No-one would describe the New York Times as especially sympathetic to orthodox Christianity. The Grey Lady’s established aversion to anything but all-but-completely secularized versions of the Christian faith didn’t, however, stop it from recently publishing a widely-read article underscoring the on-going brutal persecution of Christians in the Middle East. If the Times is perturbed about what’s happening to Christians in the region in which Christianity first emerged, that should tell us something about just how bad things are.
The facts about the deepening subjugation of Christians around the world hardly need repeating. Every day we read of the mistreatment of Christian guest-workers in Saudi Arabia, the violence unleashed against Christians in India by Hindu nationalists, the repression of Christians by China’s Communist regime, or the slaughter of African Christians by Muslim extremists. What is being inflicted upon Christians across the Middle East by ISIS and other Islamic terrorists is in a league of its own. It is, in a word, unspeakable.
When some Western Christian leaders speak about this onslaught against their fellow Christians, they tend to use language along the lines of “more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger.” To an extent, this fits with Christ’s injunction to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. That said, what is being done to Christians violates every norm of justice, and there’s been no shortage of Christian clergy who haven’t hesitated in recent years to use very direct, highly-charged, and occasionally bombastic language to condemn what they regard as economic injustices and to call out those they regard as responsible for such wrongs.
Such is the scale and sheer barbarism of the current persecution of Christians, it’s reasonable to ask if Pope Francis might consider issuing an encyclical to decry the systematic destruction of Christian communities in the Middle East and elsewhere, and to warn the perpetrators in unambiguous terms that they, like the rest of us, will not escape God’s judgment for their actions. To be sure, Francis has spoken on several occasions about what is happening to Christians in the Middle East. He has even described it as “genocide” and poignantly stressed that it amounts to an ecumenism of the blood.
Yet, as Father Benedict Kiely recently illustrated, the pope’s public comments about this subject have not always been the most coherent. In one case, Francis stated that he thought using force to defend Christians was legitimate. Yet he immediately qualified his remark by saying that this didn’t mean “bomb or make war.” What other force, one could ask, does the pope have in mind?
Popes in the quite recent past didn’t hesitate to issue encyclicals condemning the persecution of Christians. In the 1930s, for instance, Pius XI used this form of magisterial teaching on several occasions to protest the Nazi repression of the Church in Germany, the brutal treatment of Catholics at the hands of anticlerical Mexican governments, the Italian fascist regime’s harassment of Catholic groups, and Communist efforts to eliminate the Church in those lands where the hammer-and-sickle flag flew.
One reason for the hesitancy about speaking in similarly forceful terms through the medium of an encyclical about the present-day attack on Christians may be prudential. Such a document, the argument goes, could make Christians’ situation in countries like Iraq and Nigeria worse by provoking the persecutors into committing even greater barbarisms. The problem with that logic is that it’s difficult to imagine how much worse, for instance, the treatment of those Christians currently being exiled, robbed, tortured, raped, enslaved, and slaughtered by criminals like ISIS could possibly be.
Another factor that might contribute to a reluctance to issue an encyclical on this subject is that it would be hard to avoid saying something about who is doing the persecuting and why they are doing so. Certainly, much contemporary persecution of Christians is being inflicted by Communist regimes in countries such as North Korea, China, Cuba, and Vietnam, not to mention nationalists in places like India. The bulk, however, of the persecution of Christians today emanates from Muslim movements. A recent list issued by another leftist newspaper, Britain’s Guardian, illustrated that 16 of the top 25 countries in which Christians face the fiercest persecution are predominately Muslim.
This hard-to-deny fact doesn’t fit with the “religion-of-peace” narrative to which some Christians have clung in recent times: a story which doesn’t square with much of the theology and practice of many Muslim regimes and movements in past and recent history. But don’t take my word for it. Consider the writings of the Catholic world’s most prominent thinker about Islam, the Egyptian-born Lebanon-based Jesuit theologian Samir Khalil Samir.
In his many articles and books, Father Samir speaks cogently and with considerable sympathy about Islamic theology and the everyday lives of the Muslims among whom he lives. Yet he doesn’t hesitant to state in his book, 111 Questions on Islam (2002), that those who regard groups like the Taliban as acting contrary to Islamic belief “usually know little about Islam.”
In a way, it’s strange that relatively few prominent currently serving Western Catholic bishops appear to have made consistent, very public, and even outspoken protest against the persecution of Christians in places such as Iran, Syria or the Sudan a central dimension of their ministry. Figures at odds with basic Catholic teaching on the sanctity of human life such as New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio have described Pope Francis as the world’s moral leader. It would be helpful, to put it mildly, if the pope expended some of that moral capital in the form of an encyclical that (1) reassured persecuted Christians that the rest of the Church has not forgotten them; (2) asked those doing the persecution why they think they are entitled to treat Christians and others (including many Muslims) so abominably; and (3) reminded Christian leaders throughout the world that, whatever their confession, they have a concrete responsibility to do whatever they can to halt, for example, the systematic destruction of Christian life in the cradle of Christianity.
If, for instance, particular Western European Catholic bishops devoted as much time to highlighting the persecution of Christians as they are presently investing in trying to manipulate the rest of the Church into fudging settled Catholic teaching on sex and marriage, some European governments might do more to combat those groups that take such delight in humiliating Christians throughout the world. As Cardinal Robert Sarah noted in his recent interview-book, Dieu ou Rien, it’s remarkable that some Western European Catholics seem so anxious to reduce the moral demands of Catholic faith to a vacuous non-judgmentalism while some of their brothers and sisters in Christ are being killed for holding to that very same faith in other parts of the world.
In his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis invoked a dark vision of a world on the brink of environmental catastrophe. In forthcoming decades, I suspect most of these prognostications will end up in the same category to which we now consign the Armageddon-like predictions made in the 1960s by population-bomb doomsdayers such as Paul R. Ehrlich. Apocalypse, however, is the word that captures exactly what’s happening to some of the world’s Christians. And if—as it surely is—a very basic responsibility of the Church’s shepherds is to protect their flock from the wolves, there’s no good reason why the Church’s chief shepherd shouldn’t speak firmly, coherently, and through the medium of one of the highest forms of magisterial teaching about the onslaught against Christians today.
Of course, doing so wouldn’t win the Pope applause from those who would prefer that this topic not be raised so publically and dramatically. But such an encyclical would make it more difficult for them—and much of the rest of the world—to continue ignoring or relativizing the shadow of death presently hanging over some of the oldest Christian communities on the planet.