Press Release: October 2015

Author: Zahra Vieneuve

How are Christians responding to persecution in Iraq, Syria, China, India, and elsewhere around the world?  This will be the subject of an international conference to be held in Rome on December 10-12, 2015.  Titled "Under Caesar’s Sword: Christians in Response to Persecution," the conference is organized by the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame and the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University, with the close cooperation of the Community of Sant’Egidio.

The conference comes at a time when violence against Christians around the world has increased sharply, as a recent report of the Pew Research Center shows. The Christian population of Iraq, for instance, has declined tragically from 1.2 million in 2003 to less than 500,000 today.  

The opening session will feature addresses by patriarchs of Christian communities in Iraq and Syria, where Christians have been fleeing from the brutality of the Islamic State on a massive scale. “T​he new alignments arising from the Arab Spring have been deeply unsettling for all peoples in the region, however, Christians are experiencing an existential threat that is both targeted and systematic,” comments Mariz Tadros, a professor at the University of Sussex and a researcher for "Under Caesar’s Sword."  Speeches will be delivered by Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Church in Egypt, Charles Cardinal Bo of Burma, Bishop Boris Gudziak of Ukraine, Archbishop Benjamin Kwashi of the Anglican Church in Nigeria, and other leaders of global Christian churches. 

The audience will also hear from Christians who have faced persecution such as Helen Berhane, an Eritrean gospel singer who was kept in a shipping container for two years because she would not end her evangelical activities; Paul Bhatti, the brother of Pakistani minister Shabhaz Bhatti, who was slain for his protection of religious minorities; and Bernard Kinvi, a Catholic priest from the Central African Republic who courageously sheltered Muslims in his church amidst his country’s horrible civil war.  “By featuring Christians who have experienced persecution directly, the conference will use stories and inspiration to put a human face on the analysis,” comments Daniel Philpott, Director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights.         

The purpose of the conference is to learn how Christian communities around the world respond to persecution. “By now, the scale of Christian persecution has been amply documented,” says Thomas Farr, Director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown, “but nobody has examined systematically and globally what these communities do when they are under massive repression.  Do they flee?  Resist?  Work with outsiders to build safe havens?  Accommodate?  Forgive? Our investigation is the first of its kind.”

The conference is the peak event of a three-year project studying Christian responses to persecution made possible by a grant of $1.1 million from the Templeton Religion Trust.  It has assembled a team of 14 world-class scholars to study some 100 beleaguered Christian communities in over 30 countries.  At the conference, the scholars will share the results of their research for the first time.

The dates of the conference were chosen to commemorate Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, promulgated in December 7, 1965. “How felicitous that this conference takes place in the anniversary week of Dignitatis Humanae and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, two path-breaking documents whose capacious understandings of religious freedom are more relevant than ever in today’s troubled world,” comments Mary Ann Glendon, former US Ambassador to the Vatican and one of the conference speakers.

The project’s organizers stress that the conference is not designed simply to learn about persecution but to be in solidarity with the persecuted. “Christian persecution has reached genocidal levels in some parts of the world,” notes Timothy Shah, Associate Director of the Religious Freedom Project. “Yet governments and even Christian churches in the West either are not engaged, or don't know how to be in solidarity with the persecuted in ways that are smart and helpful. Our project and conference will identify practical tools that will help all of us respond more effectively.”

The conference will be held in the Aula Magna of the Pontifical Urban University in Rome and begins at 4:00 pm on December 10th.  For information on registration, visit the conference web page here


For more information, contact: Zahra Vieneuve, Project Manager for "Under Caesar’s Sword," Center for Civil and Human Rights,, 574.631.7233.