The ongoing Christian genocide

Jared Staudt

Genocide is a serious accusation. Many people have spoken of an ongoing persecution of Christians in the Middle East as genocide, a claim that has clear backing in international law. The United Nations defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” In 2016 the State Department and both houses of Congress declared that ISIS, in particular, was committing genocide against Christians and other religious minorities.

On average, it is estimated that 7-8,000 Christians are martyred each year, according to the International Society for Human Rights (though larger estimates take broader warfare and ethnic conflicts into consideration, especially in Africa.). Nine of the top ten offending countries with the highest rates of Christian persecution are found either in the Middle East or in neighboring countries. With the rise of ISIS, persecution reached a particularly intense moment, though under the Trump administration their territory has shrunk dramatically. Nonetheless, the centuries long trajectory of eliminating the Christian population of the Middle East continues.

The Persecution and Genocide of Christian in the Middle East, edited by Ronald Rychlak and Jane Adolphe (Angelico, 2017), provides a systematic overview of the historical, religious, legal, and social forces behind the persecution of Christians. The book collects proceedings from a conference held in Rome, “Under Caesar’s Sword: Christians Respond to Persecution,” co-sponsored by Notre Dame and Georgetown, as well as contributions from other scholars and experts. The book provides a comprehensive overview of the issues faced by persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

The chapter “Historical and Theological Reflections on Persecuted Christians,” by Robert Fastiggi, provides a good starting point for understanding the state of Christian in the Middle East. It describes how the Christian community fell from a strong majority following Islamic conquest to a small minority in the present day. The Islamic population increased gradually for centuries, but it was not until the late 900s that sustained violent persecution began, inspiring the Crusades. From that point on, Christianity fell into a steady decline: from 21 to 3.4 million between 1200 and 1500 alone, followed by even more aggressive persecution from the Turks (103-04). Major massacres occurred in 1895 and during World War I, especially the Armenia Genocide. Fastiggi notes how Christians fell from 10 to 3% of the Middle East’s population in the twentieth century alone (110).

After this long period of decline, the Iraq War and the civil war in Syria may have set off the final elimination of Christians from many parts of the Middle East. The book details the tactics used by ISIS and other radical groups to commit genocide: sexual violence, torture, financial extortion (falsely portrayed as the jizya tax), and outright murder. It also describes the efforts and many failures of the international community to address the problem. The Holy See, for its part, has supported Christian refugees, encouraged prayer and fasting, organized diplomatic meetings, and even cautiously supported military intervention (254-57).

The final chapter, by radio host Al Kresta, reflects on how “Christians in the West can respond” in solidarity with persecuted Christians (364). The issue of religious liberty should unite all people of good will, as threats to religious expression are common throughout the world, especially in China and North Korea, but increasingly in the West. Christians throughout the world need to overcome a “lack of urgency” and even indifference to religious persecution. Even though ISIS has been largely subdued, Christians still suffer disproportionately in the Middle East from violence and displacement and remain extremely vulnerable. One concrete way to support them financially comes from the papal agency, the Christian Near East Welfare Association (www.cnewa.org).

Featured image by Spencer Platt | Getty Images

COMING UP: The future of the Church in China

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My last review focused on Pope St. John Paul II—not only a great saint, but also a hero in the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe. Both Weigel and Kengor emphasized that the accommodationist policies of the Vatican and the United States had not only failed to contain Communism, but actually enabled its expansion. The fight against Communism continues, but many would like to return to the accommodationism that John Paul II and President Reagan together overcame.

Currently, a debate rages about the attempt to reconcile the illegal underground Catholic Church and the Communist-sponsored Patriotic Catholic Association in China, which would place all bishops within the Communist controlled structure. In particular, the Vatican is negotiating a shared agreement with the government covering the appointment of bishops, which includes deposing some underground bishops. In light of this controversy, I’d like to reflect on the growth of Christianity in China and the possibility for greater inculturation of the faith there.

Rodney Stark and Xiuhua Wang, A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China (Templeton, 2015).

Rodney Stark became famous for his study The Rise of Christianity (Harper, 1997), examining the social dynamics that led to the conversion of the Roman Empire. Working with a Chinese graduate student, Xiuhua Wang, he explores the dynamics behind the current “meteoric” rise of Christianity in China. The authors offer a short history of Christianity there from Matteo Ricci in the sixteenth century to the present. Catholicism by far was the largest Christian group in China until the rise of Communism. Since then, the authors detail how the government’s persecution of the hierarchy drastically reduced the Church’s ability to expand, while Protestant house churches exploded with growth.

Stark and Wang rely on two extensive, recent sociological studies for much of their conclusions. Overall, they describe how “tens of millions of Chinese have embraced Christianity—thousands more convert every day and more than forty new churches open every week (not counting new underground congregations). If this trend were to hold for even another decade, there would be more Christians in China than in any other nation in the world” (2). These converts are well educated, affluent, and even members of the Communist party (which technically forbids religious affiliation). They become Christian through “social networks,” which “are the basic mechanism through which conversion takes place” (50). The book is a short and easy read and will help you to get a quick understanding of the changing religious situation in China.

John C.H. Wu, Chinese Humanism and Christian Spirituality (Angelico, 2017).

Martin Scorsese’s movie, Silence (2016), adapting Shusaku Endo’s novel, made the claim that Asian culture was not compatible with Christianity. The Chinese convert to Catholicism, John C. H. Wu (d. 1986), would disagree emphatically. This remarkable man — student of ancient Chinese culture and Western law, translator of the New Testament, drafter of the Chinese (now Taiwanese) constitution, and teacher at Seton Hall — wrote a remarkable book about the inculturation of traditional Chinese wisdom with the Christian faith. Wu’s book covers the philosophy of Confucius and one of his disciples, Mencius, the mysticism of Taoism, and how these two conflicting movements (one moving toward the world and the other away from it) are fulfilled by the supernatural revelation of the Gospel.

Wu looks to St. Thérèse of Lisieux as a model for the mystical vision necessary to inculturate the faith in China: “For me as a Chinese, the most intriguing thing about Thérèse’s little way of spiritual childhood is that it is reminiscent, on the one hand, of the Confucian teaching of filial piety, and, on the other, of the Taoistic insight concerning the mystical significance of the little and the low, of the supple and the docile, of the feminine and the new-born” (97). He argues that Chinese culture offers fertile ground for the Gospel both with its teaching on the natural law and its yearning for the absolute. Wu knows the Chinese and Catholic traditions remarkably well and offers the reader great wisdom not only for the meeting of cultures, but also for navigating the challenges of modern, Western materialism.

With the growth of the Christian faith in China, it is not a time to bow before the Communist government, but to evangelize boldly, following in the footsteps of the many great Chinese martyrs and confessors.