By Martin Roth, BosNewsLife Senior Columnist
WASHINGTON/ROME (BosNewsLife Columns)– We are to learn much more about the current state of Christian persecution from an innovative three-year global research project, and – no surprise – the early findings are distressing. But amidst the gloom are some significant rays of hope.
The project, titled “Under Caesar’s Sword,” is aimed at studying how different Christian communities worldwide have responded to persecution as well as why they acted the way they did and what kind of outcomes were achieved.
It’s a partnership of two American academic institutions, the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.
In an introduction to the project, organizers make clear their stance. Christians around the world are “being brutally persecuted, facing imprisonment, torture and even death,” they state.
Yet organizers also point to signs of promise: “Christian communities have been instrumental in ousting governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia, South Korea, Chile, South Africa, Malawi and elsewhere. Other responses, like diplomatic accommodation, might succeed in allowing a church to continue its activities. Forgiveness and interreligious dialogue might reduce tensions between a church and hostile societal actors. Martyrdom might offer spiritual encouragement to other Christians and even increase the adherents of a repressed church.”
Some tentative, initial findings – and emotional testimonies – came at a conference last month in Rome. A Pakistani Christian leader, Paul Bhatti, spoke of how he had forgiven the assassins of his brother, who had dedicated his life to protecting religious minorities in Pakistan. Dr Bhatti is now continuing his brother’s work, despite death threats against his own life.
Purdue University scholar Fenggang Yang told how the underground Chinese church actually expanded strongly during the Cultural Revolution, a time of intense persecution, sowing the seeds for today’s vibrant growth.
Former missionary Reg Reimer reported that evangelical Christians in Vietnam and Laos expect persecution, and this has helped strengthen the church. Helen Berhane, a singer from Eritrea, spoke of how she was imprisoned and tortured for more than two years after releasing an album of Christian music and then refusing to sign a document pledging to end all her Christian activities. She was released only after becoming seriously ill. At the conference she sang a song composed while in captivity.
But overall the mood of the conference was somber. One Mideast leader said Middle Eastern Christians had been “forgotten, abandoned and betrayed” by the West. The whole world “turned a blind eye” in 2014 when Islamic State drove 140,000 Christians from their homes in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, he said. Another Christian leader stated bluntly that military intervention by Western countries was urgently needed in the region.
The Under Caesar’s Sword project has a team of 14 scholars studying some 100 beleaguered Christian communities in over 30 countries. We can be sure they will uncover many inspiring stories of God at work in even the most desperate of circumstances. But it is difficult to imagine that their final report will be anything but grim.
(Martin Roth (www.authormartinroth.com), BosNewsLife’s Senior Columnist and Special Correspondent is an Australian journalist and a former Tokyo-based foreign correspondent. He is the author of “Journey Out Of Nothing: My Buddhist Path to Christianity” and of the Brother Half Angel series of thrillers, which focus on the persecuted church. BosNewsLife Columns distributes opinionated columns and commentaries providing a fresh perspective on issues in the news. They do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BosNewsLife News Agency or its parent company.)