Open Doors has adopted the term “persecution engine” to represent eight sources of pressure upon Christians. An engine may not necessarily be anti-Christian in itself, such as Dictatorial Paranoia or Organized Corruption, but it explains why, in certain circumstances, the Christian community becomes the target of persecution.
Persecution engines rarely occur singly. They cluster and overlap. Islamic extremism is often accompanied by Tribal Antagonism, for example, and Organized Corruption can overlay all other engines. This shows the causes of persecution are complex, not simple.
The main persecution engines
This is the organized attempt to make the world Islamic. Extremists in Islam must ensure that sharia law is applicable over the state or territory for Islam to be properly observed, though not all Muslims aspire to this. Religious minorities may be tolerated, but strictly as second-class citizens.
Islamic extremists range from extremist states that require sharia law, such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, to extremist movements that seek to impose Islam but through relatively peaceful means, such as the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. There are extremist groups that espouse violence to achieve their aims, such as Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria. And there are extremist households or individuals, which are the most effective in enforcing Islam’s apostasy laws.
Islamic extremism is often more effective in stopping Christian witness though the squeeze of a strongly Islamic culture than through the actions of violent jihadists, because the state, tribe, family and neighbourhood all combine to stifle the exercise of the Christian faith. Islamic extremism constitutes by far the most common engine, in global terms, to Christians.
This refers to an ideology that seeks to make a territory or a state exclusively the province of a particular religion. It sees its religion as utterly supreme over other religions and traditions, and sets a very clear national boundary on its militancy. In this respect it is distinct from Islamic extremism, which is always trans-national. The Islamic State militants, for example, were not local Syrians who wanted to make Syria Islamic, but the whole world, which is why they moved into Iraq. But there can overlap. In Somalia, for example, Islamic extremists play the nationalist card, insisting that to be a good Somali is to be a good Muslim.
But this engine refers more specifically, for example, to the Hindu nationalists in India, who use the ideology of Hindutva to justify their vision of a Hindu India. Or, to the nationalist Buddhists in Sri Lanka, who maintain all Sinhala people must be Buddhist lest they betray their heritage and country. It results in Christians being accused of being unpatriotic and walking away from their primary and ancient identity.
This refers to the reality that when someone becomes a Christian they are often persecuted because they are seen to have turned their back on the traditions of their tribe. Sometimes the tribe may have its own religion, such as animistic tribes in parts of Africa. Or, sometimes the tribe may simply be a social or blood obligation that can act as strongly as the religious ties.
So, there are two senses in which this applies. First, a Christian may refuse to continue in the rituals of the tribe, especially the more animistic rituals which can involve immorality, blood sacrifices and idol worship. Second, the Christian proclaims their deepest identity is “In Christ,” while the tribe demands that they see themselves and act purely as a Pashtun, or a Fulani, or a Lao. This is more marked in certain states where there is little sense of national identity. For example, very few people in Afghanistan see themselves as “Afghans,” but as Pashtuns, or Tajiks.
The tribe usually is religiously constituted, but it does have a distinct identity, and it is often harnessed by religious nationalists or Islamic extremists, making this engine relatively hidden and difficult to spot. One scholar wisely remarked of the Middle East, “Islam only goes back 1,500 years here, but tribalism goes back 5,000.” Where tribalism ends and Islamic extremism begins can be difficult to discern, yet in many states Christian are persecuted out of tribal reasons. The most persecuted Christians of the Far East, for example, are tribal Christians, who often experience a double persecution from the state and from their tribe, such as the Chakma in Bangladesh or the Hmong in Vietnam.
This is where a church tries to impose its version of Christianity on everyone, especially other Christians, and refuses to accept the validity of other traditions. This was a particular problem mainly among the Roman Catholic churches of Latin America, although they have improved in this respect. In the East, Orthodox churches have an unfortunate habit of becoming co-existent with the state, and see non-Orthodox Christians as unpatriotic. In Russia, for example, the Orthodox church has often sought to marginalize and disempower those belonging to vibrant Christian communities, such as Baptists and Pentecostals. Today in Ethiopia, Pentecostal Christians can sometimes expect the most intense pressure from radical movements within the Orthodox church.
Communism is an ideology that seeks to bring about a classless paradise through the triumph of the worker and is utterly atheistic in its method. But it is also a system of control, where the state seeks to ensure the church is registered in order to control it. While the ideological drive of communism is fatally wounded today, the communist system of state control over the church remains especially in those post-communist states such as Russia and the so called “Stans” of Central Asia. Today, there are four countries left that are still formally communist: China, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba, though it is hard to say how much of the ideology remains and how much is just the system of control staying in place. But there are parts of the world where ideological communists persecute Christians, such as the Maoists in Nepal and the Naxalites in India. Even in states such as Venezuela, communist rhetoric is far from dead.
Dictatorial paranoia drives a political leader and the inner clique dominate every aspect of society. The dictator is seized by fear that someone, somewhere, is plotting an overthrow. No one is allowed to organize outside state control. This desire to control can originate from an ideology such as communism, but more commonly it emerges from an overbearing leader, who seeks to survive through control.
The world is full of leaders who hoard power. Africa particularly is plagued by leaders such as this; so, too, is Latin America. Christians are a threat to any totalitarian regime if they refuse to be dominated, and especially if they organise outside government control – the ultimate act of disloyalty. It is out of fear that dictators crack down on Christians, because they cannot control them. Often Christians are tolerated if they subject themselves to registration and regulation.
Secularism can be understood two ways. There is the positive side: The state remains neutral, or secular, in the face of religion, refusing to favor one faith or denomination over another. Indeed, in this sense, state secularism is a legacy of the Reformation where the Anabaptists, for example, regarded themselves as aggressive secularists.
The negative side: Atheists insist all religion be expunged from public life and from crucial discussions about social issues such as sexuality, marriage, and human dignity. The state’s historical neutrality no longer is deemed sufficient; instead, religious expression is seen as injurious to the public good. Aggressive secularists do not tolerate dissenting interpretations of how to conduct public life, and claim that all religious expression is by definition pathological. This engine is most powerful in the Western world.
When societies contain elites like mafias that run extensive economic rackets, Christians can get targeted when their ethics threaten these rackets. An obvious example are the Latin American regions run by guerrilla armies who get their funds through drug trafficking. Pastors or priests who stand against the drug trade are threatened and killed. This engine is perhaps the most global of them all, as each society – especially where the state is weak or complicit – contains very deliberate and organized schemes to direct riches to an often violent elite. For an African pastor to speak out against a leader such as former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe could result in instant death or flight.
Some geopolitical specialists talk of “mafia states,” where legitimately elected leaders rule the country like giant godfathers, and flout the rule of law and separation of powers. It is not always easy to clearly notice organized corruption. “While the activities of organized criminal groups have grown significantly across the globe in the last decade, the nature of their organizational structures is much more complex and dynamic than was perhaps the case in the past,” says the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. “One of the clearest examples of the fragmentation of organized crime is the break-up of the cartels involved in the trafficking of illicit narcotics from Colombia. They have been replaced by a large number of smaller and more loosely organized trafficking groups.”
Source: World Watch List unit, Open Doors International