Christian harassment is on the rise. Can you do anything to stop it?

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By Kelsey Dallas @kelsey_dallas
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.
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.

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.

Daniel Philpott speaks at Under Caesar’s Sword’s April 20 symposium in Washington, D.C. | Under Caesar’s Sword

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.

Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore, Pakistan, speaks at Under Caesar’s Sword’s April 20 symposium in Washington, D.C. | 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.

An Icon is seen inside the damaged Saint Mary Roman Orthodox church at the mountain resort town of Zabadani in the Damascus countryside, Syria, Thursday, May 18, 2017. A U.S. airstrike struck pro-Syrian government forces for the first time, hitting a convoy in the desert near the border with Jordan, U.S. officials and Syrian activists said, an apparent signal to President Bashar Assad to keep his forces out of a zone where U.S.-backed rebels are fighting the Islamic State group.| Hassan Ammar, Associated Press

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.

Seeking better solutions

Under Caesar’s Sword won’t entirely clear up misunderstandings. Its recent report isn’t an exhaustive text; there are only a few paragraphs dedicated to each of the 25 countries profiled.

However, the initiative does take an important step beyond simply sharing the woes of global Christians. It analyzes how these believers fight back against the forces working against them.

“Exploring the different responses we see is the real heart of the project,” Philpott said.

A $1.1 million grant from the Templeton Religion Trust funded on-the-ground research for 17 scholars. Under Caesar’s Sword then drew on their research for an international conference in Rome in 2015 and the April symposium in Washington, D.C., as well as the recent report and forthcoming educational materials for schools and churches.

The overall initiative, which is co-directed by leaders from the University of Notre Dame, Georgetown University and the Religious Freedom Institute, shines a spotlight on the resilience of persecuted Christians, Philpott said. Their experiences have been ignored for too long.

Global Christians use three main strategies to respond to persecution: survival, association and confrontation, according to the recent report.

Survival, the most common response, involves finding a way to stay alive and continue worshipping in the face of a serious threat. For example, growing numbers of Christians in Egypt have fled the country, while those who have stayed have resorted to secret worship services.

Christian Icons destroyed by fighting are placed next to a wall at the Greek Orthodox Mar Taqla monastery in Maaloula, Syria, Thursday, March 3, 2016. Maaloula, an ancient Christian town 60 kilometers (40 miles) northeast of Damascus, changed hands several times in the war. Its historic churches pillaged by jihadis and buildings riddled with shrapnel reflect fierce fighting that devastated the town two years ago. | Vladimir Isachenkov, Associated Press

Strategies of association include courting valuable allies. “You build ties and build relationships with other actors, including churches, secular nonprofits, government officials and members of other religions,” Philpott said.

Communities that choose this approach expect help from their neighbors and help others, too, Archbishop Shaw said.

In the aftermath of a devastating flood in 2010, he encouraged his congregation to share their resources with Muslim victims. People brought food and other goods for people in need.

The commandment to “love one another does not mean you love only Christians,” Archbishop Shaw said.

The third type of response, confrontation, is the least common. In this case, Christians attack their attackers in order to save themselves.

“We would even argue that martyrdom and imprisonment could be acts of confrontation. These Christians take risks and anticipate that it will further their cause,” Philpott said.

The Under Caesar’s Sword report is a powerful witness to Christian experiences, experts said. It throws the logic of drone strikes and other military options into question by showing how few believers choose violence.

“I honestly believe this report will change this discussion,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, the former ambassador at-large for international religious freedom, during his brief remarks at Under Caesar’s Sword’s April event.

Rabbi David Saperstein, the former ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, speaks at Under Caesar’s Sword’s April 20 symposium in Washington, D.C. | Under Caesar’s Sword

“It changes how we evaluate the effectiveness of our policies when we can ask: Will this impede strategies laid out here? Will it affect them? Will it complement them?”

The report makes a case for a longer view of ongoing conflicts, spelling out how invading soldiers may make things easier for Christians in the short-run but create a more dire situation in five or 10 years, said Kent Hill, executive director of the Religious Freedom Institute.

“We’re quick to say what can happen with military force, but not quick to remember what needs to follow in the wake of military victories,” he said.

Case study: Iraq and Syria

The pitfalls of America’s current approach to Christian persecution and the promise of the new opportunities created by Under Caesar’s Sword meet in Iraq and Syria, experts said.

