Prof. Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka
The monstrous Easter Sunday massacre of Christian worshippers in Sri Lanka which killed nearly 300 needs to be seen in the broader context of the worldwide persecution of Christians in our day and age. It then becomes apparent that other incidents like the massacre inside two mosques in New Zealand last March bear no comparison in scale to the brutal persecution of Christians that is currently taking place and escalating across many countries throughout the world. Depending on the location such harassment is said to emanate from a wide variety of sources including extremist Hinduism, Buddhist nationalism, Communist authoritarianism, militant secularism, as well as non-state actors like paramilitaries and drug cartels in parts of Latin America. However by far the most ruthless persecution is attributed to the pernicious influence of radical Islam, where Christians are being forced to flee Arab countries on a scale where according to the 3rd International Christian Forum which convened in Moscow in 2017, during the past 10 years the Middle East’s Christian population has shrunk by 80% prompting warnings that Christianity could entirely vanish from the Middle East the land of its birth by 2025.
It is fitting that the world should focus on this issue at this time when we remember that 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the gruesome murder of Graham Stains and his two little sons aged 6 and 10 who were burnt alive in their vehicle by marauding Hindu fanatics in 1999 in Orissa. Stains was a Christian Missionary who with his wife had been engaged in a labour of love working amongst lepers and other destitutes in India for 34 years. The anniversary of their martyrdom if nothing else should serve to concentrate the mind on the plain facts pertaining to the raging phenomenon now identified as “Christophobia”. The facts speak for themselves although they hardly receive the media publicity they deserve in a secular atheistic anti Christian post modern world that is preoccupied with “Islamaphobia” ‘xenophobia’, ‘anti Semitism’ and “homophobia” but indifferent to the global epidemic of rampant “Christophobia”.
According to Open Doors a reputable organisation that has been monitoring Christian persecution worldwide for 60 years, every month on average 345 Christians are killed, 105 churches or Christian buildings are attacked, and 219 Christians are detained without trial and imprisoned. At that rate not surprisingly it has been estimated that 245 million Christians ( 1 in 9 worldwide ) may suffer high levels of persecution in various countries. Indeed research has shown that in the 50 worst affected countries in 2017/2018 alone, 4136 Christians were killed, 2625 were detained without trial arrested and imprisoned, while 1266 churches or Christian buildings were attacked. A previous report mentions 1020 cases of rape and sexual harrassment and 1252 abductions during a one year review period. In various countries there is the double persecution of Christian women who suffer such abuses as rape, sexual harassment, abduction and forced marriage because they are women as well as Christian. This is a particularly awful aspect of Christian persecution that is impossible to quantify accurately given the complex cultural overtones, ingrained violence, and well disguised nature of such religious double persecution specifically targeting women.
Ironically around the same time that a deranged shooter mowed down Muslim worshippers in New Zealand last March sending the world’s media into an apoplexy of hysterical reporting, the extremist Muslim sect known as Boko Haram along with Muslim Fulani herdsmen are reported to have massacred more than 140 people in mainly Christian localities in Nigeria since February including more than 100 since the beginning of March, adding to more than 1000 killings of Christians in Central Nigeria in 2018. Observers have called the deliberate targeting of Christians in that country for extermination as pure genocide with possibly 6000 victims mostly women children and the aged being killed and maimed in 2018. No doubt such monstrous atrocities perpetrated on poor Christians in that part of the world would have probably occupied no more than a footnote in the news coverage of prestigious global mainstream media giants, compared to the saturation coverage of the incident in New Zealand. Such inconsistencies tell their own story.
However research has identified 50 countries with high levels of Christian persecution including 11 countries where there was “extreme persecution” namely North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran, India and Syria. Even in Egypt which is 16th in the list the greatly respected Coptic Archbishop Angaelos of London has been writing about dreadful attacks where amidst notices in villages warning Christians to “leave or die”, Coptic priests are murdered, and their churches bombed and innocent Christian men women and children are routinely slaughtered in that country. The International Society for Human Rights estimates that Christians worldwide are victims of 80% of all acts of religious intolerance even though they constitute only 30% of the global population. The Pew Research Center in a recent report has stated that while religious harassment by governments or other groups in society increased in 2016 the most frequently targeted were Christians who suffer harassment in 144 countries.
The situation is so serious that in December 2018 the British Foreign Secretary ordered an official review into the plight of persecuted Christians around the world. In doing so he observed that the persecution of Christians is an accurate early warning sign of the persecution of every minority. Not that the Western nations are necessarily immune to the charge of Christian persecution, although they have not so far taken to actually killing Christians !.
