Are Christians the Most Persecuted Religion? Pew Report on Religious Harassment By L. Arik Greenberg, Ph.D.
In the summer of 2018, the Pew Research Center released a report on the state of religious persecution, restriction and harassment in the world; it was immediately coopted and misconstrued to advance certain agendas which unfortunately miss the point of the report. The report demonstrated that there was a measurable uptick in governmental restrictions on religions globally, along with acknowledging the growing presence of nationalist movements in countries that are repressive toward religious minorities. Additionally, there has been a relatively stable, but sizeable level of social harassment (from non-governmental sources) of religious minorities. As part of their report, summaries were posted which provide key findings in easily readable format. One of the key findings is that in 2016, Christians experienced harassment by governments or social groups in the largest number of countries (144 countries), just slightly ahead of Muslims (142 countries). Many conservative Christian commentators and news sources were quick to interpret these results to their advantage, as if giving them arguably solid data to support their long-standing claim to be the most persecuted religion in the world. Headlines such as “Religious freedom getting worse around the world; Christians remain most persecuted group: Pew” from the Christian Post appeared immediately, bolstered by “Christians most persecuted religious group in the world” in the ADF International newsletter, and “Pew: Christian, Muslim persecution most widespread” from the Baptist Press.1 Even one of my favorite students, an evangelical Christian himself, was quick to ask me this fall, “But aren’t Christians the most persecuted religion in the world?” confidently citing the Pew Forum report as evidence. But this is not what the Pew study concluded, despite misguided interpretations of their data.
In fact, the report deliberately avoids the term, persecution.
[T]his study provides data on the number of countries in which different religious groups
are harassed or intimidated. But the study does not assess either the severity or the frequency of the harassment in each country. Therefore, the results should not be interpreted as gauging which religious group faces the most harassment or persecution around the world.2
Were one to include persecution within the methodology of such a report, would one define it as merely harassment or socio-economic repression, or must it include real and lethal physical violence in order to be called persecution? And in terms of comparing differing intensities of persecution, what would be the parameters and rubric of such a comparison?
The aforementioned spate of articles most commonly cited only one particular set of numbers from the report, reproducing one chart that focused exclusively on the number of countries in which a religion experienced harassment (defined broadly, as stated above, and not specifically any type of persecution). Such a rubric for the most persecuted, which takes the number of countries in which the demographic experiences persecution as the primary determinant, is fundamentally flawed. By the mangled logic used by certain Christians to define their religion as the most persecuted in light of these data released by Pew, it would be hypothetically possible for there to be one Christian in each of the 144 countries reported, for a total of 144 Christians in the world, and still be considered the most highly persecuted religion in the world. This one number has been grossly misinterpreted and trotted out as a prized horse in the contest of whose religion is the most persecuted, a game which provides bragging rights that under some circumstances will be used to justify greater military involvement in global regions where Christianity is the minority, as well as justify domestic legislation and policy changes which further establish Christianity as the dominant and most favored religion — a status which is still in effect, but rapidly changing.3
An interesting article in the Friendly Atheist, called “Are Christians Really the Most Persecuted Religious Group in the World?” by Hemant Mehta, challenged some of these misinterpretations of the data and made reference to a parallel, but separate report simultaneously released by Pew, which included data for 2017 as well and emphasized some of the increased effects on the religiously unaffiliated.4 In the article, he addresses the problematic nature of some of the claims by evangelical Christians, pointing out that the methodology used in the report does not support grand and spurious claims that the Christian religion is universally and perennially under attack. Firstly, he points out that harassment (the primary term used in the report) can include anything, from “verbal hate to government oppression” and the chart cannot accurately indicate how many of these instances were life-threatening. Secondly, he points out the lack of persecution of Christianity by the U.S. Government, in light of the so-called “Muslim Bans” enacted under the Trump administration, which do severely affect the lives of many Muslims in the U.S. Mehta writes:
Remember, also, that the United States isn’t a country where Christians are persecuted by the government. Muslims certainly are. It’s almost insulting for U.S. Christians to say they’re being persecuted when there are Christians who literally can’t practice their faith out in the open in some other countries. The U.S. is actually listed as “moderate” on the survey’s “Government Restrictions” index, which shows how oppressive different countries are to all religions…. Our nation needs to do better to defend religious freedom. When we do it, other nations inevitably follow suit. When we’re passing Muslim bans for the hell of it, it gives other countries license to discriminate against people on the basis of faith, too.
Some other problems with the standard, adversarial approach to these numbers must be addressed. Christians are highly divided. The unity of Christians is often only trotted out as a rhetorical argument by conservative Christians to highlight their overall persecution. Many of the evangelical Christians propagating these claims rarely if ever acknowledge the validity of Catholics and Orthodox Christians until it serves their arguments, conveniently choosing to enumerate them among global Christianity in order to include them in persecution statistics. But often, Orthodox Christians of the Middle East will complain of evangelicals trying to convert them to “real” Christianity during primary interactions with them, as if their brand of Christianity was not sufficient. In an ironic turn of events, in most places where Christians face persecution, Christians are the majority religion, such as in Nicaragua, where the government is openly antagonistic to and oppressive of the Catholic majority in that country.5
This constant one-upmanship to decide who is more oppressed, as if it were a game, leads us further from the most important lesson to take from the Pew report, which is to prevent further atrocities and religious repression. There are horrendous human rights abuses happening all over the world. Some of them are perpetrated by religious and ethnic extremists, while others are perpetrated by corporate and national interests that run roughshod over the very lives and bodies of unprotected ethno-religious groups, some numerical minorities, and others in a disenfranchised and disempowered majority. I would draw the reader’s attention to at least two major instances of religious and ethnic persecution: that of the Uighurs and of the Rohingya.
