Lest we forget

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that persecution of Christians continues throughout the world, says a religious affairs expert.
Massimo Introvigne | Jul 8 2011 | comment  


On January 5, 2011, I took on the role of personal representative of the chairman-in-office of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination and intolerance against Christians and members of other religions. That makes, at least, for a long business card. I am the third such representative after the office was established, and the first scholar. My two predecessors were politicians.

Headquartered in Vienna, the OSCE has 56 participating States including the US, Canada, all the states of Europe and these resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of which are in fact located in Asia. A number of non-participating states have signed partnership agreements, and also maintain embassies to the OSCE in Vienna. Representatives’ positions are honorary. Translated from diplomatic jargon, this does not mean that we only pretend to work, but that we do not receive any monetary compensation.

Although the other parts of my mandate are also interesting – for instance, I devote a substantial portion of my time at OSCE to Roma and Sinti (Gypsy) issues – I will focus in this speech on intolerance, discrimination and persecution against Christians, a subject of great magnitude and concern.

According to the well-known religious statisticians David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson (1), 100,000 victims in 2010 is a reliable estimate of Christian martyrs, ie Christians killed for their faith (as opposed to victims of political or ethnical wars just happening to be Christian). Statistics are by definition a matter of contention, but nobody doubts that figures are horribly high, and do more than justify an energetic activity by international organizations such as OSCE in this field.

On 10 January 2011, Pope Benedict XVI delivered his annual address to the Diplomatic Corps, which was entirely devoted to religious liberty. Although OSCE is obviously a secular entity, I am very grateful to the Pope for having pointed out an agenda which is not aimed only at Catholics or Christians but – on the basis of the universal rights of the human person – is addressed to all people of goodwill.

In his address the Pope highlighted five risks to religious freedom. I would like to elaborate on each of them based on my own OSCE experience.

What does religious freedom involve?

The first concerns a possible confusion about what precisely is religious freedom. (Almost) no government in the world claims to be against religious freedom, but the problem is that the meaning of the expression is interpreted differently. I have heard from several diplomats that in their country there are no problems of religious freedom for Christians, since hundreds of churches are duly open every Sunday.

This is a very common confusion between freedom of religion and freedom of worship. The latter is an important part of religious freedom, but a part nonetheless. Religious liberty should also include the liberty to preach outside of the churches, to convert, to be converted without fear of reprisals, to publish books and magazines, to evangelize via radio, TV, and the Internet, to open schools, to participate without discrimination in the public conversation and in politics.

Christians have a right – not only individually, but collectively – to issue political statements, just as any other body or organization, in matters they regard as morally important without being accused of interfering or stepping outside their purely religious role.

I had to defend the right of the Catholic bishops in Malta to publicly state their position on the May 28 referendum about divorce, where in the end 53 percent of the votes were in favor of divorce and 47 percent against, showing a very divided public opinion. It is a part of religious liberty that the bishops, like any other citizen, should have the right not only to tell Catholics that they should not divorce but also to explain and defend publicly their persuasion that divorce is socially harmful and should not be legalised. Of course, those opposing the bishops’ position have the same right to explain and defend publicly their belief that the bishops are wrong.

On January 17, 2008 the Pope should have visited La Sapienza University in Rome. But the visit was cancelled due to the protest of a small minority of teachers and students and to the statement by the Italian government of the time that it would have been quite difficult to protect the Pope from unpleasant incidents. This is in itself a testament to the fact that problems of religious liberty for Christians do really exist everywhere.

In the published text of his intended speech, the Pope quoted non-Catholic American philosopher “John Rawls [1921-2002] [who], while denying that comprehensive religious doctrines have the character of ‘public’ reason, nonetheless at least sees their ‘non-public’ reason as one which cannot simply be dismissed by those who maintain a rigidly secularized rationality”. Rawls implied that the Church has no more rights than anybody else to speak in public on controversial political issues, but it is also true that it has no fewer rights.

In fact, as Rawls summarized by the Pope went on, perhaps the Church deserves to be heard even slightly more than somebody else. At least, its “doctrines derive from a responsible and well thought-out tradition in which, over lengthy periods, satisfactory arguments have been developed in support of the doctrines concerned”.

