Why This Study?

Why study how Christian communities respond to repression? First, because such repression is manifestly unjust. Religious freedom—the liberty of persons and communities not to suffer coercion, arbitrary prohibition, or punishment for practicing, expressing, teaching, spreading, educating one’s children in, or leaving a religion—is a basic human right, one that is ensconced in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights (1966), and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981). What is lodged in law reflects what is embedded in morality. To respect religious freedom is to respect human dignity—the worth of the human person insofar as he or she is a spiritual being who searches for the answers to ultimate questions and seeks to live in harmony with God, gods, or a transcendent realm.

Religious repression also merits study because at this moment in history it is remarkably widespread. The Pew Research Center estimates that some 76 percent of the world’s population lives in a religiously repressive country. 

"Under Caesar’s Sword" focuses on the severest forms of religious repression, which go under the name persecution. Persecution is a species of the violation of religious freedom. Religious freedom violations typically involve arbitrary prohibitions on, restrictions of, or punishment for assembling for worship, preaching, and prayer; speaking freely about religion; changing one’s religion; possessing religious literature; raising one’s children in one’s religious faith; training clergy; and making religion-based arguments for or against laws or official policies. An additional but common form of religious freedom violation is the imposition of arbitrary registration requirements on religious bodies.

Persecution, a subset of these religious freedom violations, entails the use of egregiously coercive or outwardly violent methods to achieve such prohibitions, restrictions, or punishments. Such methods can include detention, interrogation, forced labor, imprisonment, beating, torture, “disappearance,” forced flight from homes, enslavement, rape, murder, execution, attacks on and destruction of churches, or credible threats to carry out such actions.

Persecution can be carried out either by the state or by societal actors, including terrorists and religious extremists. The majority of persecution that this study will examine is carried out by the state—hence, "Caesar’s Sword"—but the study will not ignore countries in which societal persecution is high, for example, India, Egypt, Syria, and Pakistan. 

Why focus on the persecution of Christians in particular? Christians are not the only victims of persecution, to be sure. Think only of Baha'is in Iran, Ahmadiyya Muslim communities in Pakistan and Indonesia, or the Falun Gong in China. All suffer violations of human dignity. It is also true that historically Christians have stood on the giving end, not just the receiving end, of persecution. Still, today Christians constitute by far the most widely persecuted religion. The International Society for Human Rights, a secular NGO based in Frankfurt, estimated in 2009 that Christians are the victims of 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world, a finding that is corroborated by separate human rights observatories. Christians are the only religious group that is persecuted in all 16 of the countries highlighted as egregious offenders by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2012. The Pew Research Center’s 2014 report found that between June 2006 and December 2012, Christians faced harassment and intimidation in 151 countries, the largest number of any religious group.

An important but disputed statistic is the number of Christians who are killed for their faith every year. The most widely cited number is that of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Todd Johnson who, working with David Barrett until his recent death, estimated in 2010 that 178,000 Christians had been killed per year over the previous decade. Other analysts object that Johnson overcounts by including deaths of Christians that were not likely motivated by religious hostility, for instance, those in the recent war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Thomas Schirrmacher estimated in 2011 that 7,300 is probably a more accurate number of Christians who have been killed for their faith annually in recent years. Whatever the result of this dispute, the number of Christians who die for their faith remains high. Even with the lower estimate, 20 Christians are being killed for their faith each day, year in and year out. 

Not only is the persecution of Christians large in scale but it is also increasing. The Pew Research Center reported that in 2012, religious persecution around the world had reached a six-year high. Roughly the same trend held for Christians in particular.

Christians suffer persecution in a strikingly wide variety of regimes and societies. Only in the past decade, for instance, Christian communities have been persecuted in countries as diverse as Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Russia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, China, and India. Contrary to widespread belief, it is not only Islamist regimes in Muslim-majority countries that have applied growing pressure on Christian communities. Some of these regimes are inspired by ethnoreligious nationalism, as in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka and Hindu-majority India, while others are animated by a brand of secular authoritarianism, as in China.

Christian persecution merits focus not only because it is widespread and increasing but also because it is underreported and insufficiently recognized. A recent spate of books on the persecution of Christians has helped to alleviate the problem. Still, the phenomenon lacks adequate attention even among groups whose natural mission is to recognize it, namely human rights advocacy organizations. In addition, media attention remains scanty. Only a handful of Western journalists devote regular attention to the issue. As a result, secular journalist and world affairs commentator Jeffrey Goldberg recently observed that Christian persecution—especially in the Middle East—is “one of the most undercovered stories in international news.” Even more curious is the fact that only a small minority of Christian parishes and congregations in the religiously free part of the world give concerted attention to their co-religionists who are persecuted. Rare is the church with an adult education class, for instance, on today’s martyrs or on the endangered Church overseas. Recently, some Church authorities have called for increased attention to global persecution. Leading these calls for increased engagement is Pope Francis who has repeatedly emphasized the need for “all people of good will” to stand in solidarity with Christians—and people of other faiths—facing persecution worldwide. In the United States, Cardinal Timothy Dolan exhorted his fellow American Catholic bishops to face the issue: “Our good experience defending religious freedom here at home shows that, when we turn our minds to an issue, we can put it on the map. Well, it's time to harness that energy for our fellow members of the household of faith hounded for their beliefs around the world.”

"Under Caesar’s Sword" comes as a response to this pressing need of putting global religious freedom “on the map.” If Christian persecution receives far too little attention across the many sectors whose role it is to recognize it (with a few exceptions, including some recent books), it is all the more true that Christian responses to persecution are too scantily acknowledged or understood. Nobody to our knowledge has even come close to studying these responses systematically. Discovering what these responses have been, raising awareness of these responses (and, in the process, of persecution itself), and fostering effective responses among persecuted communities and their global allies is the central mission of "Under Caesar’s Sword."