS | 10 November 2012  

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