Recently a Christian street preacher was arrested handcuffed and his Bible torn out of his hands by police outside Southgate Tube Station in North London. In July 2016 to the accompaniment of cheering crowds four Christian street preachers led by local resident Mike Overd who was preaching outside the Bristol Shopping Center were arrested for causing a ‘disturbance’ while exhorting people to ‘obey God and keep His commandments’. In 2017 Ian Sleeper a Christian street preacher who was arrested outside Southwalk Cathedral for displaying placards conveying love for Muslims while criticising the ideology of Islam was held for 13 hours in a police cell and subsequently placed on bail for 6 weeks before finally being informed that no charges will be brought against him ! Moreover three years ago a nurse was sacked for offering a Bible to a patient. No wonder according to a recent survey 50% of British Christians say they have experienced prejudice.
In Belfast Northern Ireland in 2015 Daniel and Amy Macarthur the Christian owners of a Bakery were dragged to court over their conscientious refusal to accept an order to bake a cake decorated with a pro gay marriage slogan. The case went all the way to the supreme court which overturned the verdict of the lower courts and upheld their appeal in 2017. It is ironical that such things now take place in Britain which only a few generations ago was a great colonial power steeped in the Judeo Christian heritage, enabling the dissemination of the Christian Gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth by the Christian Missionary Society (CMS). In the USA too Christians in the wedding industry who for religious reasons have conscientiously declined to provide custom orders for homosexual weddings have lost their businesses, their reputations, and thousands of dollars and even faced death threats. And just last week the top Australian rugby international Israel Folau with 73 caps was sacked by the Australian rugby authorities for courageously asserting the Christian position about homosexuality on social media.
The recent fire that engulfed the Notre-Dame in Paris whatever the cause, occurred against the background of countless European Churches which are being vandalised,defecated on and torched every day.According to PI News a German news site there were 1,063 attacks on Christian churches or symbols (crucifixes, icons, statues) in France in 2018. A 2017 study revealed that, “Islamist extremist attacks on Christians” in France rose by 38 percent, reaching 376 in 2016. In Germany where four Churches were vandalised or set on fire this March, it was reported that in the Alps and Bavaria alone, around 200 churches had been attacked and many crosses broken in 2017. Furthermore it has been alleged that in many instances of Church attacks the authorities and the media have a tendency to underplay the identity of the “migrant” vandals and make excuses for them so as to avoid being accused of Islamaphobia !
So it is clear that over and above the violent persecution they endure in many countries around the world, Christians are increasingly encountering various forms of oppression and the denial of basic human rights even in Western nations which having long since abandoned their Judeo Christian heritage and thrown overboard all restraints of Christian morality, have now transposed into ultra liberal secular hedonistic societies enforcing an arrogant ‘cultural Marxism’ that is intolerant of any Christian challenge to its core values.
Sad to say neither can Sri Lanka evade responsibility for numerous incidents over the years involving the harassment of Christians. In that sense the horrendous 2019 Easter Sunday attacks on Christian worshippers was but a new and frightening twist to a longstanding trend of Christian harrassment in various parts of the island. According to records based on regular reports by a credible local Christian organisation from 2002 – 2019 there may have been around 650 incidents of varying severity targeting Christians. They have included arson, death threats, obstruction of burials, attacks on places of worship, disruption of worship, home invasions, stoning, assault, mob attacks, verbal abuse as well as police intimidation and inaction. The authorities have been consistently callous and indifferent in the face of such incidents which have tarnished the reputation of the country for religious tolerance in the eyes of the world. People may recall how a few years ago the then Minister of Justice made a public fool of himself by arrogantly denying the existence of this problem and threatening to have a reputable lawyer who had brought the facts to light removed from the bar !
All that remains in this review is to address three critical but related questions. Why is there so much Christian persecution in the world ? What is it about Christianity that so evokes the hatred of the world ? And what ought to be the Christian response to persecution ? The answer to such questions is grounded in the uncompromising affirmations of historic Christianity and their highly dogmatic character, being rooted in the supreme authority of revealed truth in the Bible which the Church regards as God’s infallible Word spoken to humanity. Consequently pure Christianity is ‘built on the inalienable foundation of the apostles and prophets of the early Church, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone’. That is the authentic Christianity which saints and martyrs have boldly proclaimed throughout the long history of the Church, and for which many were persecuted and paid the ultimate price. It is a far cry from the insipid religious pluralism and pseudo-intellectual theological mumbo jumbo of inculturation with which many modern day liberal bishops and priests in the respectable mainline Churches betray the faith, distort Biblical Christianity, and align with the contemporary culture so as to avoid conflict with the world.
