Christianity is gathering persecutors.
Economist: CHRISTIANITY is growing almost as fast as humanity itself, but its 2.2 billion adherents cannot count on safety in numbers. That is partly because the locus of the world’s largest religion is shifting to hotter (in several senses) parts of the world. According to a report published by the Pew Forum in December, the Christian share of the population of sub-Saharan Africa has soared over the past century, from 9% to 63%. Meanwhile, the think-tank says, the Christian proportion of Europeans and people in the Americas has dropped, respectively, from 95% to 76% and from 96% to 86%.
But moving from the jaded north to the dynamic south does not portend an easy future. In Nigeria scores of Christians have died in Islamist bomb attacks, targeting Christmas prayers. In Iran and Pakistan Christians are on death row, for “apostasy”—quitting Islam—or blasphemy. Dozens of churches in Indonesia have been attacked or shut. Two-thirds of Iraq’s pre-war Christian population have fled. In Egypt and Syria, where secular despots gave Christianity a shield of sorts, political upheaval and Muslim zeal threaten ancient Christian groups. Not all Christianity’s woes are down to Muslims. The faith faces harassment in formally communist China and Vietnam. In India Hindu nationalists want to penalise Christians who make converts. In the Holy Land local churches are caught between Israeli encroachment on their property and Islamist bids to monopolise Palestinian life. Followers of Jesus may yet become a rarity in his homeland.
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Compared both with the wars of religion that once tore Christendom apart and with various modern intra-faith struggles, such as those within Islam, little blood is being spilt. But the brutality matters. Even if Western powers no longer see promoting Christianity’s interests as a geopolitical priority, it is hard to imagine American evangelicals ignoring a full-scale clampdown on house churches in China. And whatever their own beliefs, Western voters have other reasons to worry about the fate of Christians. Regimes or societies that persecute Christians tend to oppress other minorities too. Sunni Muslims who demonise Christians loathe Shias. Once religion is involved, any conflict becomes harder to solve.
Just don’t call it a crusade
Among liberal values, the freedom to profess any religion or none has a central place. America’s government is bound by law to promote that liberty. In line with its own ideals, America is rightly as concerned by the persecution of Muslims of any stripe as by the travails of Christians in China or Jews and Bahais in Iran. And it objects when Christian lands, like Belarus, practise persecution. Other more secular Western countries should do more to defend that right.
What about those who see persecuting other religions as part of their calling? No faith is blameless: from Delhi to Jerusalem many of those stirring up hatred are men of God. But there is a specific problem with Islam. Islamic law (though not the Koran) has often mandated death for people leaving the faith. There are signs of change. The 57-member Organisation of Islamic Co-operation has, with American encouragement, toned down its bid to outlaw “blasphemy” in various UN resolutions. It also condemned the attacks in Nigeria. But more Muslim leaders need to accept that changing creed is a legal right. On that one point, the West should not back down. Otherwise believers, whether Christian or not, remain in peril.