Are Efforts by American Churches to Help Persecuted Christians Helping Or Hurting?

A resident of a village in the province of al-Hasake in the north-east of Syria prays on Dec. 8, 2015, in St. George's Church, which was destroyed by Islamic State terrorists. (Valeriy Melnikov, AP)
A resident of a village in the province of al-Hasake in the north-east of Syria prays on Dec. 8, 2015, in St. George’s Church, which was destroyed by Islamic State terrorists. (Valeriy Melnikov, AP)

Christians are the most persecuted faith group in the world today, targeted by Islamic terror groups like Boko Haram and ISIS, as well as secular governments and even competing Christian sects.

They endure physical harassment and social discrimination in more than 125 countries, nearly twice the number of countries (74) where Jews are harassed, according to Pew Research Center.

Last week in Egypt, almost 30 Coptic Christians were murdered as they made their way to a monastery. Worshipers, young and old, were shot at close range by men who claimed to be security officers.

“They told the men to recite the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith. When the men refused, the gunmen opened fire,” The New York Times reported.

The incident grabbed international headlines, but less than 10 days later, how many Americans remember it?

We have short attention spans when it comes to Christian persecution — a depressing reality given the number of believers in need of our help today, said Edward Clancy, who has spent the past 17 years working to support Christians around the world.

“An article gets written, it’s read and it gets 20 minutes of thought before it gets cast aside,” said Clancy, director of evangelization and outreach for Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity. “This isn’t something that should be cast aside.”

Even worse, America’s official response to Christian persecution sometimes intensifies the harassment these believers face. The U.S. government’s go-to solutions, including drone strikes and refugee resettlement programs, can work against what at-risk communities are hoping to achieve in their countries, religious freedom experts said.

“With increased awareness comes the idea that we don’t just need to open our borders and take all Christians in,” Clancy said. “There’s nothing wrong with accepting refugees, but when people want to stay where they are, they should be given that right.”

Deeper understanding of Christians around the world would alter the U.S. government’s approach to ongoing crises, such as the war in Syria or shootings in Egypt, according to a recent report from Under Caesar’s Sword, an initiative aimed at helping global Christians by observing how they help themselves.

“We shouldn’t necessarily go in with guns blazing … if there are (other) ways we can help,” said Daniel Philpott, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, who helps lead the initiative.

As the leaders of Under Caesar’s Sword work to overhaul the U.S. government’s approach to Christian persecution, they will also seek to broaden all Americans’ understanding of threats to the world’s largest religion, he said.

“It’s not that people don’t care. There’s remarkably little awareness,” he said. “I’m a Catholic and sometimes on Sunday mornings, during the prayer section of the Mass, there’s a quick mention of persecuted Christians. Aside from that 2.5 seconds, virtually nothing is said.”

Lack of awareness

The subject of Christian persecution is easy to avoid because it’s so complex. Attacks like the shooting in Egypt grow out of unique cultural, religious and political realities, and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to keep all these factors straight.

“I don’t think there has been a lot of attention on Christian persecution in any quarter,” said Nina Shea, a religious freedom expert at the Hudson Institute. “There’s no depth of understanding.”

After a tragedy like the recent deaths in Egypt, articles may offer snippets of what life is like for Christians in the affected region. But a single article can’t capture the decades of political strife that put Coptic Christians at risk, and readers may not know where to turn for more information.

In some instances, widespread confusion about global Christians is almost comical, said James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute and a former commissioner for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He remembers how baffled a Palestinian Christian church leader was when an American journalist asked him how recently his community had converted.

“He said, ‘Um. About 2,000 years ago,'” Zogby said.

The lack of religious and cultural literacy is deeply problematic, especially when it interferes with efforts to help Christians in need, he added.

“Americans struggle with hostility, ignorance, insensitivity and even selective hearing,” Zogby said. “We have a tendency to pluck out the (Christians) who say what we want to hear.”

Often, people are totally unaware of the Christian presence in Muslim-majority countries until terrorist activities make the evening news, said Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore, Pakistan, speaking at an April symposium hosted by Under Caesar’s Sword.

“People all over the world don’t think there are Christians in Pakistan,” he said. “Most people don’t want to know, and that’s sad to say.”

And so Christians, who comprise 2 percent of the country’s population, must rely on the kindness of their at-times hostile leaders. “We are at the mercy of our persecutors,” Archbishop Shaw said.

In the wake of a brutal act of violence, such as when a Christian couple was accused of blasphemy in November 2014, beaten by a mob and then burned to death, Pakistani Christians must stay calm and look for opportunities to compromise.

Outsiders might instinctively demand a repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which helps justify violence against Christians. But members of minority communities in the country know that that’s too much to ask for, and so they’ve been carefully working to adjust how it’s enforced, Archbishop Shaw said.

“We are saying to the government, ‘Let us make some laws to stop the misuse of the blasphemy law,'” he said.

Groups like the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom try to correct American misconceptions by publishing reports and hosting conferences. They promote nuanced overviews of ongoing hostility and try to spark more helpful conversations.

However, these efforts will continue to come up short if Americans don’t work harder to understand the world, Clancy said.

“Awareness is one thing, but you need a sense of history, too,” he said.

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Deseret News