Assessing the Claim that “Christians Are the Most Persecuted Group”

Assessing the Claim that “Christians Are the Most Persecuted Group” July 19, 2020

I was involved in an argument on Facebook concerning the news of the cathedral in the Frensch city of Nantes. This was fresh news: it was only just happening. And yet, already, the person in question wrote this comment alongside a video of the burning building:

There are people who hate the truth, hate the light and hate life itself. They have set themselves the task of extinguishing it from the world, and replacing it with chaos: darkness and death. They are evil.

I took issue with this because we knew literally nothing at the time other than an arson investigation was due to start. How could they make such sweeping claims in light of such a lack of knowledge about what was going on? But this wasn’t my main issue; my main bone of contention concerned the next comment:

Christians are the most oppressed and most attacked religious group. How else should I frame that, except in the way I have?

Indeed, the whole conversation was so simplistic and in poor methodology that it makes me sad that people just aren’t interested in actually trying to find out the truth of matters of furthering their own knowledge base. That said, before we start, let me lay out ( just for intellectual rigour) two arguable assumptions I am making that were not challenged and so were implicitly accepted: a) atheism is included, in discussion here, in “religious group”, a sort of generalised category; b) “oppressed and attacked” is synonymous with “persecuted”.

With those two assumptions accepted by my interlocutors, let me now address this ubiquitous claim, one that is pushed by Christians the world over.

My conclusion, that I will lay out now and then work towards, is that this term “most persecuted” is too simplistic to be able to engender a straightforward answer given that it is actually a complex area belying a nuanced understanding of what is being talked about. Furthermore, atheists, as a group, and in some meaningful way, are not being adequately considered in most persecuted religious group terminology and research. I could also add in that his assumption that an arson attack on a church is an attack on Christians and Christianity (qua persecution) may also be a hasty conclusion, but I won’t go into that one for now.

My initial demand was for some data. I was ridiculed for asking for, you know, substantiating evidence by another person whom I have had public arguments at this blog with, who said:

data produced by that mythical creature, the impartial recording angel with no axe to grind or narrative to smuggle in to the outcome results. Apparently an expedition has gone into the swamps of darkest Africa looking for him. They are expected to report back in 10 years or so.

I’m not sure what the alternative is for this guy: making claims that are mere bald assertions (like the initial one) so that no claims made can or should be defended by empirical evidence?

Wow. That is going nuclear in the worst possible abstract sense. But, I digress.

So, let’s start by looking at a few questions.

  1. What does persecution mean?
  2. Does this take into account, in a meaningful way, different types of persecution (from the death penalty to general harassment)?
  3. Who must be responsible for persecution (governments/states, religious organisations, general public etc.)?
  4. How is it measured? Is it reliable? Are certain groups largely missing from the data?
  5. Can one group be most prosecuted in one sense, but a different group in another?

And so on. It’s like saying, “white people are the most violent in the world”. What does this mean? Does this take into account white people in majority-black countries, majority-white countries, in terms of domestic abuse or in terms of war, or both? Point being, making huge generalised claims is a silly pastime that needs a whole host of explanation to be useful to anyone.


Let me lay out the Wikipedia definition (with required footnotes and links):

Religious persecution is defined as violence or discrimination against religious minorities, actions which are intended to deprive minorities of political rights and force them to assimilate, leave, or live as second-class citizens.[1] In the aspect of a state’s policy, it may be defined as violations of freedom of thoughtconscience and belief which are spread in accordance with a systematic and active state policy which encourages actions such as harassmentintimidation and the imposition of punishments in order to infringe or threaten the targeted minority’s right to lifeintegrity or liberty.[2] The distinction between religious persecution and religious intolerance lies in the fact that in most cases, the latter is motivated by the sentiment of the population, which may be tolerated or encouraged by the state.[2] The denial of people’s civil rights on the basis of their religion is most often described as religious discrimination, rather than religious persecution.

Examples of persecution include the confiscation or destruction of property, incitement of hatred, arrests, imprisonment, beatings, torturemurder, and executions. Religious persecution can be considered the opposite of freedom of religion.

I’ll go with this for the sake of expediency.

But remember, this is a definition that takes into account a plurality of types and methods of persecution, all of which will contain a different weighting in terms of seriousness. This, as I will explain, represents a huge problem in terms of comparing countries that have different populations and prevalence for different types of persecution. Who buys the most stuff? A person who buys a bag of 100 nuts for $2 or someone who buys a single car for $100,000? Definitions, definitions, definitions.

