New documentary shows the worldwide persecution of Christians

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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 persecution.

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 better country.”

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 religious groups.

“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/.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017

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