by Mary Mansur
by Paul Marshall with Lela Gilbert, Word Publishing, Dallas, TX, 1997; 336 pps, $12.95.
On 10/15/98, The Boston Globe reported that hundreds of Coptic Christians in a remote region of Upper Egypt had been brutally interrogated and tortured by police looking for suspects in the murder last August of two men from the village of Al-Kosheh. Evidence incriminating five Muslim men was dismissed as police chose instead to target the village's Christian minority. When the local bishop protested the police abuse, he was arrested on charges of "obstructing justice," "threatening national security," and "spreading extremist ideas to cause sectarian strife," charges that, under Egypt's anti-terrorism laws, could carry the death sentence.
The fact that the Globe carried the story is quite extraordinary: the persecution of Christians rarely attracts the attention of the American media. Unfortunately, the story itself is not so extraordinary, as is all too apparent to anyone who reads Paul Marshall's ambitious book, Their Blood Cries Out: the Untold Story of Persecution Against Christians in the Modern World. The book is ambitious not so much in terms of the information it presents, as it is in the reaction it seeks to elicit, a reaction that would insist that media begin paying attention to this neglected area of fundamental human rights, and that government commit to censuring countries with poor human-rights records, withholding aid or imposing trade restrictions if necessary to effect change. If, as a result, the incidence and scope of religious persecution worldwide declines, and stories such as the one carried by The Boston Globe become indeed "extra-ordinary" (in the sense of uncommon), the book will have achieved its objective. If it fails, the fault will not lie with the author.
Dr. Marshall combines careful scholarship and ample documentation with moving accounts of specific cases of persecution and martyrdom to produce an utterly compelling exposť of the most widespread and shamefully ignored area of human rights abuse today: the persecution of Christians. Consider: "currently [currently!], two hundred to two hundred fifty million Christians are persecuted for their faith, and a further four hundred million live under non-trivial restrictions on religious liberty." Country by country, the author discusses the historical, political and religious climates as they affect the plight of the Christian population.
The worst offender is Sudan, whose government is "actively pursuing a policy of Islamicizing the entire country and eradicating any non-Islamic expressions and non-Islamic people." In a word - genocide. "Imagine the situation of a mother who faces not only her own death, but the prospect of watching her children starve before her eyes unless she renounces her faith. And there is no turning back. Sudan applies the death penalty to anyone who tries to convert away from Islam." Children are sold into slavery. Some are branded or have their achilles' tendons cut so they cannot run away.
Sudan is just one of an increasing number of countries - Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines - where the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalists has intensified customary discrimination against Christians to the point of repression and, in too many cases, outright persecution.
Egypt is typical. For centuries Egypt's Copts, who comprise a significant minority numbering between five and ten million, have been relegated to second-class status. According to Dr. Marshall, in recent decades their situation has only grown worse:
"In 1980, the Egyptian National Assembly declared Islam 'as the religion of state' and Shari'a (...a strict Islamic law, dreaded in the West because of its provision for amputations, beheadings, and other brutalities...) as the principal source of legislation. Mubarak has resisted the complete introduction of Shari'a, but it continues to exert more influence. ... Converts to Christianity suffer particularly terrible abuse. They face death at the hands of militants and torture at the hands of the police." This exposť is by no means confined to countries engaged in what Marshall terms an "advancing jihad," the scourge of a militant Islam. Succeeding chapters examine the equally brutal treatment of Christians living under communism - in Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, and China. On observing the role of churches in the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe, Chinese authorities are on record as saying, "If China does not want such a scene to be repeated in its land, it must strangle the baby while it is still in the manger." In spite of the hostile atmosphere, "more people take part in Christian Sunday worship in China than do people in the entirety of Western Europe."
Christians in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Bhutan, and Burma pay a similarly high cost simply for being Christian. While the popular imagination "envisions religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism as particularly tolerant, /.../ in terms of actual practice [they] can be some of the most violence-prone systems in the world." A government document in Burma states that "Christianity must be destroyed by peaceful means as well as violent means." There the State Law and Order Restoration Council has conducted a ruthless campaign against the country's ethnic and religious minorities. There are reports that when members of the Karem tribe were captured, "Buddhist villagers were interrogated and released, whereas Christians were tortured, given the opportunity of converting to Buddhism, and if they refused to do so, executed."
Illustrative cases preface each section, adding a personal dimension and considerable emotional weight to the author's argument. They are all horrific - and painfully moving. There is the Christian girl from El Salvador, who sang hymns as soldiers repeatedly raped her. Then they shot her, twice, and when she continued singing, though weakly, "their wonder began to turn to fear - until finally they unleashed their machetes and hacked through her neck." And there is Gerardo, called by his fellow inmates in Castro's Isla de Pinos concentration camp, "Brother of the Faith." Cuban poet Armando Valladares, who was himself imprisoned, recalls: If some exhausted or sick prisoner fell behind in the furrows or hadn't piled up the amount of rock he had been ordered to break, the Brother of Faith would turn up. He was thin and wiry, with incredible stamina for physical labor. He would catch the other man up in his work, save him from brutal beatings. When one of the guards would walk up behind him and hit him, the Brother of Faith would spring erect, look into the guard's eyes, and say to him, "May God pardon you."
