AN ERITREAN woman, Helen Berhane, who spent two years living in a shipping container because she would not renounce her faith, was among those who gave testimony at an international conference last week, exploring Christian responses to persecution.
The conference “Under Caesar’s Sword”, in Rome, was organised by researchers at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, and Georgetown University, Washington, DC, and attended by 300 people. It marked the beginning of the dissemination of the findings of a research project in which 14 scholars studied 100 “beleaguered Christian communities” in more than 30 countries.
The research suggests wide variations in response. In the face of armed violence, as in Syria and Nigeria, many have fled. The conference heard from the Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon and Archbishop of Baghdad, the Most Revd Louis Raphael Sako, who called for greater military intervention from the West in order to defeat Islamic State, or Daesh.
“Mere coping” was the dominant response in “severely repressive countries”, including former Soviet republics, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, whereas in others, including China, Russia, and India, there were “more active forms” of response, including rallies and protests.
Professor Fenggang Yang, a Chinese researcher, described how small Protestant communities persisted in evangelism during China’s Cultural Revolution. Dr Paul Bhatti, a Roman Catholic missionary surgeon, described forgiving those who killed his brother, Shahbaz, who was assassinated after speaking out against blasphemy laws when he was Minister of Minority Affairs in Pakistan (News, 20 November, 4 March 2011).
Although the study discovered some examples of armed resistance “largely for defensive purposes”, there were “few examples” of “sustained and systematic campaigns of terrorism or violent militancy”.
While much of the persecution of Christians took place under Islamic regimes, it was also perpetrated under Communist regimes, democracies, and in countries perceived as pluralist and peaceful, such as India, the conference heard.
Professor Daniel Philpott, of the Department of Political Science and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, believes that the conference “portends the development of an integrated movement for religious freedom on behalf of persecuted Christians”. The “systematic” study could give persecuted Christians “a better sense themselves of what their possibilities are for responding”, he said, and enable the rest of the world to be “in better solidarity with them”.