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When I published “The Global War on Christians” almost four years ago, trying to tell stories of anti-Christian persecution around the world, I remember distinctly the most common opening question I would get in TV and radio interviews about the book and in talks I gave on it. In one form or another, it was this: “Is there really such a thing as a war on Christians?”
At that stage, many ordinary Americans and Europeans had a hard time believing that anti-Christian violence was anything other than sporadic, and couldn’t help wondering if claims to the contrary weren’t a political ploy to gin up sympathy for unpopular Christian positions in the Western wars of culture. That, of course, was before ISIS declared its “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, and before it unleashed its massive campaign against Christians and Yazidis in the Nineveh Plains in August 2014.
If there could ever be said to be a silver lining to something as terrifying as the rise of ISIS, it at least has made denial on anti-Christian persecution no longer sustainable. Indeed, in many ways today it would seem that public opinion is actually ahead of the political response.
A new Marist Poll, released on Tuesday by the Knights of Columbus, finds that Americans — by almost 20 percentage points, 51 to 36 percent — agree that the ISIS targeting of Christians and other minorities meets the conventional definition of genocide.
To date, however, the US State Department has resisted appeals to label the ISIS assault on Christians a genocide, although it did find that the term does apply to the Yazidi minority in the region.
The same Marist poll, which was funded by the Knights of Columbus, found that nearly 6 in 10 Americans (59 percent), say they have heard “a great deal” or “a good amount” about the targeting of Christians and other religious minorities by ISIS.
Precisely because ISIS is so notorious and shockingly brutal, however, there’s a danger of a new form of denial about anti-Christian persecution: Thinking that it’s all about ISIS, or, more broadly, all about Islamic radicalism.
One wonders, for instance, what a similar poll would have found about awareness in the United States of threats facing India’s Christian minority from an increasingly aggressive Hindu nationalist movement that now has the power of the state behind it.
What might it have found about how familiar Americans are with the ongoing murder of Christian pastors and activists in parts of Latin America, either for standing up to vicious drug cartels or to paramilitary groups — which, these days, are increasingly indistinguishable from one another?
Would Americans be able to guess at the number of Christians believed to be held in forced labor camps in nations such as North Korea and Eritrea, or the number of Christian clergy presently behind bars in China? Would they have a sense of the number of Christian catechists, pastors, lay activists, and ordinary faithful who have gone to their deaths for reasons related to the faith amid the lethal “Congo Wars” in Africa over the past couple of decades?
Quite probably, the totals from such a poll would be considerably lower than what the Marist survey found about awareness of ISIS.
Indirect confirmation of the point came this week, as Crux and The Boston Globe launched a major series on anti-Christian persecution. We began with a package from the Middle East, focusing on Egypt; later installments will take us to Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
A common theme in responses I received is anxiety that the series could inflame hatred of Muslims in the West. One reader, who saw the cover story in the Globe, told me that at a time in American politics when Donald Trump seems to be on an anti-Islamic crusade, and is leading the Republican pack for 2016, we’re playing with fire.
The unspoken assumption is that stories of Christian suffering today are, always and everywhere, stories about Muslim atrocities.
For the record, three points can never be repeated often enough to put the understanding of anti-Christian persecution in the early 21st century in its proper context.
In terms of Islamic radicalism, its most frequent victims are other Muslims. For that matter, Christians can just as easily be victimizers as victims, a truth brought home with bloody eloquence by armed Christian militias today in the war-torn Central African Republic.
If Christians are to denounce religious violence and extremism, they must include their own forms in the indictment — a point Pope Francis made on his recent trip to the CAR.
Whatever one may think of American church/state tensions, for instance, they have nothing to do with Kanaka Rekha Nayak, a Baptist and illiterate Dalit (an “untouchable” under the Indian caste system) who saw her husband brutally slaughtered by Hindu radicals in 2008 after he refused to renounce his faith.
The imperative of defending such vulnerable and largely defenseless people should not be muddied by being artificially swept up into Western battles of left v. right.
This is not to ignore the fact that radical Islam may be the world’s leading manufacturer of anti-Christian hatred today, and confronting that threat is a towering strategic and human rights challenge.
But to take just one example, the country with the highest total of physical assaults on Christians in 2014 — basically one every other day, which has been the case since at least 1997, when local monitors started collecting data — was India, and the primary source of those assaults was Hindu, not Muslim, extremism.
Religious extremism is one of mega-stories of our time, and anti-Christian persecution is its most statistically significant chapter. That’s in part because there are simply more Christians worldwide, at 2.3 billion, than followers of other faiths, and they’re more geographically spread out, so their exposure is proportionately greater.
That story, however, is not all about Islam. When a poll finds that Americans appreciate that truth as thoroughly as they now do the threat posed by ISIS, then a real turning point will have arrived.
By John L. Allen Jr.
Associate editor December 16, 2015