Strategies of Survival

Christian communities most commonly adopt survival strategies. While these strategies are defined as the least proactive form of resistance to persecution, they often involve creativity, determination, and courage. These strategies include going underground, flight, and accommodation to or support for repressive regimes. 

Christians most commonly adopt survival responses in the face of persecution. They constitute 43 percent of total responses. This is hardly surprising. In the face of persecution, many Christian communities seek to ensure their survival first and foremost. Apart from this, they may believe they can do little else. 

To say that survival strategies are the least proactive is to say that they involve the least degree of forceful and direct action in opposition to the persecuting party. If survival strategies are not proactive in this sense, however, it is not to be concluded that they are supine. Even if they do not challenge persecutors, they often involve creativity, courage, cunning, and deliberation. 

Survival strategies merit special notice when Christians choose them reflectively amid armed conflict or severe repression. In both Iraq and Syria, some Christians decided to stay rather than flee from surrounding combat in order to preserve the presence of their communities in their homelands. Dating back to the earliest centuries of Christianity, these communities embody priceless historical memory as well as their contemporary life of faith. In Iraq, the Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, Louis Raphael Sako I, even ordered priests who had fled overseas to return to Iraq in order to be present with the Christian community there. 

In several countries in our study, Christian churches have gone underground in order to survive. For instance, after the governments of Central Asia cracked down on the relatively open atmosphere of the 1990s, when Christian churches engaged in overt evangelization, many churches continued to worship, teach the Bible, and spread literature underground. From China comes the remarkable story of Protestant churches that conducted evangelization during the Cultural Revolution, when the government sought to close down all Christian churches. This bravery brought about the growth of the Christian church during this period and set the stage for the much sharper growth that took place later. Our research reveals that in Iran, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere, jailed pastors have sometimes responded by communicating their faith to their captors. 

Such reactions to heavy persecution were often cultivated by an expectation of persecution and a determination to rejoice in suffering, themes well developed in Christian theology. The apostle Paul, who endured heavy persecution himself, warned churches that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). One house church pastor in Vietnam, Dinh Thien Tu, even designed a course for Christian leaders called “What If Tomorrow?” which prepared believers for being picked up and taken to prison, as Tu had been. The course even involved having a small bag of essential items packed and ready to go. 

When Christians accommodate repressive regimes, they may risk compromising the clarity of their identity and witness, yet they often approach accommodation with creative strategies. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, Christians make efforts to express loyalty to the governing regime and outrage at Western neo-colonialism. In China, Christians who choose to belong to above-ground churches are skilled at pretending politeness and sympathy toward governing authorities. In Iran, Christians often disguise their faith in public, aiming to appear little different from the surrounding Muslim culture. Such measures do not necessarily compromise their faith. The second-century Letter to Diognetus stresses that Christians share in the ways of their surrounding culture, even while their citizenship is in heaven. Today’s Christians pay respect to the governing authorities so that they might worship safely and authentically behind closed doors. 

To be sure, strategies of survival are often far more reactive. To repeat a point from above, this is a descriptive, not a moral, judgment regarding choices made in excruciating circumstances. Though churches in Central Asia continued evangelization in the 2000s, they did scale back their efforts. Tens of thousands chose to flee from and within Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, the State of Odisha in India, and elsewhere. Other Christians reluctantly have directed their loyalty to dictators like Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and Hosni Mubarak (and now Abdel Fattah al-Sisi) in Egypt because of the protection, however imperfect and inconsistent, these rulers have provided. 

In some cases, Christians openly align themselves with a persecuting regime and its purposes. In the first few decades of the People’s Republic of China, some Christian leaders adopted great enthusiasm for the Communist experiment (in some cases out of a Social Gospel theology) and professed their loyalty to the regime. Few such leaders still exist. Likewise, the Russian Orthodox Church in Central Asia cooperates closely with secular governments in repressing small missionary churches.