The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution
John L. Allen Jr.
320 pp., $25.00
Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack
328 pp., $26.00
Their Blood Cries Out
Rupert Shortt and John Allen want readers to wake up. In books chock full of details—names, dates, places, circumstances—they document violence against Christian believers that in various forms has been building steadily in many parts of the world. Shortt, religion editor of The Times Literary Supplement, and Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, realize that they are addressing issues of great moral complexity. Both know that "religious persecution," "martyrdom," and related terms are hotly contested. Both are fully alert to the myriad objections—historical, theological, political, diplomatic, cultural, anthropological—that might respond to titles like "Christianophobia" and "the global war on Christians." Yet Allen and Shortt also say, in effect: "Yes, questions of definition, historical culpability, ethnic or religious differentiation, moral responsibility, and more are fiendishly complex. But it is not necessary to resolve all such issues before taking account of what is actually occurring, recurring, and occurring again at many, many places around the world." While neither author does in fact answer all of these questions, both books should nonetheless be exceedingly helpful for raising the consciousness of even the most casual readers.
John Allen opens with a visit to the Me'eter military camp and prison in a desert region of Eritrea near the African coast of the Red Sea. He describes the deplorable living conditions for the 2,000-3,000 people who are interned in this camp because they belong to branches of Christianity that Eritrea's single-party, hypernationalist rulers, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice, consider subversive. Their lot consists of desert heat, frigid nights, bodies crammed into unventilated 40' x 38' metal shipping containers, mindless tasks like counting grains of sand, death from heatstroke and dehydration, sexual abuse, and brutal beatings. And Allen wants to know "why the abuse at Me'eter doesn't arouse the same horror and intense public fascination as the celebrated atrocities that unfolded at Abu Ghraib, for instance, or at Guantanamo Bay. Why hasn't there been the same avalanche of investigations, media exposés, protest marches, pop culture references, and the other typical indices of scandal? Why isn't the world abuzz with outrage over the grotesque violations of human rights at Me'eter?"
Rupert Shortt begins the world tour making up his book with a stop in Egypt and an interview with Dr. Ibrahim Habib, who now practices medicine in the British Midlands. Habib left Egypt after a gruesome incident in 1981 that took place in a Cairo suburb, al-Zawia al-Hamra. Local Muslims who wanted to build a mosque on land owned by Coptic Christians attacked violently with (according to Habib) "at least eighty people … killed in the violence, some people … burnt alive in their homes, and the police just looked on." Shortt then documents how the influence of Salafist Wahhabi Islam, which arose after the formation in 1972 of Gama Islamiya, has become more intense over the years, often with fatal results.
• January 2010: nine worshippers murdered in Nag Hammadi as they left services at St. George's Church.
• December 2010: twenty-one killed and seventy wounded in an attack on worshippers at Mass in the Two Saints' Church in Alexandria.
• February 2011 (shortly before the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak as the "Arab Spring" arrived in Egypt): more than twenty killed when a car bomb exploded outside of St. Mark's Church in Alexandria.
• March 2011: thirteen killed and more than one hundred wounded when Copts, who had gathered to protest the burning of St. Min and St. George's Church in a village near Cairo, were set upon by a larger crowd of Muslims with guns, clubs, and Molotov cocktails.
Shortt concludes his survey of Egypt with the understated reminder that Copts, whether in Egypt or abroad, "remain deeply concerned about the future of their battered church."
The propensity for some of us who read such accounts might be to raise the interpretive "but." But don't such reports overlook the Christian violence against non-Christians, not to speak of the Christian-on-Christian violence, that has so disfigured the history of Christianity? But is violence in places like Eritrea or Egypt really religious persecution or merely the last chapter in historical ethnic conflict? But aren't perpetrators of such violence responding to Western blunders like the 2003 invasion of Iraq? But … But … But….