18 Aug 2023

The tragic attack on churches in Pakistan made global headlines this week. While the scope of the attack is unusual - most of the churches in the area burned, houses ransacked, paramilitary forces sent in, over a hundred people arrested - we should not think that persecution of this type is an isolated incident.

Of the 12 countries in the “over 100 million population” tier, believers in nine experience some degree of persecution (some severe) on a regular basis, despite long-established churches in many of them. By 2100, the list will expand to include several new countries, and these, too, experience some levels of persecution already.

Thinking persecution is declining results from conflating martyrdom with persecution. Martyrdom, using the definition provided by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (who publishes the World Christian Encyclopedia), has been on the decline: rising from 344,000 over ten years in 1900 to its height of 3.7 million in the 1970s (particularly severe in the Soviet Union period), but then rapidly declining to its current rate of 900,000 over 10 years today.

Martyrdoms cause notoriety that most countries would likely prefer to avoid. Some recent notable martyrdoms include the 21 Coptic Egyptian Christians who were construction workers in Libya (kidnapped and executed on the beach), the 2007 Malatya martyrs in Turkey, and John Chau in 2018. Each of these cases generated widespread publicity and condemnation. Fewer countries are officially killing Christians; indeed, releasing a notable Christian into amnesty in the West might seem a “great act” on the part of a country (remember the case of Asia Bibi, also in Pakistan).

Most persecution, however, does not result in death. (Even in this week’s attacks in Pakistan, I have not seen any reports of deaths.) Harassment, expulsion from families and communities, beatings, mob violence, property destruction, arrests, imprisonment, solitary confinement, torture and abuse, and the like, are all clearly on the upswing. Much of this does not get splashed across the pixels of global news sites. It is perhaps most notably tracked by Open Doors’ WorldWatch List: in the 2023 edition, more than 360 million Christians live in places where they face high levels of persecution and discrimination (link).

The global publicity of the Pakistan case is an outlier. Reports come in regularly of mob violence against Christians—I see this frequently related to the disciple-making movements that I work with. We should not consider this unusual. The case of Manipur, India, is likewise an outlier, generated by the severity of the violence—but Manipur itself seems less about religion and more about socioeconomic incentives.

Some people (especially Westerners?) seem to romance martyrdom: to face the moment of one’s death with courage and boldness is a thing some wish for. Perhaps what is more remarkable is the many who are willing to risk and face not just a single moment, but days, weeks, months, years, even a lifetime of harassment and abuse for the sake of the Gospel. Many of us in the West seem theoretically willing to give up our lives for the Gospel—but are we willing to give up “the rest of our life,” the decades remaining to us, for its sake, as well?

Persecution and oppression over long periods of time can take forms other than just physical death or the threat of death. Women face the threat of sexual abuse, forced marriage, discrimination and isolation. People who have endured long periods of harassment and abuse can suffer from psychological trauma—fears, anxieties, and difficulties in relating to others. Long periods of persecution can lead to fear between people of different religions: Christians who do not want to reach out to Muslims, for example. Persecution like this is far more common but rarely makes it into the news.

Apart from these long-term woundings of individuals, new technologies in the area of digital surveillance, monitoring and control are empowering other forms of discrimination which, while not directly painful, can lead to isolation and economic persecution. We are more familiar with the possibilities of this kind of oppression due to China’s actions against the Uighurs and the Tibetans, but this may be far more common than we realize—if not now, then certainly in the near-term future.

While ending martyrdoms and killings can be a matter of bringing more light to the subject—something that seems to have been successfully done—ending illegal arrest and imprisonment is far more challenging. The most common form of persecution, however, is the actions of families and communities, of the sort of mob violence that has been recently noted with increasing frequency in Southern Asia. It seems less possible to end this any time soon. Let us not think this is unusual, and let us continue to pray for our brothers and sisters.