Introduction

How do Christians respond to persecution? While a number of analysts have documented the global persecution of Christians, few have asked what Christians actually do when their human right to religious freedom is egregiously violated. 

This report conveys the findings of Under Caesar’s Sword: Christian Response to Persecution, the world’s first systematic global investigation into the responses of Christian communities to persecution. The project seeks to achieve a better understanding of these responses in order to assist persecuted Christians and those who wish to act in solidarity with them. 


A team of seventeen leading scholars of global Christianity carried out the project through qualitative field research, including interviews with persecuted Christians, conducted between October 2014 and November 2015. The researchers focused on contemporary events and plumbed history only insofar as it provides context for the current situation. The report covers twenty-five countries, including most of those where the worst persecution is taking place. In many of these countries, several different Christian communities face persecution, and they often respond to it in different ways. 

Why does this report focus on Christians? In short, Christians are the most widely targeted religious community, suffering terrible persecution globally. 

In February 2015, members of the Islamic State marched twenty-one men, most of them Coptic Christians, onto a beach in Libya and beheaded them. Among those killed were two brothers, Bishoy Kamel and Samuel Kamel. In an interview broadcast all over the Middle East, their remaining brother, Beshir, forgave the killers. Within hours of the broadcast, a clip posted on Facebook had received nearly 100,000 views. 

These beheadings accounted for a mere twenty-one of the 7,100 Christians whom Open Doors estimates died for their faith in 2015. This represents more than a 300 percent rise from the 2013 figure of 2,123, and does not include incidents of intimidation or nonlethal violence. Reliable data about such nonlethal persecution are difficult to find, and estimates vary considerably, but even the most conservative estimates of the Christian proportion of global religious persecution do not fall below 60 percent. The International Society for Human Rights, a secular NGO based in Frankfurt, estimated in 2009 that Christians were the victims of 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world, while separate human rights observatories corroborate this finding. A report of the U.S. State Department shows that Christians face persecution in over sixty countries. According to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, for each year between 2007 and 2014, Christians have been targeted for harassment in more countries than any other religious group. 

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this persecution is the lack of press coverage it receives. Although a few scholars and journalists have documented the phenomenon of Christian persecution, the mainstream media and human rights organizations give it little attention. Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project analyzed 323 major reports published by Human Rights Watch, one of the world’s most influential human rights organizations, over a three-and-a-half-year period (from 2008 to mid-2011) and found that religious persecution of any kind was the focus of only eight (about 2.5 percent) of the published reports. Fewer than half of that small number of reports focused on Christian persecution. 

Christians are far from the only religion whose members have suffered persecution and also have been on the delivering end of persecution, especially in episodes spanning the fourth through the seventeenth centuries. Violations of religious freedom are violations of the dignity that all humans share. Wherever, whenever, and against whomever they occur, these violations merit attention and alleviation. Fairness, however, also demands acknowledging the multiple contributions to freedom that Christians have made over the course of history and in the contemporary world, including where they are minorities. 

Today, Christians are mostly on the receiving end of persecution. To study their responses as Christians, which is the focus of this report, makes it possible both to see general patterns of response shared widely by Christians and to make a nuanced comparison among the responses of Christian communities with different histories, theologies, challenges, and resources. This investigation of how Christians respond to persecution offers lessons to be learned for other faith communities and for those who are concerned about the persecution of any individual or group.