Christian responses to persecution are almost always nonviolent and, with very few exceptions, do not involve acts of terrorism.
The research for this report reveals the rarity of Christian communities taking up arms against their persecutors. Given that Christian communities are often tiny minorities, they might seem to be prime candidates for deploying an all-too-common weapon of the weak: terrorism. In fact, while Christians take up violence, they usually do so in self-defense as a response to open violence by or among armed groups. Often, too, they live side by side and engage in argument with other Christians who abjure violence.
In northeastern Nigeria, for instance, where the vast majority of Boko Haram attacks have taken place, Christians debate the morality and strategic wisdom of using coercive force, with only a minority choosing to take up arms and most opting for interreligious engagement. Similar debates and responses took place among Indonesian Christians during the violence in Maluku between 1999 and 2003.
In Iraq and Syria, in the context of a large-scale civil war, some Christians formed militias to defend themselves, reclaim land and wealth, take revenge against IS, and establish an autonomous safe zone for Christians and other religious minorities. This tactic has most often been employed alongside or to supplement government protection against violent non-state actors, not in active opposition against a standing government. In some cases, though they are rare, Christians have massacred civilians, including Muslims in Indonesia during the clashes in Maluku of 1999–2003, in retaliation against Hindus in the Kandhamal riots, and, in a case that falls outside this report, the Central African Republic.
What explains this low level of violent retaliation against persecution? One plausible answer is the predominance of the just-war doctrine among Christians today, especially Catholics and traditional Protestants—a doctrine that allows armed force exclusively in self-defense against an attack on the community and that forbids all direct, intentional killing of civilians. Christians who dissent from the just-war doctrine are mainly pacifists, who reject killing altogether. While Christians are capable of violence, even against innocents at times, their doctrine governing the use of armed force forbids violence in most contexts of persecution. Another plausible answer is that Christian tradition and spirituality contain teachings that help Christians imagine and enact alternative forms of response, restoring right relationship instead of continuing the violence.