How Will Pope Francis Address Persecution of Christians Around the World?

Authority Nina Shea discusses the issue and what awaits the Holy Father.

Nina Shea
Nina Shea (photo: The Hudson Institute)

A rash of recent anti-Christian violence from Nigeria to Pakistan to Syria has highlighted the vulnerable status of this religious group.

Meanwhile, the U.S. bishops have spoken out on behalf of the beleaguered Christian community of Iraq. And, in February, retired Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong called on the Vatican to reverse its policy of “compromise” with Beijing that had failed to prevent the government’s interference in the local Church.

Nina Shea is a longtime expert on international religious-freedom issues. She is the co-author, with Paul Marshall and Lela Gilbert, of a new book, Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians. Shea is also the director of the Center for Religious Freedom of the Hudson Institute in Washington. In March, the center created a new website that aggregates the top stories on religious persecution worldwide.

Shea spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond about some of the most urgent issues that await Pope Francis’ attention.


Your book is dedicated to religious freedom, which, you write, “in all its fullness, includes, but is not limited to, the freedom to worship. It encompasses the freedom to choose one’s religion and the freedom to manifest one’s religion.” What is the most common form of anti-Christian persecution, and why?

Religious persecution varies by country, but patterns are evident. Publicly showing, teaching about and sharing one’s faith is what commonly triggers acts of persecution.

In the most repressive countries — like North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan — it is impossible to have public worship inside a church, but, even in relatively less oppressive places like Morocco and Vietnam, teaching Christianity and proselytizing can be severely punished. Such states view Christianity as a “Western” religion and a threat to their control, even though Christianity pre-existed Islam in the Arab world and pre-dates in North Korea and Vietnam the European ideology of communism that the ruling parties in those countries espouse.  

The most common form of persecution is requiring the registration of churches and religious groups. Registration entails state surveillance and restrictions — on whether a church can be built, a cleric is state-approved, an individual can participate and a particular belief is legitimate. The first step down the road of persecution is state registration and regulation.


In a 2007 open letter to Chinese Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI criticized Beijing’s interference in the local Church’s internal affairs, but Cardinal Zen recently criticized the Vatican’s policy of “compromise” with Beijing and said it had bolstered the pro-government Church. Can you explain the situation on the ground in China and outline what you believe should happen next?

The Vatican [appeals] to Chinese Catholics through the state-controlled Patriotic Catholic Association, rather than through the underground churches, in an attempt to prevent a schism. Despite decades of patient negotiations with Beijing and having made some progress over the years in episcopal appointments, the Vatican has recently seen the Chinese government’s religious apparatus appoint bishops for the Catholic Church in China without Vatican approval. One of these new bishops, in Harbin, was excommunicated by the Vatican last July.

Meanwhile, a growing number of bishops and clergy are in detention, including Shanghai’s Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who has been detained since last July, the same day he was ordained a bishop and announced his resignation from the Patriotic Catholic Association.

With the excommunicated bishop in a position of authority within the Patriotic Church and the Vatican-approved bishop in custody, the Catholic Church is facing a new challenge and will need to reassess its approach. I hope that a schism can be avoided and that more support can be provided to the suffering underground churches who have sacrificed much to remain in communion with the Bishop of Rome.


Nigeria has witnessed growing religious persecution, with constant reports of Christian churches burnt to the ground. What are the roots of the conflict in Nigeria, and how is the local Church addressing this challenge?

Nigeria is about half Christian and half Muslim. These groups’ troubled relations have been exacerbated by the rise of Islamism and Muslim militias in recent years. Nigerian churches have been under siege with particular ferocity from the extremist Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is a sin” and whose stated goal is to replace Nigeria’s secular government with an Islamist state. They have carried out bombings and attacks on churches full of worshippers during Sunday services and on major holy days, such as Christmas and Easter, though, thankfully, not this past Easter.

The Christian churches have officially responded by embracing dialogue with the Muslim community. Some Christian youth have used violence in reprisal attacks, which the Church has condemned. It is significant that Pope Francis prayed for peace in Nigeria, among other places, on Easter.


In March, the Pakistan Catholic bishops protested the torching of a Christian neighborhood following allegations that a Christian had violated blasphemy laws. Are there any signs that these laws will be reformed?

Some Pakistani leaders and their followers have called for reforming or rescinding the blasphemy laws, which have been disproportionately used to persecute Christians and other minorities.

When there was international outcry in the case of Rimsha Masih, the 14-year-old mentally disabled Christian girl accused of burning a Quran last fall, hopes were raised that there would be reform. At that time, the Pakistani authorities released the defendant, who then had to go into hiding to escape mob retribution.

Unfortunately, the momentum stopped. Those, like the Minister of Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, who was a Catholic by the way, and the governor of Punjab Salman Taseer, who pressed for such reforms, were themselves murdered for blasphemy. No one has been arrested for Bhatti’s murder two years ago. Taseer’s killer was treated like a hero by even the bar association, and, after he was eventually convicted, the judge in the case had to go into hiding for his life.

The current Pakistani ambassador to Washington Sherry Rehman also opposes the blasphemy laws and is now herself charged with blasphemy in Pakistan and possibly facing a death sentence. Once imposed, the blasphemy laws may be impossible to rescind or even moderate because of this use of violence by extremists.


Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregory II Laham of Antioch just wrote to Pope Francis, warning him that Christians in the Middle East, and especially in Syria, are in danger. He stated, “Interfaith dialogue and coexistence between Islam and Christianity are also in jeopardy.” In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, have Christians been singled out?

The 2,000-year presence of indigenous Middle East Christian communities is in dire peril due to the rise of Islamists or forces that want Islamic law, sharia, to be enforced within the state. Under Islamist systems, Christians and other non-Muslim minorities do not have equal rights of citizenship.

One hundred years ago, the Middle East was about 30% Christian; now it is about 3%, diminished largely as a result of persecution, starting with the Armenian genocide.

There are only four countries left in the Middle East where Christians are found in substantial numbers: Egypt, with 8 million Coptic Orthodox and other Christians; Syria and Lebanon, each having between 1.5 and 2 million Christians; and Iraq, whose Christian population of some 1.5 million declined by about two-thirds over the last decade due to persecution.

In all four places, the Christians are at risk from mounting violence and persecution, and their numbers are dwindling as they flee to refuge in the West. In our lifetime, we may see the end of the ancient Middle East churches, as well as other, smaller religious minorities, and the complete Islamization of Christianity’s cradle.

This will be a deep wound for the Church, and it will be a geo-political problem for the United States, as this region loses a segment of its population that has been an influence for moderation and mediation in recent years. It is the Christian communities that first supported Western education in the region, for example.    


Both Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVII sought to defend the rights of Christians and others persecuted for their faith. How should Pope Francis continue this fight?

Pope Francis has already begun to draw attention to the persecuted Church, especially at his inaugural Mass, when he took a delegation of the heads of the Eastern Churches with him to visit the tomb of St. Peter. He should continue to highlight the plight of these Christians, and he should ensure that the rest of the Church prays for them as well.

Sadly, despite the efforts of his two predecessors, the universal Church is not infused with concern for the persecuted Church. Churches in the West should always remember and pray for those imprisoned, tortured, raped and killed for their Christian beliefs around the world.

Just as St. Paul raised his Roman citizenship to demand due process, we should also be invoking our rights as citizens to press our elected officials to speak out for the human rights of Christians and others.