American soldiers invaded Iraq in 2003, seeking to overthrow Saddam Hussein. There’s no doubt he was a dictator overseeing unimaginable atrocities, but his fall set into motion a number of unintended consequences, Hill said.

“There’s been growing anarchy and sectarian violence,” he said. From 2003 to 2016, experts estimate that the Christian population in Iraq shrank from 1.5 million to 400,000.

Under Caesar’s Sword

Today, Syrian Christians face a similar fate. Since the outbreak of war in 2011, around 80 percent of the Christian population has been displaced, Hill said.

“In general, there’s been a huge exodus of Christians from their homes,” he said.

Clancy is critical of the U.S. government’s approach to Iraq. The power vacuum created by Hussein’s death helped speed the rise of ISIS, which, in turn, intensified the chaos in Syria.

“We turned the soil over, so to speak, and didn’t stay around to make sure the weeds didn’t grow,” Clancy said.

Conversations with Christians in the area would have revealed different priorities than removing dictators, Zogby said, noting that “if you give Christians the option of the known versus the unknown, some extremists will win.”

We can’t go back in time, but, moving forward in the Middle East, we can change our approach, Clancy said. He noted that most people don’t grasp the significance of these dwindling communities or the many reasons why they deserve to stay in lands they have called home for centuries.

“Aleppo (Syria) is only about a two-day walk from Jerusalem,” he said. Christians sent out to evangelize after the first Pentecost described in the Bible would have gone there, meaning that today’s Iraqi and Syrian Christians are linked to the church’s earliest evangelism efforts.

The State Department took an important step last year when it declared the persecution of religious minorities in this area genocide, but it needs to put more resources toward rebuilding Christian homes, Hill said.

“We don’t get it. We don’t realize that there’s money that needs to be spent on reconstruction,” Hill said.

Clancy’s organization, Aid to the Church in Need, has become an outspoken advocate of rebuilding efforts, spearheading a drive to raise $200 million to resettle the Nineveh Plain.

“For us to say it would be good for Christians to leave is essentially to say to ISIS, ‘You lost the battles but won the war,'” Clancy said.

Making a difference

It’s an interesting time for the Under Caesar’s Sword initiative to be picking up steam. The Trump administration has described protecting global Christians as a key policy goal, and it has kept Christian persecution in the news.

“It’s encouraging to hear them talking about it. But at the same time, it’s frustrating because the programs have not changed yet,” Shea said.

Moving forward, Under Caesar’s Sword will urge the Trump administration to be thoughtful in its approach to Islamic terror and other forms of Christian persecution. Our religious freedom work should be tailored to specific cultures, Philpott said.

“This is a widespread problem, and the fact that it’s in the national conversation creates opportunities,” he said.

In light of Americans’ short attention spans, Philpott understands why his initiative’s educational efforts may be met with skepticism. But Under Caesar’s Sword has taken pains to make their research readily accessible, producing a short documentary film, sharing updates on social media and planning curricula for schools and parishes.

“Frankly, among the rank and file in the pews, it’s our view that there is remarkably little done in terms of education,” Philpott said.

Camille Schardon, an active Catholic in New Braunfels, Texas, agrees with his assessment. That’s why she’s thrown her energy into grass-roots advocacy efforts over the last few years, organizing prayer groups and handing out information cards.

After her Bible study led a community day of prayer for Syrian Christians, it provided prayer requests from Middle Eastern churches to print in weekly newsletters.

“They were prayers that will make you cry,” she said. “They prayed for repentance and a return to God, reconciliation among all Christian and Muslim denominations, God’s glory and goodness, and for Syria to flourish and the bloodshed to end.”

A resident of a village in the province of al-Hasake in the north-east of Syria prays in St. George’s Church destroyed by Islamic State terrorists pictured in this photo taken December 8, 2015. | Valeriy Melnikov, Associated Press

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Schardon’s husband also designed a candle wrapped in barbed wire to remind their congregation of Christians who suffer around the world. “It’s a reminder to pray for the persecuted and the people who persecute them,” she said.

These are all relatively simple tasks, but they help keep the numbness that surrounds attempts to help persecuted Christians at bay, Philpott said. High-level activism is needed, but people like Schardon embody the same spirit as resilient Christians around the world.

“People need to become aware of Christian persecution and then spread the word,” he said. “And maybe even before they share, they should start to pray.”