... In the midst of that apocalyptic vision of the most dreadful and horrifying moments in my life, in the midst of the gray, ashy dust and the orgy of beatings and blood, prisoners beaten to the ground, a man emerged, the skeletal figure of a man wasted by hunger, with white hair, blazing blue eyes, and a heart overflowing with love, raising his arms to the invisible heaven and pleading for mercy for his executioners. "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do." And a burst of machine-gun fire ripping open his breast.
The inevitable question is "Why?" What is it about Christians that makes them such widely-used targets of persecution? With characteristic insight, Marshall extracts his answer from the very heart of the matter, an answer that has not changed in two thousand years:
"... While usually loyal citizens, [Christians] embody an attachment to 'another King,' a loyalty to a standard of spiritual allegiance apart from the political order. This fact itself denies that the state is the all-encompassing or ultimate arbiter of human life. Regardless of how the relation between God and Caesar has been expressed, it now at least means that, contra the Romans and modern totalitarians, Caesar is not God. This confession, however, mute, sticks in the craw of every authoritarian regime and draws their angry and bloody response."
A significant portion of the book is devoted to examining the reasons why this massive area of human-rights abuse is being ignored, why there is no comparable outcry. Here the author is to be applauded for his just and accurate indictments. He is unsparing in his criticism of a media afflicted by secular myopia; of intellectual and government elite who refuse to take religion seriously; of liberal Christians such as Jesse Jackson and bodies like the WCC and NCC, whose leftist sympathies have caused them to dismiss hard evidence of persecution under socialist and communist regimes in favor of outward peace; of conservative evangelical churches whose vision is limited to God in America, and whose "success theologies," obsessed with inner peace and personal satisfaction, unconsciously attribute suffering to lack of faith. All of this combines to produce a blanket of apathy here in America, a country whose superior capacity for marshalling resources in defense of human rights makes such apathy all the more reprehensible. The author also cites cases of persecution caused by the identification of nationalism with a particular religion, a nationalism that sanctions the discrimination of citizens adhering to other faiths. Sadly, many of these cases are examined in a chapter titled "Christian vs. Christian," and many involve Orthodox Christians. Some of these, Orthodox in the Baltic States, for example, are suffering discrimination from Roman Catholic of Lutheran majorities, but not a few are party to its perpetrators. This is true in Greece, where citizens are required to state their religious affiliations on their identity cards, and proselytism against Orthodox is forbidden by a law, which, from 1983-1992, was invoked in two thousand arrests and four hundred convictions. In other Orthodox countries - Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Ukraine, Russia, Armenia - nationalist fervor is frequently ignited against non-Orthodox minorities.
Marshall exhibits a commendable understanding of the complexities of many Orthodox Churches, and he provides considerable historic background (expanded in two appendices), pointing out that they "have risen from a nightmare which few of us can imagine." As he justly points out, however, this does not excuse human-rights violations. "Real religious freedom," he writes, "will require the Orthodox churches to renounce their imperial pretensions. This doesn't mean that they should adopt some pallid imitation of Western liberalism or Protestant individualism, but it does mean openly facing a world where different religions will coexist in the same land for the foreseeable future." Marshall, clearly a man of deep convictions, is not advocating acceptance of multiple truths; at the core of religious freedom is the right to hold and assert truth claims. If one finds the assertion of another's beliefs to be annoying, it is legitimate to criticize, to argue against or to ignore that person or persons, but not to imprison or kill them.
Their Blood Cries Out contains echoes of New Martyrs of the Turkish Yoke and Russia's Catacomb Saints. In some ways, it is more difficult to digest because one is confronted with one's own passivity in the face of existing suffering, suffering of victims whose only crime is their unwillingness to renounce their faith in Christ. These are people, as Michael Horowitz points out in his fine introduction, who "are profoundly worthy of our actions and prayers, ...people whose present fates can easily become ours if we remain indifferent to their fates."
It was Horowitz, a Jewish champion of persecuted Christians, who converted veteran New York Times journalist, Abe Rosenthal, to the cause two years ago. Since then Rosenthal's op-ed column has often featured the subject of the persecution of Christians, eliciting more mail than any topic since the Times released the Pentagon Papers. His advice, "Once awake, don't fall asleep again." In order to wake up, we need only read Dr. Marshall's superb exposť. Whether or not we fall asleep again is a test of our Christian consciousness. God help us.