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A Modern Myth?

The Myth of Persecution?

by Dr. Steve Elwart


Revisionist history as illustrated in Moss’s book is indicative of a modern trend to discount the suffering Christians are enduring today.

Author Candida Moss recently wrote a book titled, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. In the book, Moss, a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, posits that “…the ‘Age of Martyrs’ is a fiction and a ‘false history of persecution.’”

There was no sustained 300-year-long effort by the Romans to persecute Christians. Instead, these stories were “pious exaggerations; highly stylized rewritings of Jewish, Greek, and Roman noble death traditions; and even forgeries designed to marginalize heretics, inspire the faithful, and fund churches.”

Through her book, Moss asks Christians to abandon the notion that the world is out to get Christians and look to the “martyrdom stories” only for consolation, moral instruction, and spiritual guidance.

The author writes that the persecution of Christians may have occurred, but the persecutions were sporadic, of short duration, and lackadaisical. Moss writes that Christians may have found themselves in Roman courts for any number of reasons, but when asked to defend themselves, they were prone to announcing, as a believer named Liberian once did, “that he cannot be respectful to the emperor, that he can be respectful only to Christ.” She compares this to “modern defendants who say that they will not recognize the authority of the court or of the government, but recognize only the authority of God.”

She believes that “for modern Americans, as for ancient Romans, this sounds either sinister or vaguely insane.”

Moss acknowledges that there may have been horrific executions during the first three centuries of Christianity, but discounts these as mere aberrations.

While Christian persecutions outlined in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs may not be 100% historically accurate, to discount the text and the early Christian martyrdom it documents as fiction flies in the face of the historical record.

Revisionist history as illustrated in Candida Moss’s book is indicative of a modern trend to discount the suffering Christians are enduring today.

Modern Persecutions

Persecution takes several forms and is well documented. In a new book titled Christianophobia, a Faith Under Attack,1 Rupert Shortt, the Religion Editor of the Times Literary Supplement and a Visiting Fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, illustrates that while many faith-based groups face discrimination or persecution, Christians are targeted more than any other body of believers.

A 2011 Pew Forum study2 found that Christians are persecuted in 131 countries around the world with 200 million Christians (or 10% of Christians worldwide) being socially disadvantaged, harassed or actively oppressed for their beliefs.

Throughout Africa, the Middle East, and the subcontinent, there is hardly a country that operates without some sort of restrictions on Christians. According to Anthony O’Mahony of Heythrop College, London, between one half and two-thirds of Christians in the region have left or been killed over the past century.

Over 100,000 Catholic civilians in East Timor were murdered by the Suharto regime during the period from 1970 to 1990. Two million Christians and other non-Muslims perished in Sudan’s civil conflict between 1985 and 2005, which the United Nations alternately called “tribal feuds” and “raiding parties.” In Nigeria, the Islamic group Boko Haram went on a rampage against Christians. Church bombings, machete attacks, and targeted killings were directed at church leaders and their flocks.

For the most part, the world was silent. A recent Wall Street Journal article titled “The Most Persecuted Religion3 quoted Johnnie Carson, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, who “sanitized the intentions of this murderous group” by claiming that, “The bulk of the Boko Haram movement is …trying to do everything in its power to show that the (Nigerian) government is ineffective.”

But as the article points out, “…two months before the official spoke, Boko Haram had claimed responsibility for the murder of dozens of Christians in the city of Jos—just one of many such attacks.” Christians in parts of Nigeria live in fear of being attacked and there is ample evidence that the attacks are sanctioned by the Nigerian government.

Of course, it’s not just Nigeria. Entire Christian communities have disappeared in Iraq and in Syria; Christians are being targeted by Islamist radicals mixed in with the Syrian opposition forces. Persecutions are rampant in other countries as well. Some instances are well known and others have not been given much coverage in the media.

Egypt

For centuries, Egypt had a tradition of toleration in their country. Theirs is a society with the largest Christian minority of any Arab country. Fifteen per cent of the population was Copts as recently as two generations ago, with ten million Christians living in the country. According to Dr Ibrahim Habib, an Egyptian-born Copt, the wide-spread persecution of Christians started almost forty years ago with the Arab Oil Embargo.