And, concerning the data itself at source (discussed later), there are different areas of persecution, from laws and ruling governments, to “nationalist” parties, to organisations, to cultural norms, to general people.

Initial problems: atheists

The first and obvious obstacle we come across, which will then massively affect collecting data, is that atheists are too afraid to admit they are atheists. I interviewed Iranian atheist Kaveh Mousavi, fellow Patheoser, and had to blur him out of the video for fear of death on account of his beliefs and claims. And yet, currently, there are at least 600 churches and 500,000–1,000,000 Christians in Iran operating above board. In Iran, atheism is officially unrecognised. In other words, you can’t officially be an atheist; you can’t admit it. Iran is one of 13 countries where atheism is punishable by death. I am not aware of any country where Christians are officially punished with death for their belief. That’s not to say they aren’t themselves punished in some way, or even killed for some reason by someone, this is about state-sanctioned punishment.

What does this mean for both prosecution and data collection? Well, it simply means there will be no real data that is usable to put this question to bed. Atheists can’t even admit their belief for them to be persecuted as atheists! In other words, their persecution invalidates their own persecution from being admitted and recorded!

Atheist don’t live in communities and they will not admit atheism in such countries. This means that a Christian who is born into a minority community will be born into a community that does, in some places, suffer real and open persecution all their lives. How do you compare this in any sensible way to an atheist who can’t even admit their atheism because they will be killed, and so pretends to be Muslim? Mohsen Amir-Aslani was convicted of making ‘innovations in religion’ and was executed. How do you, in terms of data, compare these two people, the Christian and the atheist? The atheist won’t “experience” persecution because, due to persecution, they have to pretend to be the majority in-group identity of Muslim. The few who get found out, die. The Christian, who doesn’t really get to do this, suffers persecution, and the data looks like “Christians suffer way more instances of persecution in Iran”, for example.

Not only this, but how many non-violent persecutions are worth one Amir-Aslani? Again, how do we equitably record and measure such different instantiations of persecution?

We could stop the conversation here for two reasons.

a) on state-sanctioned official persecution, atheists fare worse than any other group, if this was our metric.

b) all data is so problematic that meaningful conclusions and claims are pointless.

But, alas, I’ll carry on.

The one piece of data I was eventually provided was from this Church Times piece: “Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world, says Pew report“. That is, providing an incredibly short news article without going to the source data first of all and discussing its nuances. Here is literally half of the article:

CHRISTIANS remain the most persecuted religious group in the world, new figures from the Pew Research Centre show.

The Centre’s report on religious harassment in 2016 found that Christians were harassed in 144 countries, up from 128 the year before, while Muslims were harassed in 142 countries, up from 125 in 2015.

Published last week, the report says: “Christians and Muslims have typically been harassed in the largest number of countries around the world.

“These two groups are the largest religious groups in the world, and have substantial populations in more countries than other smaller and less geographically dispersed religious groups. . .

“There was also a jump in the number of countries where Jews were harassed in 2016, following a small decrease in 2015.”

Slicing and dicing the data

As many of you will have noticed straight away, we have classic issues over “most”. Does this mean in terms of real numbers, proportion or type? We could have many, many different scenarios:

  1. Group A has a worldwide population of 2 billion, Group B 100,000. They are each persecuted at the same rates proportionally. Group A is claimed to have greater persecution because of higher real numbers.
  2. Group A has a worldwide population of 2 billion, Group B 100,000. Group A is persecuted at 1% and Group B at a 30 times greater rate of 30%. Group A is claimed to have greater persecution because of higher real numbers.
  3. Group A has a worldwide population of 2 billion, Group B 100,000. Group A is persecuted at 1% and Group B at a 30 times greater rate of 30%. Group B is claimed to have greater persecution because of higher proportion (percentage chance) of persecution.
  4. Group A has a worldwide population of 2 billion, Group B 100,000. Group A is persecuted with Action X at 1% and Group B at 5% for less violent harassment, but Group B records a higher proportion persecution for deaths (Action Y) at 2:1. Group A is claimed to have greater persecution because of higher real numbers in total cases.
  5. Same as the above, but Group B is seen to have greater persecution due to seriousness and greater cxhance of Action Y.

So on and so forth. You start to see the problems with such a facile statement as the original one.

All the while atheists don’t even get recorded because they can’t even admit or report persecution because it is illegal or culturally forbidden to admit atheism.

