THE BASILICA OF St. Bartholomew on the Island in Rome holds the bones of the apostle St. Bartholomew, who delivered the gospel of Matthew to India, southern Arabia, and Syria. Spreading the seditious good news eventually got him killed—crucified upside down in Baku, capital of modern Azerbaijan. Bartholomew proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus until the soldiers cut off his head.
In 1999, this church nestled on an island in the Tiber River was dedicated to modern Christian martyrs. Entering its cool interior, one can walk a global Via Dolorosa—each side altar is dedicated to parts of the world where Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox have been killed for their faith.
The relics include a letter from Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian farmer beheaded for refusing to serve in Hitler’s army, and the missal of Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero left on the altar when he was assassinated during Mass in 1980.
Christians today fall out over Christian martyrs and persecution in a right/left divide. We fight about numbers. In 2015, Christian Freedom International released an often repeated statistic suggesting that Christians are “martyred for their faith every five minutes.” This has been widely debunked. But it raises questions about definitions, methodologies, and theological perspectives.
Thomas Schirrmacher directs the International Institute for Religious Freedom, which runs a research project with several universities to measure Christian persecution. He estimates that there are 7,000 to 8,000 Christian martyrs each year, a number that roughly matches the Open Doors World Watch List, which reported 7,106 Christians killed in 2015, an increase over previous years and far less than one Christian every five minutes.
Religious freedom remains under “serious and sustained assault” around the globe, according to a new annual report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“At best, in most of the countries we cover, religious freedom conditions have failed to improve,” commission chairman Robert P. George said May 2.
“At worst, they have spiraled further downward.”
Pope Francis’ impassioned praise of China this week is the strongest sign of the pontiff’s ambitious agenda to use his personal and political clout to transform the historically fraught relations between Beijing and the Holy See. “For me, China has always been a reference point of greatness. A great country. But more than a country, a great culture, with an inexhaustible wisdom,” the pope said at the start of his interview with Asia Times, which was published Feb. 2.
A church and mosque in France’s “jungle” camp for migrants and refugees have been destroyed, despite authorities’ reportedly promising not to demolish the places of worship. Bulldozers moved into the camp in Calais, the departure point for ferries to Great Britain, on Feb. 1 and tore down the mosque, which reportedly drew up to 300 worshippers each day, and St. Michael’s Church, a makeshift chapel serving mainly Orthodox Ethiopian Christians.
On Jan. 16, our nation will observe National Religious Freedom Day. This day commemorates the Virginia General Assembly’s adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom back in 1786. As Jefferson’s statute proclaimed, religious freedom is among the “natural rights of mankind.” Yet to this day, billions of people abroad routinely are denied this liberty.
Paul Bhatti, a Roman Catholic, worked as a surgeon in his home country of Pakistan and in Europe, while his brother, Shahbaz, went into politics and became Pakistan’s only Christian Cabinet member as the country’s first minister of minority affairs. Then, on March 2, 2011, Shahbaz was cut down in a hail of bullets in an attack by a militant group that called him “a blasphemer.”
With North Korea leading the way and Islamic extremism rapidly expanding, 2015 was the “worst year in modern history for Christian persecution,” according to a group tracking this issue.
A government plan to regulate religious groups is shaping into a bitter fight, with Christian and Muslim leaders protesting that it tramples over religious freedom. The government published a set of rules this month that require religious leaders to have theological degrees and religious groups to submit a statement of faith.
Right now, a contentious debate over religious freedom is tearing at the social fabric of a nation, and partisans seeking to take advantage of the uproar are fueling the fires of mistrust and division.
But I’m not talking about the U.S. and arguments over contraceptive mandates and same-sex marriage. (And I’m certainly not talking about red coffee cups!) This struggle for religious freedom is taking place in Bangladesh, and the “debate” is being waged not with words and laws, but with machetes and terror.
In the past eight months, five people have been hacked to death by Islamic extremists associated with terror groups such as Ansar Bangla and al-Qaida. Each victim was targeted for writing or publishing works that advocate for secular democracy and criticize religion and fundamentalism. Many other writers have been injured in these attacks.