The skyrocketing price of crude triggered by the embargo gave Wahhabi extremists in Saudi Arabia the finances to spread their brand of Muslim extremism around the world. (It was this creeping Muslim extremism in the country that forced Habib to eventually leave Egypt and take up residence in Britain.) According to Habib:

In Wabbabis’ eyes, Copts are…infidels and polytheists prone to hating Islam and conspiring against it… Anyone who follows the portrayal of Copts on dozens of satellite channels and Salafist websites is bound to be saddened. … There are countless examples, but I will cite here what I read on the well-known Salafist website “Guardians of the Faith,” which devoted a whole article to the subject, “Why Muslims Are Superior to Copts … Being a Muslim who fights to defend his honor and his faith is better than being a Christian who steals, rapes, and kills children … Being a Muslim whose role models are Muhammad and his companions is better than being a Christian whose role models are Paul the Liar [sic] and the whoremongering prophets.” As this enmity towards Copts spreads, is it not natural, even inevitable, that it should end in attacks on them? 4

Among the starkest examples of Islamist aggression against Christians in Egypt were the murders of 13 worshippers at the St George’s Church in Nag Hammadi, 25 miles from Luxor, in January 2010. Another example is the bombing of the Two Saints’ Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve that same year. Twenty worshippers were killed, and seventy wounded in the attack, which was predicated on the rumor that two female converts to Islam had been kidnapped and held inside the church.5

The election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi as Egypt’s President in 2012 has led to a certain trepidation on the part of the Christians still left in the country. While Morsi’s popular election was a hopeful sign of possible full democracy to come, his ties with the radical Islamic sect remain a deep source of concern for the Egyptian Church.

Iraq

In 1990, there were between 1.2 and 1.4 million Christians in the country ruled by Saddam Hussein. By the time of the second Gulf war in 2003, this figure had fallen to about 800,000, down about half a million.6 Today, fewer than 200,000 Christians remain.

According to Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil in Northern Iraq, the killings of Christians began in earnest in 2003 when the first translator was killed in Baghdad. In 2006, the targeted killings of Christian leaders escalated when an Orthodox Christian priest, Boulos Iskander, was kidnapped, beheaded and dismembered despite payment of a ransom. In the following four years, 17 Iraqi priests and 2 Iraqi Bishops were kidnapped in Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk. While they were being held captive, all of the clerics were tortured by their kidnappers. While most were eventually released, one bishop and seven other clerics were killed. In most cases, the kidnappers told their hostages they wanted Christians out of Iraq.

While much of the persecution is instigated by Muslims, they are not the only group that oppresses Christians. Many countries that don’t make the headlines, such as North Korea, Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka and Burma, and predominantly Hindu countries such as India regularly persecute Christians and have few or no ties to Islam.

India

Between August and October of 2008, the eastern Indian state of Orissa experienced the worst outbreak of Christian persecution since their Independence from Great Britain in 1947. Hindu extremists attacked over 150 churches, murdering at least 90 people and driving at least 50,000 people from their homes. Some of the displaced persons were Hindus who had tried to defend their Christian neighbors.

The victims included a Catholic priest and nun who worked in a Christian center in the area. The nun, Sr. Meena Barwa, was kidnapped, beaten, and assaulted before she was able to escape. At one point, their kidnappers wanted to burn her alive with the priest. At present, many Christians are still living in refugee camps, afraid to go home for fear of other attacks.

The more militant Hindu groups in India are known collectively as the Sangh Pravar. The Vishna Hindu Parishad (VHP) is the religious wing of the organization and has been implicated in many of the Christian persecutions. The VHP’s youth wing, known as the Bajrang Dal, is also often the source of violence against both Christians and Muslims in the country.

In Dinapur, a town west of Orissa, around 25 Hindu militants forced their way into the Believers Church of India on March 21, 2011. Once inside they confiscated stacks of Christian literature and threatened to come back and beat them if the church members did not leave the area. One member of the congregation, a government worker, was told that she would lose her job unless she renounced Christianity and returned to the Hindu faith. Police detained members of the Christian congregation for three hours, but supported the extremists.7

In another incident in Madhya Pradesh, approximately a dozen extremists entered an evening prayer meeting organized by the Evangelical Lutheran Church on April 17, 2010. Many members of the congregation fled, but later realized that their pastor, Amit Gilbert, was not with them. Gilbert’s body was later found in the village well.8

Burma

Burma (also known as Myanmar) is a country that has been dubbed “a giant prison without walls.” The country has been under military control since a coup toppled the government in 1962 and since then, there have been reports of systematic human rights violations.

