Christians and persecution: So the 4th Century meets the 21st Century?

In interpreting 21st Century religious conflict, newswriters might gain perspective from the bitter Christian schism by the 4th Century “Donatists.” These hardliners refused to recognize the validity of bishops who compromised in order to escape execution during the last wave of vicious persecution by the Roman Empire. That scourge lasted from A.D. 303 until Constantine became emperor of the West (312) and ordered religious toleration in the Edict of Milan (313).    
Today, Christians are likewise debating what to do amid the killing, rape, kidnapping, torture and thievery aimed at them -- and others -- by a radical faction within world Islam. Muslim traditionalists insist this mayhem violates teachings of the Quran and of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Mideast dominates the sorrow and the news coverage, but Christianity Today correspondents Jayson Casper in Cairo and Tom Osanjo in Nairobi draw our attention to the African continent.

Case study: During  those repellent beachfront beheadings, a Muslim advised a Christian friend named Osama Mansour to escape Libya by growing a beard, carrying a prayer rug and covering a Coptic tattoo on his wrist with a fake cast. Azar Ajaj of Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary said pretending to be Muslim was an ethical tactic because Mansour did not lie outright or deny his faith in Christ.

East Africa’s  al-Shabaab gunmen have allowed people to escape death if they can prove they are Muslims by recitations  in Arabic or answering such questions as the name of Muhammad’s mother. Since the Westgate Mall massacre at Nairobi,  Kenya’s Christians have been boning up on Muslim trivia and sharing online tips about pretending to be Muslim in life-or-death emergencies.

One proposal is memorizing for recitation if necessary the Arabic Shahada, Islam’s central profession of faith: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God.” The first phrase is no problem, but the second obviously violates Christian teaching, somewhat like ancient Rome’s lethal demand that Christians profess fealty to divine emperors.

Christian leaders in Kenya disagree on proper behavior. David Oginda of Christ is the Answer Ministries insisted any believer must be prepared to die for the faith. But two professors at Anglican St. Paul’s University said Christians have an obligation to save the lives of themselves and others if possible, and merely uttering words is not the same thing as actual apostasy. At the Near East School of Theology, President George Sabra said Christians should never recite the Shahada,  but those who do in order to avoid death should be treated with mercy, not Donatist-style excommunication.

Then there’s the devastation in northern Nigeria. Writers  seeking to comprehend the organization that’s terrorizing Christians should be aware of “Boko Haram: Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency”  (Hurst) by Virginia Comolli, research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. The work is  reviewed as follows by historian Philip Jenkins in Books & Culture, which should be on religion writers’ must-read list alongside its sister magazine Christianity Today. [Full disclosure: The Guy was CT’s news editor in the late 1960s when it was located in Washington, D.C.]

“Boko Haram did not spring from nowhere in 2002, but grew out of a series of Islamist, Wahhabi, and fundamentalist sects from the 1970s onward.” And long before that, Britain’s colonial regime consolidated Muslims’ power and prerogatives in the north. To further comprehend tensions, realize that Christianity “scarcely existed” in 1900, with perhaps 1 percent of the regional population. Today, Nigerian Islam faces a solidly rooted Christian minority in the north and nationwide, rough population equality between the two rival faiths.
Contributing to current chaos, the national military is “often guilty of wanton massacres” and the government is “thoroughly broken.” People become desperate when everything becomes unreliable -- personal security, decent education, coherent farm policies, electricity, and safe water supplies on which survival depends.

Jenkins fears “a future secession war, based purely on religious loyalties,” which is “horrible to contemplate, and preventing it should be a key goal of the international community.” Also needed are the defeat or at least containment of the Boko Haram forces and establishment somehow of a thoroughly renovated Nigerian state.

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