Hand-wringing among religious folks has never been in short supply, but the doomdayers really had their day a couple of weeks ago, when the Pew Research Center confirmed what conventional wisdom has known now for decades.
We are in an age of post-Christendom — or, American adherents of Christianity continue to decline at a massive rate.
This is a case of statistics catching up with reality. For decades churches have been closing, Sunday Schools have been shrinking, and confirmation classes have been getting smaller. Especially among Catholics and mainline Protestants, the sky has been falling for many years. The right blames gay rights and liberal theology; the left blames hate speech and an overly doctrinal attitude.
Just a few decades ago, Aleppo was home to about 170,000 Catholics, about a third of the city’s population. Since the war broke out, Jeanbart has seen a third of his flock reduced by death, dislocation, and emigration while Aleppo’s Muslim population has soared.
The threat of annihilation is constant, as Aleppo has become the main battleground between the government forces of President Bashar Assad and a motley assortment of rebels who include growing numbers of fighters affiliated with the fundamentalist terrorism of the Islamic State group.
A Russian pastor whose grandfather was killed for being a Christian toured the U.S. recently, studying church ministries and providing a rare, first-person look at Russia’s complex religious landscape after widespread persecution ended.
During Victor Ignatenkov’s youth under the Soviet regime, Christians could meet only for worship.
No Sunday school.
No midweek Bible study.
And definitely no proselytizing.
Today, Ignatenkov, 59, said he’s free to lead whatever activities he wants as pastor of the Central Baptist Church in his hometown of Smolensk — a city situated between the capitals of Russia and Ukraine — and as regional bishop for the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptist. The union is a group of evangelical Protestant churches that began emerging in Russia about 150 years ago as an alternative to the Russian Orthodox establishment.
Pope Francis sought forgiveness for decades of persecution of Italian Pentecostals when he met with around 300 evangelicals from the U.S., Argentina, and Italy in the southern town of Caserta on Monday.
The pope made his second visit in as many days to the Mafia stronghold near Naples, this time to meet evangelical pastor Giovanni Traettino, whom he befriended while he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.
During the visit, Francis apologized for the persecution suffered by Pentecostals under Italy’s fascist regime in the 1920s and 1930s and urged Christians to celebrate their diversity and unity.
“Catholics were among those who persecuted and denounced the Pentecostals, almost as if they were crazy,” Francis said.
“I am the shepherd of the Catholics and I ask you to forgive my Catholic brothers and sisters who did not understand and were tempted by the devil.”
Since his election last year, the pope has been reaching out to other faiths and has held talks with Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim leaders. On Monday, he went even further by apologizing for what Catholics had done.
The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an appeal from a family seeking asylum in the United States because home schooling is not allowed in their native Germany.
The case involves Uwe and Hannelore Romeike, Christians who believe German schools would have a bad influence on their six children. The family’s case became a rallying point for many American Christians.
As is their custom, the justices on the high court declined to give a reason for not hearing the case.
Michael Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association that represents the family, said the group would pursue legislation in Congress to allow the family to stay. But the Romeikes will likely face deportation.
LONDON — Eight of the 47 countries that hold seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council imprisoned people in 2013 under laws that restrict religious freedom, according to a new report from Human Rights Without Frontiers International, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Belgium.
The eight UNHRC member states on the group’s second annual World Freedom of Religion or Belief Prisoners List, released Monday, are Morocco, China, and Saudi Arabia (whose new three-year terms begin Wednesday), and current members India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Libya, and South Korea.
Hundreds of believers and atheists were imprisoned in these and 16 other countries for exercising religious freedom or freedom of expression rights related to religious issues, according to the report. These rights include the freedom to change religions, share beliefs, object to military service on conscientious grounds, worship, assemble, and associate freely. Violations related to religious defamation and blasphemy are also included in the report.
American Jews say they face discrimination in the U.S., but they see Muslims, gays, and blacks facing far more.
This and other findings from the recently released Pew Research Center’s landmark study on Jewish Americans help make the case that Jews — once unwelcome in many a neighborhood, universitym, and golf club — now find themselves an accepted minority.
“While there are still issues, American Jews live in a country where they feel they are full citizens,” said Kenneth Jacobson, deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which was founded in 1913 to combat anti-Semitism.