In the last several years, it has become more highly reported that the Buddhist majority government of Myanmar (formerly Burma) has engaged in systematic displacement and elimination of the indigenous minority grouping, known as the Rohingya, most of whom are Muslim and live in the Rakhine State. For decades, this government has attempted to delegitimize the Rohingya through repressive legislation and policy and to challenge their identity as the indigenous people of Burma, and ultimately to justify the large-scale relocation of nearly one million Rohingya since 2015. Many have been murdered, their homes destroyed, with widespread reports of punitive rape and other atrocities. The government of Myanmar, led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been complicit in the genocide of the Rohingya, perpetrated by a military junta out of control, bolstered and justified by nationalist and extremist attitudes expressed by hardline Buddhist monks, such as Ashin Wirathu.6 Aung San Suu Kyi has been extensively criticized for her inaction, but has expressed that there is nothing she can do in the face of military opposition.7
In China, on the other hand, the very nation that invaded and subjugated Tibet in 1950 on the grounds of reclaiming former territory, we now see widespread concentration camps that intern not only religious and ideological factions such as the Falun Gong, but also ethnic minorities like the predominantly Muslim Uighurs. Since 2017, over 1 million Uighurs have been interned in 85 different rapidly built “reeducation camps”. Initially the Chinese government denied the existence of these camps but since their discovery by international sources, the government has acknowledged their existence, but downplayed their purpose. The 11 million Muslim-majority Uighurs that live in the Province of Xinjiang, formerly known as East Turkistan, have been the victims of governmental repression, ostensibly because of the actions of a few Uighur militants in 2013 and 2014. While China claims that its attempts to control and reeducate the Uighurs are to ensure their compliance and docility and to counteract potential terrorism, some suspect that the region’s wealth of natural gas provides ample motive for China to repress and silence the region’s inhabitants. Since 2017, the Xinjiang government has destroyed mosques and prohibited Uighurs from maintaining traditional forms of dress and facial hair. Many Uighurs report brutal and violent treatment inside of these camps, including systematic rape.
While it is tempting to enumerate these two instances as examples of larger patterns of persecution against Muslims, thus canceling out the spurious and tendentious claims by conservative Christians, even this would be to miss the bigger picture, which is that of oppressive regimes punishing and committing genocide against minority communities, and the international community either helpless to mitigate, or deliberately turning a blind eye to their suffering. But we are not in fact helpless in our desire to see justice be carried out. In a recent episode of “1A” on National Public Radio, which featured Salih Hudayar, founder of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement and Louisa Greve, director of global advocacy for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, both guests encouraged people to contact their representatives and the White House alike to urge sanctions against China and the recognition of these actions as genocide. Similar attempts to gain the attention of government have at least helped bring awareness to the Rohingya crisis. We may often feel helpless in such situations, but the power of the purse is a power worth noting. Oppressive regimes will often respond when funding is on the line. Each person must do their part to ensure that their voices are heard, so that the voiceless across the world can be given a voice.
1 These augmented earlier headlines reporting previous years’ versions of the report, including “Data: Christians Are the Most Persecuted Religious Group in the World” from Townhall (https://townhall.com/tipsheet/katiepavlich/2019/04/23/pew-poll-christians-are-the-most-persecuted-religious-group-in-the-world-n2545153), “Christians are MOST persecuted religion in the world – reveals new report” from Express (https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/978361/christianity-persecution-religious-freedom-christian-muslim-persecuted-china), and “Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world, says Pew report” from Church Times (https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2018/29-june/news/world/christians-are-the-most-persecuted-religious-group-in-the-world-says-report), among others.
2 Global Uptick in Government Restrictions on Religion in 2016, page 54.
3 For the decline in numbers of Christians in the U.S. and abroad, see https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/ and https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/ which point to the fact that while numbers of Christians are still by far the majority religion globally.
4 Interestingly, the parallel report released by Pew indicated that the 2017 numbers were similar, but showed a slight downtick, with Christians and Muslims experiencing harassment in 143 and 140 countries, respectively, but with religiously unaffiliated people experiencing a dramatic increase in such harassment, in 23 countries in 2017, up from 14 in 2015 and 2016, in keeping with the larger trend of increased harassment of religions globally.
6 See http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,2146000,00.html, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-10-21/buddhist-extremism-meet-the-religions-violent-followers/10360288, and https://www.cnn.com/2017/11/25/asia/myanmar-buddhist-nationalism-mabatha/index.html.
7 At the time of this article’s writing, a party official under her administration has been killed by rebels in what can only be called a confusing turn of events in the grand scheme of Myanmar’s politics. https://theaseanpost.com/article/aung-san-suu-kyi-party-official-killed-rakhine