When faced with persecution, Christians worldwide employ more strategies than just fight or flight.
Today at a DC symposium, 17 researchers released the final version of a $1.1 million study exploring how Christians respond to persecution in 25 of the hardest places for them to live. The findings of Under Caesar’s Sword (UCS), funded by the Templeton Religion Trust, were previewed orally in Rome in December 2015.
Persecution can be difficult to measure. (For example, should Christians who weren’t murdered for their faith count as martyrs?) But by all counts, religious freedom violations are on the rise worldwide. Islamist extremism and ethnic nationalism have pushed persecution to record levels three years in a row, according to Open Doors research.
Christians bear the brunt, experiencing between 60 percent to 80 percent of religious discrimination, UCS researchers concluded.
And evangelicals and Pentecostals bear the brunt of that. They are more likely to be persecuted than mainline Christians, Catholics, or Orthodox Christians, according to the UCS report. That’s because in most places, evangelicals and Pentecostals are the relative newcomers, without the long relationships and history that older Christian groups have.
Evangelicals and Pentecostals are also more likely to be seen as Western. And they “tend to understand evangelization and conversion as verbal, urgent, and sometimes dramatic processes and, consequently, expect and are prepared to endure persecution,” the report stated.
It’s correlation, not causation, the researchers acknowledge. But it’s there. And as non-Christian governments are more likely to see them as a threat, evangelicals and Pentecostals in turn are less likely to build associations with others and more likely to head underground or confront their persecutors.
The report did exclude some countries with severe levels of persecution—notably Eritrea, Somalia, and Yemen—because they “fell outside of the project’s logistical capabilities.” North Korea was also left off since it was “inaccessible to research.”
The UCS project was left essentially with the 10–40 Window, a thick latitudinal band stretching from Nigeria to China.
Researchers grouped responses to persecution into three categories: survival, association, and confrontation.
Survival is the most common response of evangelicals. More than 2 out of 5 responses (43%) involved such strategies, including “going underground, flight, and accommodation to or support for repressive regimes.” The majority of Christians in Syria and Iraq, for example, have fled before the terror and executions of ISIS, dropping the estimated 1.5 million Christians in Iraq in 2003 down to 400,000 last year.
“Almost no Christian has remained in IS-held territory,” the report stated.
The response of Christians in Iran and Saudi Arabia hasn’t been mass flight, but still falls in the survival category. They avoid complaining about the government, saying anything that might connect them with the West, or using the language of the Muslim majority when they worship, according to researchers.
Christians in Vietnam and Laos have also reacted to torture and imprisonment by heading underground, though they’ve also had limited success negotiating with authorities and allying with supporters overseas. The long history of stiff persecution in nearby Myanmar (Burma) even prompted Burmese Christians to go to Mosul this fall to serve Iraqi civilians caught in the battle for the city.
In all of those cases, Christians are aiming to “preserve the life and basic activities of their communities,” the UCS report stated.
Persecuted Christians are less likely to attempt association strategies, which involve building “ties with others that strengthen their resilience.” About 38 percent of responses fall into the association category, including Turkish Christians seeking ties with the Greek Orthodox Church, Indian Christians attempting to build alliances with Hindu and Muslim leaders, and Sri Lankan evangelicals collaborating with other faiths to provide social services.
Association isn’t a bad strategy, because “isolation is among the most formidable obstacles facing persecuted churches,” the report stated. “Persecuting regimes and militant groups aim to keep Christian communities disconnected, hidden, and obscure.”
Tying communities together—both among Christians and between different religions—is an effective response. The networking works not only to support the groups throughout persecution, but also to achieve common aims like providing orphanages or homeless shelters. And while those social service endeavors are a Christian response to God’s work, they also aren’t bad for public relations.
The third and least-used strategy is confrontation, or openly challenging the persecution or persecutors. This response is used 19 percent of the time, and is almost never violent. “Christian responses to persecution are almost always non-violent and, with very few exceptions, do not involve acts of terrorism,” the report stated.
One possible reason is the prevalence of “just war” doctrine, which allows violence only in self-defense. Another is that “Christian tradition and spirituality contain teachings that help Christians imagine and enact alternative forms of response, restoring right relationships instead of continuing the violence,” the report stated.
However, some Christians in Syria and Iraq have formed militias or joined up with national forces to oppose ISIS. In Nigeria, some have armed themselves against Boko Haram.
In Kenya and Sudan, some have used the media to draw international attention to their plight and criticize the government. (Though outside the report’s purview, one outspoken pastor in Zimbabwe drew international attention and started a national movement against his government’s corruption with a Youtube lament.)
The three responses are not “mutually exclusive,” the UCS report stated. In most countries, Christians are trying multiple strategies.
Survival strategies tend to dominate in countries at war, like Iraq and Syria. In less dangerous situations, Christians are more likely to engage with the government or others in an attempt to bring about more freedom.
All three strategies have seen success, from the use of media to win a government mandate to call Christians “Masihi” (Jesus is the Messiah) as opposed to “Isai” (which connotes disbelief in the resurrection) in Pakistan to Laotian pastor Khamphone Pounthapanya, who was imprisoned for his faith before becoming the general secretary of the Lao Evangelical Church and advocating for protection of Christians.
While the level of persecution affects the response, so does “theology—in particular, a Christian community’s theology of suffering, church, and culture—influences the response of the community,” the report stated.
“Evangelicals are divided between those who are willing to take up arms and those who view witness and non-retaliation as the responses to which the Bible calls Christians,” the report stated. They tend to be more skeptical of the interreligious dialogue favored by Catholics and mainline Protestants, and more likely to pursue evangelization.
“Overall, the report finds that Christian response to persecution to embody a creative pragmatism dominated by short-term efforts to provide security, build strength through social ties, and sometimes strategically oppose the persecution levied against them,” the UCS researchers stated. “The fact that these efforts are pragmatic should not obscure that they often are conducted with deep faith as well as creativity, courage, nimbleness, theological conviction, and hope for a future day of freedom.”
CT previously reported the Rome release of the UCS findings.