The Persecuted Body

My millennialist-minded mother was in the habit of sending me news clippings of world affairs to warn me to be alert and faithful in the last days. I have several clips on global warming, China's preparedness to annihilate the United States, the Y2K bug, and many on the persecution of Christians in India.

It all seemed so distant that I didn't take any of it seriously—until a visit to my native India in January 1999. The press contained reports of recent burnings of churches, assaults against priests and nuns, and, most memorable, the immolation of an Australian medical missionary along with his two young sons as they slept in their jeep the night before. Needless to say I was shaken. I looked out of my bedroom balcony on that misty morning and wondered how this could be.

Christianity is a very ancient faith here, dating back to pre-Constantine times. In this great land of my birth and maturity, our lifelong family friends were and are Hindu and Muslim. I thought of the convent school in which I was educated from kindergarten to high school. There were a handful of Christian students; the majority of students and teachers were Hindu. I thought of all the friends I made there and still have. I decided I would talk about what was going on with my neighbors of 30 years, but my parents advised me against it as the family members these days were committed Hindu nationalists. When I did converse with friends, they politely avoided the matter. Tales of Nazi Germany came to mind where—overnight—old friends and neighbors became strangers in the name of politics and ideology. I started to fear not only the future but also the loss of the past for Christians in India. Three years on, things have only worsened for India's Christians, and for those elsewhere as well.

Sixteen Pakistani Christians massacred during church services, scores of churches burned in the Indian state of Gujarat, social boycotts organized against Christian converts, several thousand reconversions back to Hinduism, male and female circumcisions for forced conversion into Islam, states launching debates on religious conversions, the murders of Christian priests and nuns in the Philippines, proposal of legislation to control the inflow of foreign funds in India, religious "cleansing" in Indonesia and Sudan, and persecution of Chinese house churches are only some of the portentous atrocities that Christians as religious minorities have been forced to endure in the last two or three years.

While violence against Christians has been increasing worldwide, and while Christians in the East are becoming "an endangered species," according to author William Dalrymple, attention to the crisis in the broadsheets and broadcasts of the West is "occasional and momentary" at best. No doubt this reticence must in part have to do with the West's tendency to quarantine religion out of public discourse and concern.

FOR MANY CENTURIES Christians (and Jews)—as religious minorities in Asia and Africa—have lived harmoniously in communities that were predominantly Hindu, Muslim, and Confucian. Even if this harmony was not perfect, a tenuous pluralism was sustained and respected. Social forces in the late 20th and early 21st centuries are threatening to erode this balance. Today, this delicate pluralism—and secularism, as defined by some states—has given way to a brutal and primitive balkanization on the basis of religion. As one Lebanese Christian historian put it in reference to the plight of Christians in the Middle East, "There is a feeling of fin de race among Christians all over the Middle East."

As is true with most social problems, the persecution of Christians is a multi-headed Hydra. In many states the link between religious identity and political identity is key to understanding and addressing the problem—including an understanding of the European origins of this link. Other points of departure in analyzing the issue from an international and domestic perspective include:

The nature of nationalisms that emerge in reaction to the cultural impact of modernity and its globalizing tendencies.

The search for ethnic, cultural, and religious identity that is unleashed in reaction to modernity.

The exercise of religious chauvinism as a means of shoring up faltering political legitimacy and to whip up national allegiance, and hence the need to explore the connection between belief, ethnicity, and nationalism.

Are there similarities in the phenomenon of religious persecution—for example, that of Christians in India compared with the recent violence against Hindus in Bangladesh? To what extent, then, is religious violence religious per se and not representative of power tactics employed by the dominant forces? Equally, the intrinsic importance of religion has to be acknowledged, especially when it is linked with ethnicity and national identity as in Tibet, Israel, and India. Further, the contextual differences in violence against Christians need to be understood; for example, how do the social-political dynamics giving rise to violence against Christians in Saudi Arabia differ from those in India and China?

FROM THE DOMESTIC standpoint, a two-pronged response is called for from the U.S. government and the church. Both institutions must acknowledge that at the heart of religious persecution is the issue of fundamental human rights—as articulated in every democratic constitution—and that instruments of international law are being violated. Flowing from the recognition of religious belief and practice as fundamental human freedoms, the U.S. government and the church need to register their concern for all religious persecution, not just of Christians. An impartial and unequivocal response is crucial for dismantling the mistaken association of Christianity as a "Western" faith, which is often the provocation for violence.

The U.S. government should make every effort to denounce and condemn religious persecution in its public pronouncements and public policy initiatives. When aid, trade, and international negotiations are conducted, the United States should be alert to those states that engage in religious persecution and conduct their negotiations accordingly. Overall, the United States must acknowledge the importance of religion to public life and seek to raise the consciousness of this fact in U.S. public discourse—including the education of State Department personnel and the diplomatic corps on the relevance of religion in social dynamics.

The persecution of Christians lays a special injunction on the church in the West to examine modern paradigms and strategies for evangelism. Often Christian missionary approaches are founded on racial and religious assumptions that assign native populations and traditional cultures to an inferior status. The general premise is that prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries, people lived in a morass of darkness and depravity. This traditionally has been the basis for the almost-militant missionary scramble for native souls. Some U.S.-based Web sites include references to India as a "a land of 333 million gods" that is a virtual "Babel" linguistically and the self-identification of missionaries as "warriors of Christ," "crusading" for the "lost" and "unreached."

Such attitudes are deeply offensive to non-Christians and are ultimately counter-productive for the exercise of religious freedom. New and constructive understandings of Christian mission are in order. Otherwise, missionary activity can contribute directly, if unwittingly, to the persecution of Christians.

The stakes are high. Indeed, the persecution of Christians is a threat not only to the church. Eventually it threatens to destabilize the pluralistic and secular status of nation states and plunge them into theocracies or fundamentalist, despotic regimes. That bleak future might make all of us an endangered species.

Ivy George was a professor and chair of the department of sociology and social work at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, when this article appeared.

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