Persecuted Christians not ‘passive victims,’ researcher says

Daniel Philpott, professor at the University of Notre Dame, responds to questions at Baylor University following his presentation on "Under Caesar's Sword," a research project on how Christians globally respond to persecution. (Photo / Ken Camp)

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WACO—Christians are the victims of 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination globally, but 80 percent of the Christians in the world have no direct contact with that persecution, according to research a University of Notre Dame professor presented at Baylor University.

“Most Western Christians have little direct experience with religious persecution and repression,” said Daniel Philpott, a political science professor at Notre Dame. He spoke in Waco at an event sponsored by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.

So, to shed light on the persecution of Christians and explore their responses to it, Philpott directed Under Caesar’s Sword, a three-year international project involving 17 scholars who conducted first-hand research on persecution in 25 countries.

Most persecution of Christians occurs in a geographic band that stretches from Libya, eastward to Egypt and the rest of the Middle East, north to Russia, south to Sri Lanka, and east to China, Indonesia and North Korea, Philpott noted.

The researchers discovered Christians suffer under Islamist, Communist, religious nationalist and secular regimes, as well as at the hands of non-state actors such as militant religious extremists and terrorist organizations.

Particularly, the scholars examined how Christians respond to severe persecution in a variety of contexts.

Daniel Philpott directed the “Under Caesar’s Sword” research project.

“Persecuted Christians are not passive victims,” Philpott said. Rather, they demonstrate “courage and creativity” in their responses to persecution, he noted.

Persecuted Christians employ coping strategies

Researchers identified three general coping strategies—survival, association and confrontation.

They discovered 43 percent of Christian communities adopt survival strategies, such as fleeing to another area, moving from an overt presence to operating in secret, adapting to the culture by outward expressions of patriotism or practicing deception.

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Researchers found 38 percent of Christian communities use strategies of association—creating networks, building ecumenical partnerships and forming other relationships, either inside or outside their countries. Another association involves performing valued social services that help them earn the acceptance of local governmental leaders. Through acts of forgiveness, some Christians even achieve reconciliation with individual persecutors.

The least common coping strategy—practiced by 19 percent of Christian communities—is confrontation. Most often, this involves documenting human rights abuses to secure help from a court or a human rights group. In some contexts, it may involve nonviolent protests. Rarely, it can involve armed resistance—either in self-defense or by aligning with a group that is challenging the persecutors who are in authority.

“Christian responses to persecution are conspicuously nonviolent and—with a very few exceptions—do not involve acts of terrorism,” Philpott said.

Theology influences responses

Multiple factors—the size, cohesiveness, history and leadership of a Christian community in a given area—affect how Christians respond to persecution. But researchers also discovered their beliefs definitely have an impact on their response.

“Theology—in particular, a Christian community’s theology of suffering, church and culture—influences the response of that community,” Philpott said.

Some Christian communities see persecution as part of God’s plan, particularly as the end times approach, he noted. Others may see persecution as an expected part of their faith, but they view it as an evil to be opposed by all justifiable means that do not violate their faith.

“Protestant evangelical and Pentecostal Christians are more likely to be persecuted than mainline Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Christians or other Christians associated with ancient churches,” Philpott reported.

In part, researchers attributed the greater likelihood of persecution to the fact that evangelicals and Pentecostals often are perceived by authorities to be supported by fellow believers in the West, and they view evangelicals and Pentecostals as more likely to have an antagonistic relationship to regimes or groups that deny their religious freedom. Also, they tend to be deemed as a greater threat to the established order because of their overt efforts to evangelize and win converts to their faith.

Researchers characterized the overall response of most persecuted Christians as “creative pragmatism”—typically not dramatic and historically memorable acts of prophetic denunciation, but nonetheless faithful and courageous.

Download the full report of the Under Caesar’s Sword project, “In Response to Persecution,” here

View a 26-minute documentary based on the project’s research here

See recommendations for action here

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