Looking at the source data (as ever, Pew), which would be a sensible thing for my interlocutor to have done (and, indeed, The Church Times), we can see a plurality of metrics that invalidate the claims of people such as my friend, and headlines such as from the aforementioned publication. Therein are listed two different:

Overall, Muslims were the most common target of harassment by nationalist political parties or officials in 2016, typically in the form of derogatory statements or adverse policies. This was the case in Denmark, where the Danish People’s Party (DPP) backed a measure passed by the city council in Randers that made “traditional” meals – including pork products – mandatory in public institutions, including schools. Martin Henriksen, a spokesperson for the DPP, said the bill would preserve Danish culture and that the party was “fighting against Islamic rules and misguided considerations dictating what Danish children should eat.” The bill was opposed by members of the Muslim community because they saw it as stigmatizing; Muslims traditionally do not eat pork.11

Outside of governmental or opposition political parties, this was also the case with “Nationalist organizations” who “targeted religious minorities as well”, where Muslims again fared the worst:

In European countries, Muslims were targeted most frequently. Muslims were the focus of nationalist groups in 20 of the 25 European countries where these types of groups were active. Following the terrorist attacks in Brussels in March 2016, for example, the Spanish nationalist group Madrid Social Home hung signs near a major mosque in Madrid reading “Today Brussels, tomorrow Madrid?” and posted “Mosques out of Europe” on Twitter.17

But while Muslims were the primary target of nationalist movements across the globe…

So, on the above two metrics, or a total of both metrics, Muslims are the most persecuted as according to you know, the source data that The Church Times cherry-picked.

Analysing the trends, applying some nuance

In fact, the source data paints a very different picture:

Meanwhile, Europe and the Americas were the only regions to experience increases in median levels of social hostilities involving religion, with Europe seeing the sharpest increase. The Middle East-North Africa region continued to experience a decline in its median score, although it remained the region with the highest levels of social hostilities.

Again, this doesn’t really look like the narrative that is being claimed by my interlocutor. Furthermore, and I cannot stress this enough, the type of harassment makes a massive difference. Take China, where state restrictions may officially but rather lightly affect Christians: this concerns a massive population; but it also includes huge disparities in type of harassment as Uighur are detained in concentration camps.

To continue:

When combining measures of government restrictions and social hostilities, more than four-in-ten countries (42%) had high or very high levels of overall religious restrictions in 2016. Since some of these countries are among the world’s most populous (such as China and India), this means that a large share of the world’s population in 2016 – 83% – lived in countries with high or very high religious restrictions (up from 79% in 2015). It is important to note, however, that these restrictions and hostilities do not necessarily affect the religious groups and citizens of these countries equally, as certain groups or individuals – especially religious minorities – may be targeted more frequently by these policies and actions than others. Thus, the actual proportion of the world’s population that is affected by high levels of religious restrictions may be considerably lower than 85%. [my emphasis]

Finally, concerning the Pew data, it does not mention anywhere, not once, non-religious people. They are utterly absent from the report.

The IHEU, on the other hand, now produce the “Freedom of Thought Report” that details the best and worst countries in which to be an atheist, clearly laying out their ranking system.

Genocides; atheists and Christians as non-Muslims

The only other “argument” I was offered to defend the initial claim was:

Here’s a genocide nobody’s interested in: “Are Nigeria’s Christians the target of a genocide?

Again, we have the difficult calculation: Does one instance of genocide, which could arguably at times be defined as cultural tribalism, count as persecution and does this one instance get counted multiply in terms of the number of deaths? In the case above, this is Boko Haram instigating a religious war. Is this persecution of Christians, per se? Arguably, this is an attack on all non-Muslims who just so happen to be Christians in that area, but who would otherwise be anyone non-Muslim.

Of course, we get back to the difficulty of admitting atheism in places like Nigeria, where you can get locked up for such or executed (same guy, two different instances). So where people are calling for genocide of Christians, we don’t know how many are actually atheists, since it is essentially forbidden to announce oneself as such, and we do know that the outcome is identical for both sets of people, Christians and atheists alike. So where this is reported as persecution of Christians in the simplistic media reports, it is actually a persecution of non-Muslims. A distinction that makes all the difference.

Indeed, we can guess that the Islamists would treat atheists worse, as in line with Islamic holy texts.

The argument as to whether persecution and genocide are different actually becomes one of legal definitions (e.g., as below, “Persecution and Genocide. About the Delimitation of Genocide and Persecution”, by Sonja Kohl):

First of all, it is useful to define the notions of crimes against humanity, persecution and genocide and briefly explain the differences between them. The definition of these crimes has long been uncertain due to the complex history of their development. However, more recently, they have been defined by the statutes of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (hereinafter ICTY) and International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (hereinafter ICTR), which emerged after serious offences, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (hereinafter ICC).