While the military in the country has been relinquishing more of its control over the government in recent years, the persecutions continue. While the harsh treatment dealt to activists in the country such as Aung San Suu Kyi are well known, the targeting of people specifically for their religion has not been as well publicized. Anti-Christian discrimination has perhaps been the least-noticed problem of all.

Those who are particularly vulnerable are those that are a “double minority,” both by religion (Christian) and ethnicity (Chin). As one Chin Christian woman said: “If you are ‘double C’—being a Chin and being a Christian—you have nothing in Burma, not a bright future at all.”9

The facts prove her statement true. About 90% of the Chin are Christian, according to the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) and while the Chin population estimated to be 1.2 million people, the CHRO estimates that less than half this number live within Chin state.

The Three Phases of Persecution

The religious oppression suffered by Christians in Burma was summed up by Johann Candelin, the Goodwill Ambassador of the World Evangelical Fellowship, but his words could apply to persecution of Christians everywhere:

Persecution seems to pass through three phases. The first is disinformation. Disinformation begins more often than not in the media. Through printed articles, radio, television and other means, Christians are robbed of their good reputation and their right to answer accusations made against them. Without trial, they are found guilty of all kinds of misdemeanors. The public opinion that easily results from being constantly fed such disinformation will not protect Christians from the next step, which is discrimination. Discrimination relegates Christians to a “second-class” citizenship with poorer legal, social, political and economic standing than the majority in the country. The third stage is persecution, which once the first two steps have been crossed can be practiced with impunity without normal protective measures taking place. Persecution can arise from the state, the police or military, extreme organizations, mobs, paramilitary groups, or representatives of other religions. In my opinion, it is vitally important to recognize this three-stage development, so that timely, firm and appropriate action can be taken the moment there is any sign of disinformation.10

So with all the persecution going on in the world, what do we do? First, learn more about what is happening. Do some research. You can go to the Facebook page: Praying for Persecuted Christians11 to see recent reports of persecutions. Persecution.org also has a Twitter Feed12 you can subscribe to for up-to-the-minute reports. Finally, Voice of the Martyrs13 is an excellent site for learning more about our persecuted brethren around the world.

Second, talk about Christian persecution to your family and friends. Support groups that help persecuted Christians. Spread the word on Facebook and Twitter. Become involved. Contact the government officials that represent you and your concerns. Write letters to the editor.

Third, be a Watchman on the walls. Do not let people believe that persecution is a myth. Remember that persecution is characteristic of this world and Satan is the arch-persecutor of the church.

Above all, pray. Pray for those who “are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” For their sake, we cannot remain silent.


Notes

  1. http://tinyurl.com/cwdrnhr
  2. http://tinyurl.com/6woa8za
  3. http://tinyurl.com/cd3gb48
  4. Alaa al-Aswany, On the State of Egypt: What caused the revolution (Canongate, 2011), p.129.
  5. Yaroslav Trofimov, ‘As Islamists flex muscle, Egypt’s Christians despair’, Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2011.http://tinyurl.com/3pjfv3u).
  6. http://www.catholicbishops.ie/2011/03/16/christians-iraq-address-archbishop-bashar-warda-erbil-northern-iraq/
  7. CSW India report, “Communalism, Anti-Conversion and Religious Freedom,” June 2011, pg. 37 http://tinyurl.com/c5jav55 .
  8. Asia News, 4/4/2010.
  9. Women’s League of Chinland, “Hidden Crimes against Chin Women,” 2006.
  10. Rogers, B. (2007).
  11. http://tinyurl.com/bl6tflg
  12. https://twitter.com/persecutionnews
  13. http://www.persecution.com/

Sources

  • Berry, W. G. (2002). Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group.
  • Rogers, B. (2007). Carrying the Cross. Casper, WY: Christian Solidarity Worldwide - USA.
  • Shortt, R. (2013). Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

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