By John L. Allen
ROME (Crux) — In attempting to solve any problem, one might face two very different challenges. The first is when almost no one else even recognizes there is a problem, and, when they’re told, they remain skeptical. The other is when people know there’s a problem, but don’t quite understand its scope and details.
The former challenge, naturally, is by far the more daunting.
According to the most recent survey by Aid to the Church in Need, when it comes to American Catholic attitudes about anti-persecution around the world, the landscape has shifted — Catholics in the U.S. now appreciate there’s a severe persecution of Christians around the world, even if they still come up a little short in terms of mastery of the fine points.
Let’s begin with the key background.
Anti-Christian persecution is one of the most dramatic human rights scourges of our time. Though statistics vary widely, the low-end estimate for the number of new Christian martyrs every year in the early 21st century is around 6,000 to 7,000, while the highest-end accounting puts it at 100,000. That works out to somewhere between one Christian killed for the faith every hour to one every five minutes. Whatever the actual number, it’s a death toll of staggering proportions.
Beyond fatalities, watchdog groups estimate that 200 million Christians around the world are at risk, facing daily threats of harassment, physical assault, arrest, imprisonment, and torture.
Of course, Christians must be concerned about the violation of anyone’s human rights, not just their own, and it’s not as if Christian blood is somehow more valuable than that of Jews, or Buddhists, or anyone else. The point is rather that Christians are suffering on a larger scale, in part because they’re simply more numerous and more exposed than other vulnerable constituencies.
Yet, for years, Christians in the West, including Catholics, seemed largely unaware of that carnage. In part, that may be because most Christians in the affluent West have never personally experienced persecution; in part, it may be because claims of “anti-Christian persecution” in the West sometimes seem political and therefore largely unthreatening, like when a judge rules that a public facility such as a county courthouse can’t have a nativity set — annoying, sure, but hardly life or death.
In such a context, it can be challenging for Westerners to grasp that other Christians literally take their lives in their hands every time they go to church or, for that matter, just walk the street. Whatever the explanation, I can report that when I published my book “The Global War on Christians” in 2013, the most common question I got from interviewers and people in the pews was, “What war?”
March 17’s release of the Aid to the Church in Need survey would seem to suggest that’s finally changing.
ACN is a papally-sponsored foundation supporting persecuted Christians around the world, and this is the fourth year it’s conducted a national survey of American Catholics. The poll was carried out by McLaughlin and Associates, a well-connected Republican polling company that did a fair bit of work for the Trump campaign, but this isn’t really a case in which political bias matters much.
Over the first three years, the survey found a consistent but gradual, meaning small, increase in the percentage of American Catholics saying anti-Christian persecution is either “somewhat severe” or “very severe,” but this past year marked a dramatic spike in awareness. In the early 2020 poll, 41 percent of American Catholics described the persecution as “very severe,” but that number jumped to 57 percent in the new survey conducted Feb. 19-26. Combined with the 38 percent who said “somewhat severe,” that leaves only 5 percent of American Catholics in denial.
Granted, the poll also found that most American Catholics aren’t aware that 1,000 primarily Christian under-age girls were abducted and threatened with forcible conversion to Islam in Pakistan last year; that in China, Mass-goers are subject to digital surveillance; that in Nigeria, nearly 3,500 Christians were killed for their faith in 2020; and that in North Korea, being a Christian can carry the death penalty.
Still, the striking increase in American Catholics recognizing the global lay of the land is something to celebrate.
In terms of how to explain it, it’s worth noting that the poll was conducted in the run-up to Pope Francis’s March 5-8 trip to Iraq, which shone a spotlight on the horrors suffered by Iraqi Christians during the period of ISIS occupation of the northern part of the country between 2014 and 2017.
Beyond that, an ACN spokesman suggested a series of factors behind the increased awareness.
- More coverage of anti-Christian persecution in the Catholic and Christian media.
- Wider coverage of dramatic developments in countries such as Nigeria, where Boko Haram and ISIS West Africa Province remain active, and India, with growing and even deadly hostility toward Christians on the part of extremist Hindus.
- Jihadists roaming the Sahel, and awareness of developments in Mozambique.
- The pope speaking out more.
- The U.S. bishops’ stepped-up attention to international religious freedom issues.
Whatever the explanation, the fact that U.S. Catholics now seem to clearly perceive the nature of the threat is a significant achievement. No small share of the credit must go to organizations such as ACN, which have gone to great lengths to spread the word.
The $64,000 question, of course, is: Now that we know, what are we willing to do?
That’s a question to which one hopes the best minds in American Catholicism will devote some share of their energy and attention, because not only is there a clear humanitarian case for doing do, but it would also seem a basic entry requirement for membership in a global family faith with more than two-thirds of its members today living outside the West, facing circumstances and challenges that most of us can scarcely imagine.
Whatever the case, one thing is clear from the most recent ACN: If American Catholicism fails to mobilize its considerable resources on behalf of suffering Christians around the world, ignorance is no longer an acceptable excuse.