‘Under Caesar’s Sword’: A Project to Aid Persecuted Christians

The University of Notre Dame, in conjunction with Templeton Religion Trust, is working to educate the public on a horrific global problem.

Images from the ‘Under Caesar’s Sword’ documentary on Christian persecution.
Images from the ‘Under Caesar’s Sword’ documentary on Christian persecution. (photo: http://ucs.nd.edu/film/)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — “Under Caesar’s Sword,” a three-year research project funded by the Templeton Religion Trust, released a report in April detailing the persecution of Christians in countries throughout the world and ways those Christian communities have responded to persecution.

According to the report, some Christians suffer persecution from both state and non-state sources; state actors include “Islamist, communist, religious nationalist and secular regimes, while non-state actors include violent religious extremists.” 

The report noted that Christian communities typically respond in one of three ways: survival, preserving life and basic activities of their communities; association, working with others to “strengthen their resilience in the face of persecution”; and confrontation, challenging their persecutors and even accepting martyrdom as “a mode of witness.”

Survival was the most common response, according to Daniel Philpott, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and principal author of the report, while confrontation was the least common. “In some societies, all Christians can do is to go underground to survive,” he said. “In other places, Christians cope by being both creative and pragmatic, working with governments and others to bolster and improve their position.”

Tim Shah, a research professor at Baylor University and senior director of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C., is a co-director of “Under Caesar’s Sword” and contributed to the report. He was surprised at the prevalence of the association response by many Christians.

“I did not expect to see the extent to which Christians facing persecution are making remarkable efforts to build bridges to other religious communities,” he said.

Expecting to see “deepening divisions” and “mistrust” between Christians and their persecutors, instead, Shah often saw “the remarkable degree to which Christians reached out to others to improve their circumstances.”

Confrontation was the exceptional case, Philpott said, and involved Christians taking up arms, protesting, engaging in court challenges and suffering martyrdom for their faith. Philpott added, “It was really striking to me how few Christians resorted to violence as a response to persecution.”


The Worst Offenders

Among the countries studied, North Korea was the worst state persecutor of Christians, according to Philpott, with Christians subjected to labor camps and imprisonment in an effort to “snuff out” their faith.

Shah also pointed to the “genocidal persecution” of Christians in such nations as Iraq and Syria, with Islamic State warriors “seeking to cleanse whole territories of Christians. … We’re seeing violent, genocidal extermination.”

Philpott also noted that some may be surprised to discover that anti-Christian persecution occurs in democracies, with a majority faith, “empowered” by an election, persecuting a minority faith. Such is the case in nations like India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, he said. In recent years, for example, Hindu nationalists in India have been persecuting Christians. “It was a surprise to me that that would arise.”

India and Sri Lanka see sporadic levels of violence toward Christians, Shah added, “low-level attacks” that usually did not involve the killing of Christians. These included physical assaults of Christian leaders and destruction of their property.

Indonesia, Shah said, is a Muslim-majority country that is one of the few such countries that has had a growing Christian population. But the increasing numbers of Christians have led to tension with the Muslim majority, he continued, “and the tolerance they once enjoyed is slipping away.”

Indonesia, he added, has made it nearly impossible for Christians to build churches. Such is also the case, he continued, in such countries as Egypt, those of Central Asia and China (unless the Christian is connected to the state church).

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the countries of North America and Western Europe. Other countries notable for religious freedom include Japan and Brazil.


The ‘Under Caesar’s Sword’ Project

Philpott took the initiative to launch “Under Caesar’s Sword” with the backing of the Notre Dame administration. He noted that Holy Cross Father William Lies, vice president for mission engagement, was a key administration supporter of the project.

Data for the report was collected by an organized team of 17 scholars dispatched to study different regions of the world. The results were compiled, with the report being a tool used to disseminate the results. The report offered 80 recommendations for readers concerned about anti-Christian persecution, including prayer, diplomatic responses by governments and material aid.  

Philpott particularly hopes to raise awareness of persecution overseas and “recommend forms of action to Christians that can be done in solidarity with Christians suffering persecution.”

Shah added, “We’d really like to see the governments in the West make a serious effort to reduce Christian persecution in other parts of the world and Christian communities do more to help their persecuted brothers and sisters.”

Mariz Tadros, a professor at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, was one of the 17 scholars. She studied the survival strategies of Christians oppressed by Islamist groups in Egypt, Libya and Gaza. “In all three, Christians had serious concerns about their day-to-day safety.”

One thing that surprised and impressed her most, she said, was the strength of Christian women in defiance to the “encroachment on their identity” by Islamist groups. Women in Egypt and Gaza, for example, refused to submit to the pressure to wear a veil, “not out of disrespect or immodesty, but because wearing the veil represented that they were being forced to take on an identity that was not their own.”

She continued, “They insisted that, as Christians, they did not have to don a particular form of attire and were willing to endure being spat upon, called a prostitute and other harassment, even by children, to make this choice.”


Cardinal Wuerl

Philpott lauded the support of Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who gave the keynote address at an April 20 Washington, D.C., symposium held in conjunction with the release of the “Under Caesar’s Sword” report. Philpott said, “It was a real ‘barnstormer’ of an address, exhorting us to do something. He kept telling us, ‘Some things are worth standing for.’”

In his speech, the cardinal expressed his gratitude for the “Under Caesar’s Sword” report and expressed his hope “that this important report will begin to have some lasting and much needed awareness: raising to help spur people to action — people and institutions.”

Two hundred million Christians worldwide, he noted, “are at risk of physical violence, arrest, torture and even death because they live and practice a faith that is not acceptable in that part of the world.”

The cardinal suggested a four-part response in his address: continue to raise awareness, speak out against persecution, support the persecuted with material assistance, and prayer.

Philpott and Shah encouraged concerned Christians to begin by watching a 26-minute documentary on Christian persecution created as part of the “Under Caesar’s Sword” project (http://ucs.nd.edu/film/). They are also producing a curriculum due out by the end of the summer to educate the public on the problem of Christian persecution around the world (available through the website http://ucs.nd.edu/).  The report and related resources are also available on the website.

Although the Templeton grant funding runs out in 2017, Shah said, “We will continue to invest manpower into this project to keep it alive. We want to demonstrate to people that there is a problem and that we can respond to it in helpful and positive ways.”


Register correspondent Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.