By John L. Allen Jr, NCR senior correspondent.
Anti-Christian intolerance and persecution
Strictly speaking, “Christianophobia,” referring to anti-Christian intolerance and persecution around the world, isn’t really a Vatican story. After all, the 108 acres of the Vatican city-state are probably the safest bit of real estate for Christians on the planet. Yet what many experts regard as a rising global tide of anti-Christian animus carries enormous, and often under-appreciated, consequences for the Vatican’s priorities and the way it thinks about the world.
The term “Christophobia” was coined by Weiler to refer to the growing marginalization of Christians in secular Europe. Modified into “Christianophobia,” it entered the European lexicon in 2004 when Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione was blackballed as European Commission of Justice over his orthodox Catholic views on abortion and homosexuality. The United Nations Human Rights Commission now recognizes “anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and Christianophobia” as forms of religious intolerance.
“Christianophobia” has since become a broader concept, referring to anti-Christian oppression wherever it occurs, including its violent forms – and around the world, it occurs with stunning frequency.
Aid to the Church in Need, a German-based Catholic aid agency, produces a widely trusted annual report on global threats to religious freedom. It estimates that somewhere between 75 percent and 85 percent of all acts of religious persecution are directed against Christians. In a report to the European Parliament last month, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said that while Muslims and Jews face significant persecution, “Christians faced some sort of harassment in two-thirds of all countries,” or 133 states.
Those statistics are fleshed out by headlines almost every day.
This Christmas season alone, scores of Catholic Masses were cancelled in Iraq due to threats from extremist groups. Since the first Gulf War in 1991, Iraq has lost two-thirds of what was once among the largest Christian populations in the Middle East. In China, a new crackdown on the church is in full swing, as the government has orchestrated elections for a rump bishops’ conference and an assembly of Catholics calculated to preserve state control. Some clergy were herded into those elections virtually at gunpoint.
In Vietnam, a Catholic bishop was banned from celebrating Christmas Mass in the country’s mountain region, reportedly because of his success in converting the Montagnards, a cluster of ethnic groups often stigmatized and seen as potential threats by other Vietnamese. In the Philippines, Muslim extremists attacked a Catholic chapel on the island of Jolo on Christmas Day. It was merely the latest assault on Jolo, where a bomb exploded inside the local cathedral in July 2009, killing six and wounding forty. In Nigeria, fighting between Christians and Muslims in the northern city of Jos over the Christmas period has reportedly left at least 80 people dead.
Christianophobia is on the rise for a whole cocktail of reasons. Part of it is simple math: There are 2.3 billion Christians in the world, the largest following of any religion, so in terms of raw numbers there are simply more Christians to oppress. That’s especially true as Christianity’s center of gravity shifts to the developing world, where democracy and the rule of law are sometimes conspicuous by their absence.
Because of the historical association between Christianity and the West, Christians are often convenient targets for individuals and groups expressing anti-Western rage. In some cases, too, the logic is exquisitely local. In India, a disproportionate share of Christian converts come from the “untouchable” Dalit community, so it’s often difficult to disentangle specifically Christian persecution from older caste prejudice. (A similar point could be made about the Montagnards in Vietnam).
A spike in anti-Christian backlash shapes Vatican attitudes in three ways.
First, it eats up an increasing share of time and attention. To explain why the Vatican isn’t in a full, upright and locked position on the sex abuse crisis, the priest shortage, the health care debate in the States, or whatever the issue du jour is, part of the logic is straight out of Maslow: When there’s a perceived threat to survival, it’s tough to move on to higher-order aims.
Second, it’s become a prism through which Vatican personnel see everything else. For instance, if you want to know why Pope Benedict XVI has not imposed a uniform global policy of cooperation with civil authorities on sex abuse cases, it’s partly because such a requirement would be a death sentence in parts of the world where police and prosecutors are quite openly out to get the church.
Third, Christianophobia is a primary reason that reciprocity and religious freedom have claimed pride of place among the Vatican’s geopolitical priorities. In recent years, diplomats accredited to the Holy See say their opposite numbers in the Vatican seem focused like a laser beam on religious freedom, sometimes leading them to slow down on other fronts, such as anti-poverty efforts, conflict resolution, etc. That’s been a source of concern in diplomatic circles, and it’s sometimes perceived as part of the crisis of governance under Bertone. Yet it’s also related to the point made above: when survival is perceived to be on the line, at least in some parts of the world, it tends to blot other priorities out of the sky.
While individual anti-Christian incidents often attracted wide coverage in 2010, both the scope of the phenomenon and its impact on Vatican psychology were often left out of the picture.
[John L. Allen Jr is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]