By Terry Mattingly
Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College
Early in the Iraq war, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana took part in a congressional fact-finding trip to meet with U.S. troops.
Some of the lessons he learned during his first trip to that troubled land had more to do with religion than with warfare. While meeting with local officials, for example, Pence watched the local imam rush to embrace a friend — the Catholic bishop in southern Iraq. A translator said the imam thanked the bishop for staying in touch after the recent death of his mother.
That was enlightening, said Vice President Pence, during the recent “Help the Persecuted” summit in Washington, D.C. But he also learned a crucial fact that day.
“I turned to the diplomatic aide who was with me,” Pence recalled, “and said, ‘So there’s a Catholic church in al-Basrah?’ And he said, ‘Yes, yes there is.’ And I said, ‘How long has there been a Catholic church in al-Basrah?’ And he said, ‘About 1,500 years.’ ”
That’s a sobering fact since Iraq’s Christian population has fallen 80 percent since that 2004 meeting, said Pence. The Christian population of Syria has fallen 50 percent in the past six years.
“As you all know, no people of faith face greater hostility or hatred than followers of Christ,” said the vice president. “In more than 100 nations, spread to every corner of the world … over 245 million Christians confront intimidation, imprisonment, forced conversion, abuse, assault or worse.”
Nowhere is this onslaught more evident than in the “ancient land where Christianity was born,” he added. “In Egypt, we see the bombing of churches during Palm Sunday celebrations. In Iraq we see monasteries demolished, priests and monks beheaded and the two-millennia-old Christian tradition in Mosul clinging for survival. In Syria, we see ancient communities burned to the ground and believers tortured for confessing the name of Christ. … Christianity now faces an exodus in the Middle East unrivaled since the days of Moses.”
Pence has made similar remarks before, but these statements rarely gain traction outside the world of Christian media. The problem is that the words “religious persecution” — especially when linked to suffering Christians — remain controversial among some public officials and journalists.
In Britain, for example, immigration officials ruled against the asylum claim of an Iranian national who had converted to Christianity. Here’s what made headlines: The Home Office backed this action with claims that Christianity is not a religion of peace, quoting Leviticus 26:7 (“Ye shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword”) and the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:24 (“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”).
Meanwhile, the Christian Broadcasting Network and other conservative groups have noted, in recent weeks, the deaths of an estimated 120 Christians in central Nigeria. This was the latest wave of bloodshed linked to disputes between Fulani militiamen, most of them Muslims, and farmers in Christian villages. Despite years of terrorist attacks, Nigeria ranks 12th on the Open Doors USA list of the world’s worst countries, in terms of the persecution of Christians.
In the same time frame, the world was stunned by a white supremacist’s March 15 attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, leaving 50 dead and 50 wounded. One of the victims was a 3-year-old child. While stressing the importance of those attacks, many conservatives have asked this question in social-media forums: Why has the slaughter of believers in Nigeria received little or no mainstream media attention?
Pence openly addressed the mosque attacks during his remarks on religious persecution. The bottom line: Concerns about religious liberty and the persecution of people of faith should include discussions of the “act of terror” that claimed the lives of innocent worshippers in New Zealand.
“Practitioners of terror” have consistently attacked all kinds of believers, in an attempt to “stamp out all religions that are not their own,” he said. The Islamic State attacked Christians — but also Yazidis, Druze and any Muslims whose approach to Islam clashed with the caliphate’s goals.
“People of faith should never fear for their safety in a place of worship,” said Pence. “An attack on the faith of one is an attack on the faith of us all.”
Terry Mattingly (tmatt.net) leads GetReligion.org and is Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn.