Christian Persecution and the Terminology of Death

Years ago, I had a conversation with a nice woman who held a responsible position in the Episcopalian (or Anglican, as it is called in most countries) missions agency. She kindly agreed to introduce me to several African Anglican bishops. In the course of our conversation, she told me that none of the Christians in the countries where these bishops presided were suffering “pure” persecution, since what they were going through did not come by direct government order.  Her contention was that “persecution” could only happen if a government ordered it.

She introduced me to a number of bishops, despite the fact that I did not agree with her on this. They gave me an entirely different story. They had no doubt that what they and their people were undergoing was persecution, many times to the death, for their Christian faith.

One bishop from Northern Nigeria told me that five of his churches had been burned to the ground, that his daughter had been seized, and that a member of one of his parishes was murdered by a mob that put the man over a sawhorse and cut off his head. I can still hear the pain and horror in his voice as he described this to me.

Yet, by the definition I had heard none of this would qualify as persecution.

I had an interesting conversation earlier today with a sophisticated and knowledgeable Catholic who holds the same view. If I understood him correctly, the only persecution that can be officially accepted as such is that which comes as an official action by an official government of the type that occurs in North Korea, Saudi Arabia and China.

I’ve been chewing on this all afternoon. I understand — or at least I think I do — the difference between government-enforced persecution and that which comes from groups of people in a society. There are few things more draconian that government-enforced persecution. However, to label everything that is not government-enforced as “not persecution” just doesn’t jibe with me; not if the horror stories I’ve read and been told are true. 

I’ve spent a fair lifetime in the world of political jargoneering, and I have an admittedly cynical view of it. When people parse the meanings of words to avoid the obvious fact that other people are being murdered, it triggers enormous emotional and mental resistance in me.

I tried to find the United Nations definition of persecution by looking online, and all I found were definitions related to refugees. I’ll quote the salient parts as I discuss them.

The first definition, which is a definition of persecution itself, says:

51. … From Article 33 of the 1951 Convention, it may be inferred that a threat to life or freedom on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group is always persecution. Other serious violations of human rights – for the same reasons – would also constitute persecution. (Emphasis mine.)

I’m not versed in International law, but taken on its face, that seems to say that what the bishop from Nigeria described to me, as well as most of the other things I’ve heard and read, fit this definition of persecution.

The second part of the definition goes to what both the two people who think persecution only occurs at the behest of a government are probably referring to:

65. Persecution is normally related to action by the authorities of a country. 

However, the same definition goes on to say:

It may also emanate from sections of the population that do not respect the standards established by the laws of the country concerned. A case in point may be religious intolerance, amounting to persecution, in a country otherwise secular, but where sizeable fractions of the population do not respect the religious beliefs of their neighbours. Where serious discriminatory or other offensive acts are committed by the local populace, they can be considered as persecution if they are knowingly tolerated by the authorities, or if the authorities refuse, or prove unable, to offer effective protection.

The violent persecution I’ve described on this blog and heard about in my discussions with people from these countries seems to fit this definition to me.

All this came from a Google search. I may have the wrong definitions. However, it does show that at least part of the United Nations definitions of persecution include situations such as those I have been writing about.

The reason I’m going over this is because I believe that people are being murdered, imprisoned and otherwise mistreated in large parts of the world today because they are Christians. If I am wrong about this, I want to know it.

If, on the other hand, I am right, I intend to persist in calling it out so long as it continues and I am able to say anything about it.

I am trying to understand how we can work around the intractability of legal definitions which narrow the meaning of persecution to the point that it allows things like these and does not call them by name.

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  • Dale

    The notion that persecution only occurs when conducted by government seems odd to me. I don’t think it fits the laws of countries in the West.

    Quoting from the UNCHR Compilation of Case Law on Refugee Protection in International Law:

    1.3 Agents of persecution

    R v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, Ex parte Adan, Ex parte
    Aitseguer , (2001) 2 WLR 143, 19 December 2000 (UK House of Lords)
    For the purposes of the 1951 Convention, persecution may be by bodies other than the state. Persecution is not limited to cases where a state carried out or tolerated the persecution; it encompasses instances where
    a state is unable to afford the necessary protection to its citizens.

    Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs v. Khawar [2002] HCA 14, 11 April 2002 (High Court of Australia)
    “Where persecution consists of two elements, the criminal conduct of private citizens, and the toleration or condonation of such conduct by the state or agents of the state, resulting in the withholding of protection which the victims are entitled to expect, then the requirement that the persecution be by reason of one of the Convention grounds may be satisfied by the motivation of either the criminals or the state.” [para.31]

    The US State Department seems to have a similar position.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Thanks Dale. I was not aware of this.

      • Dale

        I wasn’t aware of it either, Rebecca. But thanks to your acquaintance, and your concern, I do now.
        Oh, and my smart friend Google helped a lot, too. :)

        But I still don’t understand why some persons, who are well acquainted with the threat of persecution, would only use that label for government oppression. Could it be that they are trying to downplay the threat, which is all too real?

        • Rebecca Hamilton

          I’m not sure why they do this. I have ideas, but I don’t know enough to say anything publicly.

        • Epicus Montaigne

          I would think that they don’t because they’re terrified and somewhat helpless to do anything about non-government persecutions. When it’s not the government directly persecuting, it’s a cultural or sub-cultural persecution, and when it’s in a foreign country (headed by a government powerless or too apathetic to stop it), there’s little you can do to stop it, short of military operations, maybe with the sanction of the foreign government.

          If, on the other hand, the persecution was sanctioned by the government, people could condemn the government, other leaders could impose sanctions, etc. When it’s cultural, though, you’d be fighting a grassroots movement, a cultural idea, and it’s just much more nebulous than an evil dictator.

          To not classify cultural persecution as persecution relieves, in a purely semantic way, the call to “protect human rights”. It’s a self-defense mechanism, which I can only compare to closing your eyes, covering your ears, and singing “LA LA LA LA LA” at the top of your lungs. It’s cowardice, stemming from impotency, and it relieves yourself of any responsibility to do anything about it.

  • Bill S

    “Her contention was that “persecution” could only happen if a government ordered it.”

    I have no idea why persecution would have to be by a government as opposed to by another religion. Islam has always been spread by violence making it the worst of all religions.

    To not call it persecution and to call it religious infighting is not fair to Christians, who, by their faith, do not fight back. The only time they fought back was the Crusades.

    • JoFro

      And even that was not in response to Islamic violence that they had suffered for the last 300 years but rather because their co-religionists in the Byzantine Empire pleaded to the Pope to send him men to defend his lands from being conquered by a bunch of Seljuk Turks, a precursor to the Ottomans.

  • jenny

    The government may be behind those who persecute Christians.