Another misconception, more frequent – as we would say in OSCE jargon, with reference to where the organization is headquartered – “west of Vienna” than “east of Vienna”, is in fact to confuse religious freedom with relativism and the idea that religion is not important, a marginal component of public life.

This is not a merely theoretical question. In fact, the fear that religious freedom involves relativism and an underestimation of the role of religions typical of the modern West is the primary reason why countries with a strong Islamic, Hindu or Buddhist religious identity resist the application of international conventions in the area of religious freedom. They are afraid that accepting religious freedom necessarily means ceding to the relativism and indifferentism characteristic of a certain modern Western culture. They must be convinced that this is not the case.

Persecution of Christianity in Islamic countries

The second risk identified in the Pope’s address on 10 January 2011, to which I now return as an “index” of the current issues in terms of religious freedom, is that of the attempt by Islamic ultra-fundamentalism, which should not, of course, be confused with Islam in general, to bring an end to the bi-millennial existence of Christian communities in the Near East and to close down missionary churches elsewhere, resorting even to terrorism.

In some countries the attempt at a religious cleansing which would definitively eliminate Christians is by now all too clear. It is true that governments distance themselves from the ultra-fundamentalists. But the time of words not followed up by actions has gone. There is a need to adopt effective measures for the protection of religious minorities.

Nor is it a problem just of police, whose action in countries such as Egypt is however very important. There must be a qualitative leap, despite the recent difficulties, if non-cosmetic results are to be achieved.

It is also a matter of laws. In some Islamic countries if someone converts from Islam to Christianity, he or she is punished by laws against apostasy and – where these laws have been revoked following Western pressure – by norms against blasphemy, which are often just disguised laws against conversion.

The Pope, explicitly naming names, stated: “Among the norms prejudicing the right of persons to religious freedom, particular mention must be made of the law against blasphemy in Pakistan: I once more encourage the leaders of that country to take the necessary steps to abrogate that law, all the more so because it is clear that it serves as a pretext for acts of injustice and violence against religious minorities”.

Hindu and Buddhist “fundamentalism”

The third risk – often little known or under-estimated – is constituted by aggressions against Christians by Hindu or Buddhist “fundamentalists”, again not to be confused with Hinduism or Buddhism in general. They identify the national identity of their countries with religious identity, sometimes defended violently against Christianity.

These are what the Pope calls “troubling situations, at times accompanied by acts of violence […] in south and south-east Asia, in countries which for that matter have a tradition of peaceful social relations. The particular influence of a given religion in a nation ought never to mean that citizens of another religion can be subject to discrimination in social life or, even worse, that violence against them can be tolerated”.

Communism lingers on

The fourth risk is constituted by the fact that, even if many people would like to forget it, there are still Communist regimes out there. “In a number of countries”, the Pope states clearly alluding to these regimes, “a constitutionally recognized right to religious freedom exists, yet the life of religious communities is in fact made difficult and at times even dangerous (cf. Dignitatis Humanae 15) because the legal or social order is inspired by philosophical and political systems which call for strict control, if not a monopoly, of the state over society”.

The Pope’s thoughts, there, “turn once again to the Catholic community of mainland China and its pastors, who are experiencing a time of difficulty and trial”. Nor is this the only case, if we just think of the largely forgotten drama of Christians in North Korea, a country which every year wins a “Gold Medal” from the Protestant organization Open Doors as the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian.

European "Christianophobia"

The fifth risk is represented by what the Pope in his address to the Roman Curia on 20 December 2010, adapting an expression coined by the well-known American Jewish jurist of South African origin, Joseph Weiler, called the West’s “Christianophobia” (Weiler in fact prefers “Christophobia”).

“Turning our gaze from East to West», the Pope said, «we find ourselves faced with other kinds of threats to the full exercise of religious freedom. I think in the first place of countries which accord great importance to pluralism and tolerance, but where religion is increasingly being marginalized. There is a tendency to consider religion, all religion, as something insignificant, alien or even destabilizing to modern society, and to attempt by different means to prevent it from having any influence on the life of society”.

