‘Under Caesar's Sword’ Looks at the Christian Response to Persecution

Christians are experiencing persecution and restriction of religious freedom around the world. How are they responding?

Paul Delaroche, “A Christian Martyr in the Tiber During the Reign of Diocletian”, 1855
Paul Delaroche, “A Christian Martyr in the Tiber During the Reign of Diocletian”, 1855 (photo: Public Domain)

Under Caesar’s Sword, a three-year research project investigating how Christian communities respond to religious persecution, released a report in April that included the findings of 17 scholars who visited more than 30 countries where Christians endure varying degrees of persecution for their faith.  The following are the comments of three of those scholars.



Bob Hefner — Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs in the Pardee School of Global Affairs at Boston University


Why did you want to get involved with Under Caesar’s Sword?

I’ve worked on matters of religious plurality and conflict in Indonesia for more than 30 years.  Since the celebrated transition back to democracy (after 32 years of authoritarian rule) in May 1998, Indonesia has established itself as the most genuinely democratic Muslim-majority society in the world.  But the transition to democracy has also been marked by outbreaks of bitter communal violence, especially in the few provinces in the countries where Muslims and Christians live side-by-side in near equal numbers. 

In Indonesia as a whole, some 10 percent of the country’s almost 260 million people are Christian; 87.2 percent of the population is Muslim.  More recently the country has witnessed the rise of various hard line Islamist militias, some of which have targeted Christians, especially Christian evangelicals.  Against this backdrop, Indonesia is both an important country, not least because it is a functioning democracy, but also one that needs to be drawn to international attention because of inter-religious tensions.


What did you observe in Indonesia?

Christians have suffered persecution at the hands of hard line militants, and the country’s “blasphemy law” has been exploited in recent years by hard line Islamists, who have used it most extensively against non-conforming minorities in the Muslim community itself. 

But the situation of Indonesian Christians in general is quite different from that in the Middle East or South Asia (India, Pakistan).  Christians as a proportion of the population have tripled since Indonesia declared its independence in 1945; today they also exercise a national influence in the media, the business world and education that is disproportionate to their numbers in society.  Most important of all, although a hard line Islamist minority would like to reduce Christians and other religious minorities to a second-class status, the great majority of Indonesian Muslims remain committed to the terms of Indonesia’s founding principles that extend equal rights to people of all nationally-recognized faiths.

Although the more open society which is Indonesia today has created opportunities for Islamist opponents of Indonesia’s multi-religious heritage to stir up trouble, I’m cautiously optimistic that Indonesia’s pluralist heritage will survive, although it is going to continue to be tested for some time.


Do you have any other observations?

I would end by saying that it was the Protestant and, especially, Catholic leadership in Indonesia itself who remain hopeful and even optimistic about Indonesia’s pluralist future, precisely because they feel the majority of Muslim leaders remain committed to defending the country’s political and constitutional legacy of multi-religious citizenship. 



Fenggang Yang — Professor of Sociology and Director, Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University


What did you observe in regards to religious freedom for Christians in China?

The key points are:  1) The nature of persecution in contemporary China is atheism against all religions, including Christianity.

2) There are three types of persecution: ideological eradication and indoctrination of atheism through the school system and mass media propaganda, enforced by organizations of the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese Communist Youth League and the Young Pioneers; political repression of religious organizations and leaders; economic punishment and life obstruction for noncompliant believers.

3) There are three types of Chinese Christian responses to the Communist rule: cooperation with the Communists on social and political goals; accommodation to the reality of restrictive but somewhat tolerant policy of religion; and resistance to religious restrictions through nonviolent civil disobedience or legal defense of civil and human rights. But, above all, Chinese Christians responded with active evangelism whenever possible, including in prison or in some positions of high visibility. Therefore, Christianity has grown rapidly in China. If the growth continues at the current rate or somewhat lower, I have projected that by the year 2030, there will most likely be more Christians in China than the United States.

4) Religious restrictions in China relaxed for some years since 1979, but have been tightened up in recent years. Meanwhile, Christian resistance has grown as well.  



Elizabeth H. Prodromou — Visiting Assoc. Prof. of Negotiation & Conflict Resolution for The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University


Why did you want to get involved with Under Caesar’s Sword?

The project converges with a consistent interest in my scholarship and policy work and with one of the most critical humanitarian and security issues of our time: namely, the negative impact of authoritarian nationalism, both secular and religious, on religious pluralism. I was especially interested in examining how Christian communities in their lands of origin in the Middle East are struggling to survive in the face of authoritarian states whose policies of religious homogenization are putting Christian survival at risk in the places where Christianity originated. Furthermore, by taking a global and comparative approach to Christian communities, this project provided invaluable research on how vulnerable religious communities, in general, can develop their capacity to respond in durable and sustainable ways to violent and non-violent forms of repression Under Caesar's Sword.


What did you observe in Turkey?

I researched the case of the responses of the Christian communities of Turkey to that state's systematic and sustained policies aimed at eliminating Christians and the overall Christian presence from Turkey. In interviews and other research, I observed the quiet, dignified fearlessness of ancient Christian communities in the face of the violent persecution and non-violent discrimination visited on them by Turkish authorities and perpetrated by societal actors in Turkey. I heard the commitment of those Christian communities to try to adapt their strategies of response to the priority of survival and to the hope of growth, as well as the communities' efforts to give voice to their plight--all of this while expressing their commitment to remain in their lands of origin and their commitment to being able to live as equal citizens in Turkey. 

I also observed the realities of Turkey's policies of attrition when it comes to erasing Christians and the Christian presence--small numbers in church services, a decidedly elderly demographic among Christians, and the destruction and abuse of Christian religious sites.   Policymakers reacted with great interest in learning how religious communities think about and operationalize their responses to state repression, especially in cases where Christian communities have used advocacy and activism that explicitly rejects any form of violence.


What reaction did those you studied have to your participation in Under Caesar’s Sword?

The reactions to my participation in the project were positive.  From Christians inside Turkey, who have faced a state committed to their erasure and who have labored to develop their voice with an international community largely disinterested in Turkey's eradication of its Christians, I encountered hope and relief that there is academic and policy interest in the issue; I found that there is a willingness to be reflective regarding the effectiveness and capacity of strategies to respond to repression; and, I saw a reaction among the communities, as well as among others on the project, regarding the importance of highlighting the Turkey case as a long-overlooked bell weather for what is happening in other parts of the Middle East. 

I also encountered a maturity on the part of those whom I interviewed, who communicated that their plight as Christians was important because it signaled broader problems for other faith communities struggling to live securely and freely in a state that is unaccountable to its citizens.


Any other thoughts you’d like to share related to Under Caesar’s Sword?

The urgency of this project is undeniable. Robust academic analysis and feasible policy responses to states that perpetrate religious homogenization includes Christians, but Christians are emblematic of a broader, global problem that includes myriad faith communities.  So, what we learn from this project on Christian responses and capacity to survive and/or thrive has generalizable lessons for other faith communities. The project demonstrates the linkages between promotion of freedom of conscience, belief, and religion, on the one hand, and promotion of state and human security, on the other.


For additional information, and to read the recently released Under Caesar’s Sword report, visit this link.