The Shifting Patterns of Global Christian Persecution

by vaughn_admin  //  

July 14, 2016

In light of recent attacks against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq by the jihadist group ISIS, as well as ongoing attacks against Christian minorities in other regions, Cornerstone has asked respondents to discuss global Christian persecution. Contributors focus on the patterns of persecution and the attitudes informing these human rights violations. 

By: Todd Johnson

Over the past year, Northern Nigeria has been marked by a series of ongoing and appalling events: churches burned, Christians killed, and, more recently and tragically, over 200 young girls (mostly Christian) kidnapped by Boko Haram militants. Unfortunately, situations like these occur all too frequently in a host of other countries around the world, including China, Egypt, Eritrea, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sudan, and Syria. All of this is somewhat surprising, considering that we have now left behind what historian Robert Conquest termed “The Ravaged Century”—the twentieth century, the bloodiest in human history. Nonetheless, we are still experiencing Christian persecution in the twenty-first century, and there are discernible changes in the patterns of persecution and killing in terms of geography, Christian tradition, and persecutors.

From global North to global South
In 1910 over 80 percent of all Christians lived in Europe and Northern America (the global North). By 2010 this had fallen to less than 40 percent, with the majority of Christians located in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (global South). In the twentieth century, the Christians who were persecuted were mainly Europeans living under oppressive regimes. Today, 75 percent of all Christian persecution occurs in the global South; this is expected to rise to 80 percent by 2020.

From Orthodox and Catholic to Pentecostal and Independent
The shift of Christianity geographically from North to South has also caused a shift in the kinds of Christians who are persecuted. In the twentieth century persecution was based largely in the global North with fascists and communists persecuting Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants, especially in the Soviet Union. In the twenty-first century, persecution is based largely in the global South where victims are often Pentecostals and Independents (the two fastest growing traditions in global Christianity). Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians are still among those persecuted, but no longer in the overwhelming majority.

From state-based to society-based persecution
Persecution in the twentieth century was largely state-based, such as under Stalinists in Russia and Nazis in Germany. Persecution in the twenty-first century is both state-based and society-based. Persecutors today are not only those in power, but could also be neighbors, and represent a wide variety of ideologies including communism, nationalism, communalism, and religion. Persecution was greater in 1970 (26 percent of all Christians worldwide were persecuted) than in 2000 (20 percent), but is currently on the rise: 22 percent today, headed to 24 percent by 2020.

What can be done about this?
No one benefits from the persecution of others—we all suffer when another human being suffers. Christian persecution is a problem for all global citizens to address, along with persecution of people of other religions (or no religion). The United States (the country with the most Christians worldwide) might feel a special burden to stop persecution, but like any other nation, its foreign policy tends to express primarily its own interests. How likely is the United States to invest in global engagement when national benefits are considered first and foremost? Christians in the United States could surprise their own government and others around the world by watching closely and valuing global human freedoms above national gain. Only therein lies the potential to truly leave behind the ravaged century and enter one that ensures fundamental freedoms for all humanity.

Todd Johnson is associate professor of Global Christianity and director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

This piece was originally authored on August 25, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.