If you follow religion news carefully, and you have been on Twitter over the weekend, you are probably aware that John L. Allen, Jr., and the team at Crux -- a Catholic-oriented news site operated by The Boston Globe -- have published the first in what will be a series of occasional stories about the persecution of Christians around the world.
This is not surprising, in light of the fact that Allen (surely one of the most productive reporters working on the religion-beat these days) has produced a book entitled "The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution."
It is also significant that a recent Pew Research Center study found, as Allen noted in his opening report in this series, that Christians were harassed either by the government or social groups (think militias or mobs) in 102 of 198 countries -- more than any other religious group. Under normal circumstances, Pew surveys on this kind of news topic tend to lead to bumps in mainstream coverage.
However, talking about the persecution of Christians is not your normal subject, for a variety of reasons. There are people on the cultural left who simply cannot see Christians as anything other than oppressors. For two decades, powerful forces in Washington, D.C., have fought attempts to promote religious liberty at the global level.
Meanwhile, there are also people on the cultural right who -- when looking at the Middle East in particular -- struggle to identify with the groups being persecuted and slaughtered because these ancient flocks are not the right kinds of Christians. (For more information on that topic, see this "On Religion" column that I wrote nearly two decades ago.) Focusing on human rights can also be bad for business, you know.
In light of this deep and diverse skepticism, it's crucial that Allen's main story -- The New Christian Martyrs: Globally, religious persecution is Christian persecution -- includes the following:
Christians are, of course, hardly the only community facing savagery and oppression.
Though precise numbers are difficult to come by, it’s widely believed that the leading victims of Islamic radicalism are their fellow Muslims. In some cases, they’re members of a Muslim minority group such as the Shi’ites, Alawites, or Ahmadiyya; in others, they’re moderate members of the Sunni majority who have run afoul of fundamentalist currents.
In October 2014, the United Nations released a report detailing almost 10,000 civilian deaths at the hands of ISIS in the first eight months of the year, the clear majority of whom were Muslims. ...
Other religious groups also find themselves in the firing line. In Iraq, Christians often stand alongside Yazidis, practitioners of an ancient syncretistic faith akin to Zoroastrianism, in fleeing Islamic State onslaughts. In other nations, Jews, Bahais, Zoroastrians, Druze, and other communities are experiencing similar trauma.
As GetReligion has been emphasizing for 11 years, it's crucial to understand that -- statistically speaking -- the primary victims of strong blasphemy laws in most majority Muslim lands are liberal Muslims who oppose those laws (see this 2006 "On Religion" column, as well as this column just after the Charlie Hebdo massacre).
While this opening Crux package includes sidebars on the Islamic State and the anti-Christian genocides taking place on Syria ("An endless Calvary") and in Iraq ("Sanctuary to Killing Field"), Allen and his team made a strategic decision to focus their main attention, this time around, on Egypt -- a land that has been out of the headlines in recent years, due to the rise of ISIS.
Why focus on Egypt? To be blunt, Egypt should be the best case scenario, for several reasons:
Egypt has by far the Middle East’s largest Christian footprint. There are more than 8 million Christians here, and it is a staple of local rhetoric that they’re the “original Egyptians,” heirs to the country’s ancient heritage and language.
Egypt is also among the Middle Eastern nations most sensitive to Western opinion. Since a 1979 peace deal with Israel, it’s been the second largest recipient of American foreign aid, and the Obama administration recently lifted a hold on the transfer of military equipment that had been imposed after the army seized power.
The country’s new regime under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisicame to power in 2014 vowing to protect minority rights, and since then Sisi has delivered several important gestures of solidarity with Christians, including the unprecedented step of attending Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral of St. Mark for the Orthodox Christmas Mass last year.
However, as a journalist from one majority-Muslim nation -- one known for its diversity and tolerance -- told me a few years ago (and I paraphrase): It doesn't matter what your laws are and what your constitution says if your local police will not act to stop a mob.
Research and writing on this topic has been on the rise since 1997, when my Media Project colleague Paul Marshall, writing with journalist Lela Gilbert, produced the breakout book "Their Blood Cries Out."
The question, of course, is when this topic will consistently break into coverage by television networks and other outlets that command the attention of political leaders. Was global religious freedom truly a high priority under the George W. Bush administration, in deeds as well as words? How about the White House of President Barack Obama? How do you think the Christians of Syria and Iraq would answer that question?
Please read this report and hang on for the complex issues that are coming in the sequels. As this opening piece notes:
A diverse set of motives drives the persecution. In much of the Middle East and parts of Africa, it’s Islamic radicalism; in India, it’s Hindu fundamentalism; in China and North Korea, it’s police states protecting their hegemony, and in Latin America, it’s often vested interests threatened by Christians standing up for peace and justice. The Globe, in a series that launches today, will report back from all those fronts in this unholy war.