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Where are Christians persecuted the most? Questions raised about Pew study’s findings


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John Burger - published on 06/23/17

Research organization seems to ignore relevant differences among "Christian-majority" nations.

When it comes to persecution of Christians, a generally accepted view these days is that Muslim-majority countries such as Iraq and Syria are where they suffer the most. But a new report from the Pew Research Center suggests otherwise, that Christians are harassed mostly in Christian-majority countries.

“Christians have been harassed in more countries than any other religious group and have suffered harassment in many of the heavily Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa,” acknowledges the report, authored by Pew researcher Katayoun Kishi. This widespread harassment is due in part to the huge size and broad geographic dispersion of Christians around the world, it says.

Citing an April Pew report, Kishi said that Christians were harassed by governments or social groups in a total of 128 countries in 2015 – more countries than any other religious group.

But due in part to the large number of Christian-majority countries, most of the harassment takes place in Christian-majority countries: “In some of these countries, the Christian majority was itself harassed, often by the government,” Kishi wrote.

In other Christian-majority countries, Christian minority denominations were targeted. For example, in Eritrea – where Eritrean Orthodox Christianity is the dominant faith – Jehovah’s Witnesses reported being unable to obtain official identification documents because of their faith. In addition, the majority of religious prisoners in Eritrea in 2015 were Protestants, namely Pentecostals and evangelical Christians.

But the June 9 Pew report fails to make important distinctions when referring to Christian majority countries, critics charge.

“In many such countries the proportion of self-describing Christians – let alone practicing ones – is comparatively small,” commented John Pontifex, head of press and information for Aid to the Church in Need in the U.K. “The point is rather that in such countries the oppression is taking place at the hands of secularizing forces opposed to traditional religion and from authoritarian regimes which see religion as a dangerous anachronism, a potential rallying point for discontent and protest.”

Such seems to be the case in Ireland, for example, where the Church is undergoing “persecution,” with people directing “anger” at clergy, Irish bishops have said recently. Bishop Leo O’Reilly of Kilmore commented that hostility to the Church is now a “settled part” of Irish culture.

“It is not physical persecution but it is no less real for that. It is more subtle. It takes the form of gradual exclusion of Church people or activities from the public space,” Bishop O’Reilly said. “There is denigration of religious beliefs, practices and institutions on radio, television and on social and other media. There is often a focus on bad news about the church to the almost total exclusion of any good news.”

Pew does not list “what countries they consider to be Christian majority countries,” said Elijah Brown, executive vice president of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, which works to promote religious freedom protections around the world. Brown finds it “a little misleading” that the research organization pointed to Eritrea as an example of a country where Christians have a majority and yet where they’re harassed. The Eritrean government, he said, is “really a dictatorial regime that also persecutes Muslims.”

“I think the implication when you read the headline of this article is that there are these Christian-infused governments which are persecuting other Christians, my suspicion is that that’s a little bit misleading,” Brown said in an interview. “If you factor in some of the low religious attendance rates within Europe, when you factor in Russia [which has a communist legacy] and when you factor in countries like Eritrea, which may or may not have a Christian-majority population, but where the government is clearly a communist holdover with a dictatorial bent, the actual data does not carry forward the implication of the article.”

“Christians may be in more countries that restrict religious freedom but that does not discount the intensity of the persecution they face in certain regions where Christians are not the majority, particularly in the Middle East, where they are being forced to the point of erasure,” commented Tina Ramirez, founder and president of Hardwired, which trains leaders in countries experiencing religious conflict to advance human dignity and freedom of conscience. “This is not what is happening  to the Muslim community and the attempt to downplay the significance raises serious questions about the intention behind this article. And sadly, the Christians, much like the Jewish community that preceded them in the Middle East-North Africa region, have no where to turn for support so the only option is to flee for their lives.”

The report does acknowledge the persecution Christians are experiencing in the Middle East and North Africa. “In Syria, for example, Christians reported that tolerance within society was on the decline as extremist groups gained influence,” the report says. “And in Egypt, Christians were killed for having converted from Islam or simply because they were Christian. For example, in January and February 2015, two Christian men were killed – one of these murders was claimed by the Islamic State – in the North Sinai city of Arish, according to a Christian advocacy group with a presence in the region.”

Kishi, in an email response to Aleteia, said, “Much of the discussion on harassment of Christians has focused on their harassment in places where they are minorities, and our article does not dispute those incidents nor does it attempt to estimate the intensity of harassment of Christians around the world. In other words, we are not saying that harassment of Christians in Christian-majority countries is somehow more intense than in places where Christians are a minority. The fact that harassment of Christians is not limited to places where they are a minority, and in fact often occurs in places where they are the majority religious group, is a demographic finding that we thought may be useful to those interested in the harassment of Christians.”

She said define that Pew defines “Christian-majority” countries based on the organization’s demographic data on religious group populations around the world.

“Our demographers estimate that 63% of Eritreans identify as Christian, and therefore we classify Eritrea as a Christian-majority country,” she said. “The ‘majority’ label we use is simply a demographic statistic; it does not speak to the power dynamics in the country.”

In addition, Kishi agreed that in many European countries the importance of religion in people’s lives is lower than in other regions of the world. “However, while worship attendance is an important indicator of religiosity (and one that we often track in our surveys), it is not something we take into account when estimating the demographic composition of a country,” she said. “Those data primarily come from censuses, large-scale demographic surveys, general population surveys and other studies.”

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