Clergy are silent on church persecution

By Ben Cohen and Episcopal priest Father Keith Roderick

This month the Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani marked his 1,000th day of incarceration in Lakan, a notorious prison in northern Iran. Charged with the crime of apostasy, Mr. Nadarkhani faces a death sentence for refusing to recant the Christian faith he embraced as a child. He embodies piety and represents millions more suffering from repression—but his story is barely known.

Mr. Nadarkhani’s courage and the tenacity of his supporters, many of them ordinary churchgoers who have crowded Twitter and other social media to alert the world to his plight, bring to mind the great human-rights campaigns of recent years: the fight against apartheid in South Africa, or the movement to assist Soviet Jews seeking to emigrate from behind the Iron Curtain. As Nelson Mandela represented the opposition to South African racism, and Anatoly Sharansky exemplified the just demands of Soviet Jews, so Mr. Nadarkhani symbolizes the emergency that church leaders say is facing 100 million Christians around the world.

Yet Mr. Nadarkhani has almost none of the name recognition that Messrs. Mandela and Sharansky had. Despite the increasing ferocity with which Christians are targeted—church bombings in Nigeria, discrimination in Egypt (where Christians have been imprisoned for building or repairing churches), beheadings in Somalia—Americans remain largely unaware of how bad the situation has become, particularly in the Islamic world and in communist countries like China and North Korea.

The principal reason public opinion hasn’t been galvanized around the persecution of Christians is that the various church leaderships either ignore or dance around the issue. If churches don’t speak up forcefully, then it is unrealistic to expect the world’s democratic governments to do the same.

Take the Vatican. On various occasions over the last year, Pope Benedict XVI has spoken about the persecution of Christians in Egypt, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere. But neither the pope nor any senior Vatican official has proposed policy options to counter this ugly trend. Some of these options might include linking commerce and financial assistance to a demonstrable commitment to religious freedom, improving security at churches and other institutions, and boosting military aid to like Nigeria and Kenya where Islamist militias are terrorizing Christians.

In the United States, clergy from all denominations, and especially the influential Evangelicals, could raise the profile of Christian persecution at the White House and State Department. Conditions are also ripe for a concerted public campaign, and the advocacy efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews offer a valuable model.

Twenty-five years ago, a rally in Washington, D.C., for Soviet Jews drew a quarter of a million participants from all sections of the Jewish community. Given that a significant proportion of this country’s 250 million Christians are politically engaged, it isn’t far-fetched to believe that a similar initiative on behalf of persecuted Christians could attract a crowd of more than one million.

But for that to happen, there needs to be a sea change in the thinking of western church leaders. To begin with, they need to shake off the aura of naivete that clouds their testimony regarding persecution. Throughout the dark years of the Soviet Union’s existence, Orthodox bishops despaired at the readiness of outsiders to take at face value their assurances—offered with a nervous eye on the reaction of the authorities—that life was really not that bad. We discern a similar tendency today with regard to the Islamic world.

Christian leaders in Muslim countries are concerned with surviving from one day to the next. We can help them not by engaging in bland dialogues but by compelling those who rule them to respect their right to worship, as well as their desire to stem the flood of Christians fleeing oppression for safer havens elsewhere.

The church also needs to press the reset button on its priorities. It is a bitter irony that Israel, the one country in the Middle East where Christians live in freedom, is the main focus of church opprobrium.

At their annual convention this month, Presbyterians in America approved a divestment campaign targeting Jewish communities in the West Bank. Pastor Nadarkhani wasn’t even mentioned. At the Episcopalian convention days later, resolutions about Gaza and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process were tabled, but the imprisoned Iranian pastor was similarly absent. As for the bombings of churches in Africa and Asia, it’s as if they never even happened.

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