The real ‘war on Christians’

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Culture warriors loudly proclaim that Christianity is under siege in the United States: Christmas wars, Bible wars, school wars — all part of a great “war on Christians.”

For a little perspective, try explaining this “war” to people like Father Douglas Yousef Al-Bazy, a Chaldean Catholic parish priest in Baghdad.

Last month, Al-Bazy was kidnapped for nine days before being released (probably for ransom). Earlier this year, his parish was hit by bomb attacks, and a month later he was shot at while pulling a pregnant woman to safety.

Despite all this, Father Al-Bazy refuses to leave his congregation. “It needs me more than ever,” he said in a recent interview. “My life is in the hand of God.”

But soon he may not have a flock left to serve. Iraqi Christians (who make up less than 3% of the population) are streaming out of the country, fleeing what many believe are targeted attacks against churches and Christian-owned businesses.

Meanwhile back in the USA, we are busy fighting a manufactured “war” over whether to say “Merry Christmas” or “happy holidays.” One woman was so incensed by the absence of the crèche in a school display that she has taken her grievance all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. (We’re still waiting to see if the justices take the case).

This was the year that the “war on Christmas” was ratcheted up to become the “war on Christians” — most notably at a conference in March organized by some evangelical groups. Speaker after speaker expressed outrage at the widespread “persecution” of Christians in America.

Among the recent examples of anti-Christian attacks: A military chaplain said he was punished for offering sectarian prayers. An artist claimed he was barred from an art show because his paintings had religious themes.

It’s easy to imagine Father Al-Bazy’s reaction to these stories of “persecution”: If this is all you suffer, count yourselves very blessed indeed.

Religious life in America has never been more robust, visible and free than it is today. It’s true that religious values now compete with secular trends, especially in popular culture. That makes our public square an increasingly crowded and often hostile arena where religion is sometimes unfairly excluded. But none of this adds up to religious persecution.

If you want to see what a real war on Christians looks like, just look around the globe.

Last month, to cite just one of countless examples, Chinese officials in Xinjiang province released four “unofficial” Christians from prison (in China, only Christians who are registered with the government may practice their faith). According to human rights groups, they were tortured for 32 days.

Of course, it’s not just Christians who suffer. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Chinese government is “responsible for pervasive and severe violations of religious freedom … . Every religious community in China is subject to serious restrictions, state control, and repression.”

Move around the world, and the story is much the same: Baha’is are brutally harassed and punished in Iran. Protestant, Buddhist and other groups are discriminated against and often detained in Vietnam. Muslims and Christians are censored and attacked in Burma. And the list goes on and on in a world where religious freedom is in short supply.

By contrast, Christians in America never had it so good. Where else on Earth do Christians have more freedom to evangelize, organize, publish and worship – all without government interference?

What really bothers some American evangelicals is not the lack of freedom — it’s the loss of monopoly. Many of the conflicts in the so-called “war on Christians” appear to be about restoring the “good old days” when Protestant Christianity was semi-established as the national religion.

But pushing for a Christian Nation will not advance Christianity — it will kill it. From China to Turkey to Europe, state involvement in religion is the root of persecution, dissension and division.

Father Al-Bazy’s problems won’t end with the establishment of a Shiite nation or a Sunni nation — or even a Christian nation — in Iraq. The war on Christians in that country and throughout the world will end only when governments commit to stay out of religion and guarantee freedom and safety for people of all faiths and none.

How ironic. At a time when some Christian leaders in America are decrying “separation of church and state,” millions of Christians around the world are praying for it.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. Web: E-mail:

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