Christians have never been free of persecution.

This article contains potentially disturbing accounts of harassment, torture and violence.

The media organization Al Jazeera in 2018 published this about the persecution of Muslims. What is happening to Muslims around the globe? In China they are put into concentration camps, in Myanmar they are slaughtered en masse, in India they have been the targets of systematic pogroms, in Israel along with Christian Palestinians they are mowed down on a daily basis, in Europe and the United States they are subject to increasing demonization and persecution.

The fate of Muslims in their own homeland is not particularly rosier. From one end of the Muslim world to the next, Muslims — in Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia in particular — live under tyrannical regimes, ruthless dictators, murderous military juntas, with their most basic civil liberties and human rights denied. In Yemen, they are being slaughtered and subjected to man-made famine by the Saudis and their partners — and if one journalist dared to raise his voice he is chopped up to pieces in his own country’s consulate (Hamid Dabashi, Dec. 22, 2018).

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No doubt a comment like this would be as relevant today as it was five years ago.

I would like, however, in this column to consider the persecution of Christians, about which I know more.

Christians have never been free of persecution. During the early decades of the Christian movement, the regional authorities of the Roman Empire treated the followers of Jesus Christ barbarically. In the most infamous case, the Emperor Nero looked for a scapegoat to blame for a disastrous fire that engulfed much of the city of Rome in 64 AD/CE. Thus began the killing of many believers. Nero captured them and fed them to lions before crowds in the Coliseum, the great outdoor stadium that still stands today. Others he burned alive as human torches during his parties.

Anti Christian feeling persisted throughout the first centuries of Christianity, mainly because Christians refused to worship the emperor (Roman emperors, like many before and after them, demanded to be seen as literal gods or their offspring). They also refused to participate in the worship of the gods of any particular city or region. Such gods, as Artemis of the city of Ephesus, Venus and Zeus, were legion. To not participate smacked of being anti-social and of political subversion. For Christians, murder, including by crucifixion, ostracism, and black listing ebbed and flowed during those first centuries.

Later centuries saw the ill treatment of Christians evolve. The expansion of Islam by war from the 7th century on and the rise of violent communism in the 20th century were disastrous for Christians. At other times, following the European Reformation, Christians even turned on each other.

According to the Christian persecution watch organization, Open Doors, such treatment continues. Here are some of the numbers current on their website. 360 million Christians around the world suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith.” “2,110 churches and Christian buildings were attacked last year [2022].” “5,259 Christians were abducted last year.” “5,621 Christians were murdered for their faith last year.”

Why do we not hear more about the persecution of Christian believers? It may be the failure of Christians themselves. It is easier to hope and pray that things will get better than to raise a voice in support of those who are suffering. I count myself among the failed.

At the same time, it is not fashionable to publicize the victimizing of Christians. After all, Christians have been convicted of mistreating others during the long history of Christianity. So, in Canada and west, we hear little about Christian victims while the mistreatment of indigenous people, women, and members of sexual and gender minorities is — justifiably — well publicized. But can’t this failure to report be corrected? It should.

Still, there is one last thing about the suffering of Christian believers that should be recognized. Christians themselves are ambivalent about complaining about personal suffering. Why?

One reason is that the “founder” of Christianity suffered the savage death of a Roman criminal (I put the word in quotation marks because Jesus did not, as modern people would say, “start a new religion;” but that is another story which I have written about at times). He was crucified. And before that he suffered the slings and arrows of public ridicule as well as numerous false accusations which, fatally for him, stuck. In the hours preceding his death, Roman guards tortured and taunted him.

Therefore, when a believer suffers for the faith, it is a way of being united with her or his Saviour. In suffering, the martyrs are more fully one with the suffering Christ. The first generation of Christian martyrs, in fact, willingly accepted their suffering. The Apostle Paul who was jailed, whipped, stoned, and shipwrecked for his troubles, wrote, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8).

The suffering of Christians may not typically be wanted. But it is by no means without meaning. In fact, in all Christian traditions, the greatest heroes are not those who become successful and powerful. They are the ones who endure the worst for their faith. Therefore, the Christian “highway of heroes” includes Boniface and Fr. Jean de Brébeuf. Boniface was killed by my ancestors in 754 in Friesland, the Netherlands, as he brought the faith to them. De Brébeuf was tortured to death at St. Marie Among the Hurons in 1649, just a couple of hours from London.

Persecuted Christians have been with us for a very long time. It is important that their present situation should be better known. But learning more about their suffering is not merely a matter of seeking justice. It is also to walk on sacred ground.

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