Nobody, including the Pope, is suggesting the killing of Christians in some Asian and African countries is comparable to the marginalization of religion in Europe. There is, obviously, a substantial difference between being ridiculed and being shot.

However, apparently minor incidents may start a process leading to violence. I have formally protested against assaults on churches both in Spain and Italy, where as recently as June 5 a Mass celebrated by a bishop was interrupted in Milan by gay activists protesting the Catholic Church’s attitude to homosexuals. This is a type of incident which would have been inconceivable in Italy just a few years ago and which is now repeating itself all over Europe.

In 2010 the Pope went to England in order to beatify John Henry cardinal Newman (1801-1890). In one of his most famous speeches, the “Biglietto Speech” read in Rome in 1879 when he was created a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903), Newman lamented that in the United Kingdom religion was not openly persecuted but regarded as something which was not polite to mention in the company of gentlemen. “It is as impertinent,” Newman said, “to think about a man’s religion as about his sources of income or his management of his family”. “As to Religion,” he added, “it is a private luxury, which a man may have if he will; but which of course he must pay for, and which he must not obtrude upon others, or indulge in to their annoyance”.

It is this kind of marginalization that is the new name of discrimination against Christians in Europe.

The fact that OSCE established the office of a Representative for combating (inter alia) discrimination against Christians represented in itself an achievement for the cause of fighting Christianophobia. Naturally there is no lack of difficulties and opposition, and in times of economic crisis the resources of the international organizations are severely limited.

As regards concrete action for freedom for Christians, the work of my office at OSCE is carried out through diplomatic activity with participating States, statements on specific incidents, and “country visits”, sometimes carried out along with the other two representatives, appointed respectively for combating anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. This work is limited institutionally to the OSCE participating States, but includes interesting countries. Next week I will conduct with the other two representatives a country visit to France, meeting, inter alia, with the anti-cult governmental mission MIVILUDES.

Why not celebrate Christian martyrs?

On the level of raising awareness about discrimination against Christians, we can certainly do more. We are organizing an OSCE roundtable in Rome on September 12 on the theme of hate crimes against Christians.

I have also suggested to the States that wish to participate the celebration of a Day of Christian Martyrs of our time, to be celebrated not – or not only – in churches, where there are already similar initiatives in place, but in schools, cities, and public institutions, because the persecution of Christians does not affect just Christians, but everyone.

I suggested the date of 7 May recalling the great ecumenical event which the Blessed John Paul II (1920-2005) celebrated at the Colosseum in Rome on 7 May 2000. The proposal was endorsed by the authoritative Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica (2). This day could be an annual opportunity for a collective examination of conscience and for an exacting approach from Europe to the problem of the protection of Christian minorities in various countries.

I keep in my computer a photograph sent to me by an Indonesian priest and later posted on the internet. It is not a pleasant image. It shows the bodies of two of the three teenage Christian schoolgirls – Theresia, Alvita and Jarni – who were ambushed and beheaded on October 30, 2005 on their way to their Christian school in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The perpetrators, who were member of the local affiliate of al-Qaeda, were later identified and arrested. They received quite lenient sentences for Indonesian standards: 20 years for the chief of the commando, 17 years for the other two assassins.

It is always worth re-reading the appeal made by the Blessed John Paul II on 7 May 2000 at the Colosseum at the start of the 21st century which was then just beginning:

“In the century and the millennium just begun may the memory of these brothers and sisters of ours remain always vivid. Indeed, may it grow still stronger! Let it be passed on from generation to generation”.

Perhaps my OSCE activity as a reluctant diplomat may not achieve much. But I like to conceive it as a tribute to the memory of Theresia, Alvita and Jarni. Indeed, let their story be told to our children in the West and to those who ignore it. Yes, let their memory be passed from generation to generation.


(1) “Christianity 2011: Martyrs and the Resurgence of Religion”, International Bulletin of Missionary Research, vol. 35, no. 1, January 2011: 28-29.
(2) Luciano Larivera SJ, “Le persecuzioni dei cristiani nel mondo”, La Civiltà Cattolica no. 3863; June 4, 2011.

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religion. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR). This article has been reproduced with permission from CESNUR.

Copyright © Massimo Introvigne . Published by MercatorNet.com. You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication.

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