Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack
by Rupert Shortt
Rider Books, London. 328 pages
In 1997, religious freedom advocate Nina Shea shocked sheltered American Christians with the contention that “more Christians have died for their faith in the 20th century than in the previous 19 centuries combined.”
Fifteen years and numerous human rights reports later, Rupert Shortt reports that the situation has only worsened in the new millennium. He estimated that “200 million Christians are now under threat, more than any other faith group.”
A British journalist, Shortt eschews sweeping statements and easy rhetoric. Rather, he gives us a reporter’s account. His analysis is context-specific, and his forte is the anecdote. He examines 13 countries in 12 chapters, and in a final chapter includes snapshots of an additional six countries.
The bulk of Shortt’s work concerns Islamic countries. He writes, “There is scarcely a single country from Morocco to Pakistan in which Christians are fully free to worship without harassment.” The countries he includes are: Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Israel-Palestine. But he also expands his vision to include some non-Muslim nations, namely Hindu India and Buddhist Burma, as well as communist China, Vietnam and North Korea. His final chapter rounds out the book with quick looks at Cuba, Venezuela, Belarus, Sri Lanka, Laos and Sudan.
Given its broad scope but relative brevity, this is an excellent book. One can light on Chapter 1, Egypt, to learn about the ancient Coptic Orthodox Church and other Christian churches in the country, and the challenge posed to them by the hostility of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. One can flip to the chapter on Iran to discover how President Ahmadinejad deflects criticism by claiming to be the representative of the Hidden Imam, an eschatological figure in Islam. One can learn in the chapter on Pakistan of how that country’s blasphemy laws are abused for personal gain.
Certain themes run through all these Muslim countries. Christians are seen as inherently disloyal and a fifth column for Western influence; distant problems (such as unflattering cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in Denmark) are used for political reasons at home; and despite formal constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, there are few real protections. One can see, as in Indonesia, that the supposed provocation of aggressive missionaries is simply a “fig leaf for people who will not concede the principle of freedom of belief.”
For Westerners accustomed to thinking of Hinduism and Buddhism as benign, peace-loving religions, Shortt’s accounts of the persecution of Christians in India and Burma will be eye-opening. And for those who thought that the communist countries of China and Vietnam had turned a corner on human rights, the recital of these governments’ ambiguous records will be disturbing. The report on North Korea is simply dismal.
Shortt does not leave the reader with simple answers or soothing bromides. He only points out the obvious: that persecution of Christians around the world is an under-reported tragedy, and that Westerners need to get over their post-imperial “bien-pensant blind spot” that inclines them to blame the victims rather than the culprits.
MICHAEL PARKER is the PC(USA) coordinator of the Office of International Evangelism.