The atmosphere in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square turned from celebratory to somber as Pope Francis devoted his address Monday to the bleak subject that has occupied most of his recent remarks.
“Our brothers and our sisters … are persecuted, exiled, slain, beheaded, solely for being Christian,” he said, his expression tense, his cadence slow but deliberate.
Speaking from a window of the Apostolic Palace, the pope said that there have been more “martyrs” for Christianity in recent years than in the early centuries of the faith.
“I hope that the international community doesn’t stand mute and inert before such unacceptable crimes, which constitute a worrisome erosion of the most elementary human rights. I truly hope that the international community doesn’t look the other way.”
The persecution of Christians is a theme that ran through most of the pope’s speeches this weekend. At a Good Friday procession, he decried the world’s “complicit silence” while members of his faith are killed. On Sunday, he devoted his Easter address to a grim accounting of global conflicts where Christians and others have been killed. His speech referenced the attack on Garissa University College in eastern Kenya last week, in which al-Shabab militants killed at least 148 people, reportedly singling out non-Muslims. It also referred to “absurd bloodshed” and “barbarous acts of violence” in Libya, where 21 Egyptian Christians were beheaded by the Islamic State in February.
“May the international community not stand by before the immense humanitarian tragedy unfolding in these countries and the drama of the numerous refugees,” he said of the conflict in Iraq and Syria.
Has the world really “looked the other way” while Christians are killed?
David Curry, president of the nonprofit Open Doors USA, which advocates for persecuted Christians worldwide, believes so.
“We see a continued pattern in many of these regions of violence and persecution against Christians,” he said in a phone interview. “But the West and Western governments, including the U.S., when they conflict-map these issues, they refuse to address the fact that Christians are being targeted.”
As evidence, Curry pointed to President Obama’s Friday statement on the attack at Garissa University. Despite reports that the attackers targeted Christian students and an al-Shabab statement calling the attack an “operation against infidels,” Obama’s remarks make no mention of religion.
“I think some people would say that they’re fueling Islamophobia [by saying Christians were targeted], but that’s not really what we’re talking about,” Curry said. “We’re talking about identifying the ideology of extremists.”
He added: “That’s a major part of this story. At some point we so have to say that [religion] is part of this conflict.”
It’s not the first time this criticism has been leveled at the president. When the 21 Egyptian Christians were killed in Libya, many commenters — mostly from conservative outlets — criticized Obama for not identifying the victims’ faith in his statement on the beheadings.
According to Open Doors, 2014 saw a huge increase in violence against Christians. Researchers for the group found that 4,344 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons between Dec. 1, 2013 and Nov. 30, 2014 — more than twice the number killed during the same period the previous year. Curry says those numbers are a low estimate, as the group only counts incidents in which the victim can be identified by name and an exact cause has been attributed.
In its annual “World Watch” report, which ranks the 50 countries where persecution of Christians is most severe, the group said the past year “will go down in history for having the highest level of global persecution of Christians in the modern era” and suggested that “the worst is yet to come.”
Cameron Hudson, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial, said there is no question that Christians are being targeted in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State has been vocal about its “genocidal intent” toward Christians and other minorities in those countries, he said. And though statistics on the death or displacement of Christians are hard to come by, the anecdotal evidence is bleak: Last summer, nearly every Christian in Mosul — one of the oldest Christian communities in the world — fled the city after Islamic State militants ordered them to leave or face death. Dozens of Assyrian Christians were abducted in eastern Syria earlier this year. Iraqi churches stand empty, even on major holidays, because so many congregants have fled.
A report last month by the progressive Center for American Progress on Christians in the Middle East found that many centuries-old Christian communities in the region are in danger of dying out. “Christians around the Middle East have been subject to vicious murders at the hands of terrorist groups, forced out of their ancestral lands by civil wars, suffered societal intolerance fomented by Islamist groups and subjected to institutional discrimination found in the legal codes and official practices of many Middle Eastern countries,” the report said. “… The ongoing decline is such that many Christians in the Middle East today fear that their churches will turn into museums, rather than places of worship serving vibrant communities of believers.”
“It fits the definition of ethnic cleansing,” Hudson said of the long-standing communities that have been killed or uprooted by the Islamic State. “They need to convert, they need to leave, or they will die.” But in many other cases mentioned by the pope, including the attack in Kenya, Hudson argued that religious motivations sometimes aren’t as clear. For example, the al-Shabab attack seemed targeted more toward the Kenyan government, which has sent troops to Somalia to fight the al-Qaeda-affiliated group, he said. Hudson believes that the escalating violence against Christians is part of a larger trend of religious intolerance, a new line of division that has popped up in countries already dealing with political and ethnic conflicts.
“These places like Iraq and like Kenya have been multicultural for hundreds if not thousands of years. So the fact that all of a sudden that community has been divided along religious lines is really concerning,” he said. “I don’t know that there is a worldwide growing animosity toward Christians in particular. But if you look at where the attacks are happening, these are places where religious minorities are being targeted, and as it happens Christians are among those minorities.”
Daniel Sullivan, director of policy and government relations at the advocacy group United to End Genocide, agreed.
“There certainly has been a relative silence in a lot of the crises that are happening, but in terms of whether there’s a silence or ignorance of particular threat to Christians I don’t know if I would characterize it in that way,” he said. “This is something that we’ve seen in lots of parts of the world against many groups — targeting of Muslims in Burma and the Central African Republic, the attacks on Iraq’s Yazidi minority by the Islamic State.”
Ultimately, Hudson and Sullivan say, the attacks on minorities are caused by rising extremism and the region’s chaotic politics, not simple religious difference. Local religious leaders have echoed that sentiment. “The future of Christians in Syria is threatened not by Muslims but by … chaos … and the infiltration of uncontrollable fanatical, fundamentalist groups,” Patriarch Gregorios III Laham of Syria’s Melkite Church said in a statement to the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
Though few deny that Christians are being targeted, analysts acknowledged Curry’s fear that countries such as the United States are reluctant to intervene out of fear that they’ll be accused of Islamophobia. “The fact that extremists accuse the United States and other outside powers of being so-called ‘crusaders’ who promote an agenda supporting Christians is a reality that creates many potential pitfalls for engaging directly on this issue,” the Center for American Progress said in its report.
But, the group said, the status of Christians is an important barometer of religious tolerance in the region. “Adopting more effective engagement strategies to address the plight of Christians could help produce greater stability in the long run,” the report concluded.