By contrast authentic Christianity affirms the existence of only one true sovereign Almighty God besides whom there is no other. He alone is the creator and sustainer of the universe and the judge of all mankind at the end of the age. Of the absolute specificity of his deity there can be no confusion, for he is the God of history who is known by name in the Bible which is a record of his dealings with the human race. Accordingly authentic Christianity rejects all other conceptions of god as vain superstition and idolatry, mere figments of the human imagination reflected in inarticulate images made of wood and stone, if not demonic beings of some kind somehow confused in the fallible human heart for deity. That is the testimony of authentic Christianity.
Christianity also contrasts with all other religions in totally rejecting the notion that the goal of true religion is to produce ‘good people’ abounding in meritorious works. On the contrary Christianity holds that all people even the best of them are in their natural state doomed sinners who have turned their backs on God in a fallen world where their good works ( however admired by the world ) are like filthy rags, by the impossible standard of God’s holiness from which they fall miserably short. As a consequence the default position of every human being born into the world is that of a wretched sinner who having incurred the wrath of a holy God whom he has displeased, finds himself in a state of total depravity and total inability to extricate himself from the curse of sin, unless God himself in his infinite mercy and compassion were to take the initiative and save him. That is the painful news of authentic Christianity that is anathema to the world because it mocks the human ego, leaves no room for human pride, and demands humiliating submission to God alone who gives the free gift of salvation and eternal life to those who thus turn to him in humble repentance and faith.
It is at this point of seeming hopelessness that the glorious good news called the “Gospel” which is the very bedrock and centerpiece of the Christian religion presents itself and makes Christianity unique amongst religions. The Christian Gospel is the astounding story of God’s historic offensive against human sin, where in his infinite love for fallen humanity God came down to earth in history assuming human form as Jesus Christ who the Bible unequivocally records was the very “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature”. Thus it was that the historical Jesus came into the world to save sinners. This he did by leading a perfect life on earth and after proving his divinity with mighty signs and wonders redeemed sinners by his manifold sufferings and brutal execution as a propitiation for their sin. There followed his mighty physical resurrection from the grave and ascension to Heaven.
Accordingly God now calls on all people everywhere to turn to Christ Jesus in faith and repentance, that being as it were born again as regenerate human beings saved by the blood of Christ and destined for eternal life, they may be empowered to dedicate the rest of their lives on earth to the glory of God through selfless service to humanity. That is the essence of authentic Christianity which therefore logically claims that Christ Jesus is the only way, the only Truth and the only life with salvation in no one else, there being no other name under heaven by which human beings might attain eternal life.
That being Christianity, it is not difficult to see why there is so much Christian persecution in the world. By its very nature the Christian Gospel poses an inescapable challenge to the human race. It compels a literally life and death choice which the world finds uncomfortable. The human ego proud of its own beliefs and philosophical preconceptions resents being pushed into a corner ! Consequently for those who are able to accept it Christianity is a glorious hope but for those who reject it a potential object of hatred. For those who respond to it the very wisdom of God but for those who recoil from it the ultimate foolishness. For those attracted to it the supreme motivation, but for those repelled by it a troublesome stumbling block to be eliminated. No wonder there has been so much Christian persecution down the ages commencing with Jesus himself who was condemned by the Jewish establishment and executed !
Moreover Christianity is basically an evangelistic religion with a strong missionary imperative grounded in Jesus’ own unequivocal command “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation . .” However while Christians are exhorted do so respectfully in a spirit of love humility and self sacrifice – this is often resented as an unacceptable cultural intrusion and proselytizing, provoking violent opposition.
Finally, while always insisting that Christians have a right to protection under the law, the proper Christian response to persecution involves pragmatically accepting the reality that it is inevitable. Centuries before Jesus was born the scriptures record God’s people crying out to Him “Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” ! Jesus himself warned his disciples “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart I have overcome the world” !
Therefore rejoicing in their “citizenship in heaven” and enjoying the absolute assurance of eternal life Christians glory in their manifold sufferings on earth where having no fear of death they regard this life as only a temporary interlude where as the apostle Paul put it, persecution is but a “slight momentary affliction preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” .Thus Christians are enabled to forgive their enemies bless their torturers and pray for their oppressors, while absorbing persecution with patience and long suffering in the great tradition of countless saints and martyrs throughout the history of the Church. The knowledge of Christian persecution worldwide should not evoke the pity of the world so much as astonishment at those who endure suffering victoriously crying out with the great apostle Paul who writing from a Roman prison around AD 61 exclaimed “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” !