The First Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights enshrines the
right to religious freedom with the words, “Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise
thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of
the people peaceably to assemble.”
While a treasured freedom in the United States and in much of the
West, the ability to practice one’s religion in safety is denied to many
worldwide. Christians are by far the most numerous victims — 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination
are committed against them, according to Under Caesar’s Sword, a collaborative
global research project on Christian persecution from the University of Notre
Dame in South Bend, Ind.
Tens of thousands of Christians and Catholics, facing death or
forced conversions, fled their homes in Iraq when the Islamic State group took
control of the region. This past Advent, 25 people were murdered and many more
were injured by a suicide bomber at St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo.
The Muslim militant group Boko Haram in Nigeria has killed thousands. These
horrific stories are well-known, but many others go untold. A recent
documentary, also named “Under Caesar's Sword,” explores this worldwide
Though these experiences are unfamiliar to most Americans, the
documentary hopes viewers find solidarity with their fellow Christians. “It's
easy to think this just happens out there in some exotic, terrible place,” said
Timothy Shah, an Under Caesar’s Sword team member and a senior advisor with the Religious
Freedom Institute in Washington. “No matter what context,
faithfulness to the Gospel means we’re strangers in a strange land, seeking a
Under Caesar's Sword
“(My persecution was) hell on earth,” said Helen Berhane, an
Eritrean woman who was kept in a shipping container for two years. Her crime
was releasing an album of Gospel music. The 26-minute film shows the similarly horrific
and life-altering circumstances many Christians face.
The documentary briefly mentions conditions in countries such as
Pakistan and Iraq, but it focuses on two places not widely known for
persecution of religious minorities: Turkey and India. While India remains a
pluralistic society, Turkey is largely Muslim. Less than 1 percent of the large
Turkish city of Istanbul is non-Muslim, while a century ago those minorities
made up one-third of the population.
The documentary showed the range of repressive environments, from
outright violence to marginalization.
“Most of the persecution is serious but it doesn't take these
horrific forms,” said Shah. “Rather it’s daily pressure, daily obstacles which
sometimes flair up into violence, as in India. It’s governments putting in
place bureaucratic hurdles for churches to register or even exist — things we take for granted.”
A Turkish Protestant pastor spoke about the assassination attempt on his life.
A professor spoke about the erasure of Christian churches and art from the
country. Laki Vingas, a former representative of non-Muslim minorities in the
Turkish General Assembly, spoke about the importance of showing the country who
they are and what they believe, no matter what the consequences.
In some regions of India, Christians face persecution from
extremist Hindus. In 2008, dozens of Christians in the Kandhamal region were
killed and thousands more displaced as rioters destroyed homes and churches.
Yet after being attacked, the Christians began peace-building efforts with the
Hindus, Muslims and other groups in their community.
A U. S. response to religious persecution
Under Caesar’s Sword estimates that in 2012, 74 percent of the world’s
population lived in a religiously repressive country. The U.S. government rates
the worst of the worst — China, Iran,
Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan and others. Second-tier countries include Turkey,
India and Russia.
In 1998, led by Northern Virginia Congressman Frank R. Wolf, the
U.S. Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act, which created a
commission to monitor religious freedom worldwide. The law also created an
ambassador of international religious freedom within the State Department.
Egregious violators of religious freedom can be sanctioned.
Dec. 16, President Barack Obama signed the Frank R. Wolf
International Religious Freedom Act, authored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and
co-sponsored by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) Building on the original law, it
creates a comprehensive list of all those imprisoned for their religion, and a
list of individuals and entities, such as terrorist groups, who oppress certain
“We are witnessing a tragic, global crisis in religious
persecution, violence and terrorism, with dire consequences for religious
believers and for U.S. national security,” Smith said in a press release. “The
freedom to practice a religion without persecution is a precious right for
everyone, of whatever race, sex, or location on earth.”
Though the executive branch and the State Department, aided by
the expertise of the commission, have the power to strengthen international
religious freedom, Shah believes neither the Bush nor Obama administration made
it a priority. “Is (religious freedom) a central part our bilateral discussion
with Iran or China or is it at the core of how we think of a more stable Middle
East? No, but the answer should be yes,” he said.
For things to change, Shah believes American Christians must aid
persecuted Christians through prayer, charity and lastly by means of
petitioning elected officials. “We can’t subcontract concern and compassion,”
he said. “We can’t expect our government to do what we’re not willing to do.”
Find out more:
To watch the documentary and learn more about Under
Caesar’s Sword, visit ucs.nd.edu/film/.