On May 12, in my former home state of Connecticut, flames engulfed the Diyanet Mosque during the holy month of Ramadan. At a news conference the following day, Chief John Alston of the New Haven Fire Department confirmed that the fire was intentional and that they were working with federal law enforcement officials on the investigation to discern who was responsible for starting the conflagration.
This arson comes on the heels of increased attacks against people of faith and houses of worship worldwide.
In the past few months, we’ve mourned the horrific terror attacks against Muslims during Friday prayers at Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Center in Christchurch, New Zealand. At the end of April, hundreds of Easter worshippers in Sri Lanka perished in a series of bombings targeting churches and hotels across the country. In Germany, rates of anti-Semitic violence have risen over 20 percent in the past year. Indeed, the security and safety of religious liberty and practice is under assault across the globe.
Yet, instead of focusing on strengthening interfaith solidarity to collectively combat this form of discrimination and violence, the current U.S. presidential administration is advancing a narrative that privileges certain forms of religious persecution over others.
During his commencement address at Liberty University this past weekend, Vice President Mike Pence warned graduating seniors of the trials and tribulations they will face as Christians in the United States. “Some of the loudest voices for tolerance today have little tolerance for traditional Christian beliefs,” Pence warned. “As you go about your daily life, be ready.” The specter haunting the United States, according to Pence, Trump, and their evangelical devotees, is theological oppression from secularism, liberals, and even “the loudest voices for tolerance.”
According to Pence, these challenges are historically unprecedented, saying: “You know, throughout most of American history, it's been pretty easy to call yourself Christian. It didn't even occur to people that you might be shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible. But things are different now.”
What Pence describes is not the advent of widespread hardship for American Christians, but rather his nostalgia for Christian hegemony in the U.S. For most of this nation’s history, Christianity has enjoyed religious, cultural, and political dominance over other faiths. Sharing these spaces with other religions, cultures, and perspectives is not an attack against Christianity but an adjustment to be a more inclusive and representative nation.
This navel-gazing, evangelical exceptionalism has deep theological and cultural roots. As Professor Alan Noble explains, narratives of Christian marginalization and discrimination in the United States stem from a subculture fixated on an evangelical persecution complex. This fixation, Noble says, often ignores or conflates the U.S. Christian experience with the extreme violence and discrimination experienced by Christians globally or at other times in history. As he puts it, “The problem is that for most of U.S. history, Christians haven’t been persecuted — at least not in comparison to early believers or even what Christians in places like Iraq face today.”
Christians are widely persecuted worldwide. According to the advocacy organization Open Doors USA, “approximately 245 million Christians are at risk of ‘high’, ‘very high’, or ‘extreme’ levels of persecution in 2019, ” which represents an increase of 30 million more individuals at risk than in 2018. From Saudi Arabia to North Korea, Christians face threats from repressive regimes, terror attacks, and mob violence. It is these global considerations that incite writer Bonnie Kristian to challenge Pence: “How can we Americans complain that we ‘might be shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible’ while churches burn in Burkina Faso?”
While the Trump administration has been vocal about confronting religious persecution for global Christians, many of its domestic and foreign policies only serve to exacerbate the conditions that make Christians in these regions more vulnerable. The Iraqi Christian Chaldean community in the United States has been susceptible to deportations in the aftermath of Trump’s executive orders. The “Muslim travel ban” has done little for Christian migrants and other vulnerable religious communities from nations now under travel restrictions to the United States.
The lack of U.S. political will to confront authoritarian states with Christians trapped in minority security crises, such as Egyptian President Sisi’s ineffectual efforts to address violence against Christian Copts or Syrian President Assad’s claims to protection of Syria’s Christians, also contribute to the deteriorating conditions facing Christians worldwide.
To add to these policy blunders, the Trump administration’s fixation on Christians being the “most” persecuted religious group prioritizes Christian suffering over persecution of other faith communities. Repressive regimes often perpetrate violence toward multiple faith communities, not just Christians, as is the case across Eurasia, Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Focusing on just Christians prevents us from approaching persecution as an interfaith issue.
What if we consider China’s state-led destruction of Uyghur mosques in the same breath as the attacks against Sri Lanka’s churches? What would happen if we look at Christian persecution in the Middle East as an aspect of authoritarian securitization as well as the military-led ethnic cleansing of millions of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar? What if we connect white supremacists setting black churches on fire in the U.S. South to growing anti-Semitism and the targeting of synagogues?
Wouldn’t it be more helpful to address the systemic issues at the core of these expressions of violence, discrimination, and hate? Wouldn’t it be more fruitful to create interfaith networks of solidarity united in confronting all forms of terrorism that target religion? Couldn’t we, as the writer of Romans 15:12 suggests, participate in a gesture of compassion as people of faith who “mourn with those who mourn?”
In response to the mosque arson in New Haven, Conn., Governor Ned Lamont remarked that even amid this tragic attack, he found comfort in the response from neighboring faith communities: “The one thing I find hopeful, as I heard from the imam, is that other houses of worship, churches and synagogues, have stepped forward and said, ‘We want to help.’” Perhaps we can follow in similar footsteps as we fight for interfaith futures.