Despite considerable differences between the Statutes, they all define crimes against humanity4 as including a certain listed act (murder, extermination, torture, rape, persecution, etc.) committed as a part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population.

Persecution5 is one of the acts that can constitute a crime against humanity. However, in contrast to the other crimes against humanity, persecution “derives its unique character from the requirement of a specific discriminatory intent”6. An unlawful discrimination must be the perpetrator’s goal. It is not enough for him to know or even to be virtually certain that discrimination will occur7.

The crime of genocide8 consists of a mental element, namely the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such, and a physical element, which includes one of certain listed acts. These acts can be non-lethal in nature, such as causing serious bodily or mental harm, preventing births or enforcing the transfer of children to another group.

Both crimes against humanity and genocide can be committed in times of peace. There is no requirement that the acts take place during an armed conflict9. Also, both can be committed against any individual, whether civilian or combatant10. However, there are three important differences between persecution and genocide, one of them affecting the mens rea and two affecting the actus reus.

I won’t bog this piece down by going into the detail of the three differences, but I will merely point out that offering genocide as an example of persecution is difficult in terms of how you calculate it, but also whether it should be calculated at all.

Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta, The Friendly Atheist, has also taken issue with such claims:

Last week, the Pew Research Center released a study about religious hostilities around the world. They looked at which religions were being oppressed by the government and where.

(It won’t surprise you to learn that nations under Islamic rule are pretty damn hostile to non-Muslim people.)

The study found that 52 governments rank “high” or “very high” when it comes to religious restrictions. (It was only 40 in 2007.) The number of countries involved has gone from 39 to 56 over the past decade.

Yet the headlines in some Christian news outlets tell a very selective story of how Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world… which is both technically accurate and utterly misleading….

1) Harassment literally includes anything — verbal hate to government oppression. So we don’t know if the incidents reported in those 143 countries were, say, more life-threatening than whatever Muslims faced.

2) Christians and Muslims represent the two largest religious groups in the world, so of course the number of countries in which they reported harassment is going to be higher. It’s not necessarily because they’re hated more; it’s because there’s a lot of them all over the world.

He goes on to mention issues with the number of atheists that there officially are (or at least those who admit it) and the type of persecution they get. Real term numbers, proportionality, and weighting of different subsets. It’s about being intellectually rigorous.

An anecdote

Some time ago, I published and edited a book of deconversion accounts called in Beyond an Absence of Faith (UK), and because this was about deconverting from Christianity and Islam (mainly) to atheism and because atheism is persecuted from the US to Iran, a number of contributors wrote under pseudonyms (and this includes in the US, for goodness sake). I wonder how many Christians around the world can’t even give their real names for fear of reprimand, either systemically or locally. For atheists, this is surprisingly globally common. I have produced writings here from Indonesia, for example, showing the same phenomenon. See Religion in Indonesia: An Insight, written pseudonymously.


I think it’s obvious from this that anyone claiming “X are the most persecuted” is being either disingenuous and willfully ignorant or just plain ignorant (in both a pejorative and a non-pejorative sense). Someone who is very well-read and purports to be a certain level of intellect should not openly peddle such claims. They should be better than that. But, as ever, it’s about narratives, and the “Christians are the most persecuted” is an oft-peddled myth.

His final comment to me, so far, was:

I’m going to have to see some sort of evidence. This persecution of atheists thing seems very limited. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist, or that it’s not horrible to any of the people who suffer it, but the idea that it comes anywhere near the persecution of either Christians or even Muslims seems to not be true. Did you just say it for something to say?…I think you made it up merely to obfuscate the clear message that there is widespread persecution of Christians in the world.

Wow, as if I was the one to obfuscate when my whole mission there was to actually clear up clearly-evident obfuscation. It makes me not want to engage in such conversations again. I don’t have time to worry myself with such people but I just can’t help it.

Hopefully, this shows that making the claim is basically a non-starter. I would say that neither Christians, nor atheists, nor Muslims are the most persecuted. The statement “X are the most persecuted” is incoherent, unless completely and utterly qualified in a heck of a lot of detail.

What I would say is this:

  1. If I were to choose any religious group to be an open and public member of, using John Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance, not knowing where I would be placed in the world, atheism would be my last choice if I was only concerned with safety. I would challenge my interlocutor to give his own answer to this.
  2. That the out-group is the most persecuted, and enshrining universal and equitable morality into law to protect all minority groups in the world, in every country, is what we should be arguing for, not for who can claim the best martyrdom for some kind of “poor me” medal.

Any other such claim, as we saw above, is simplistic, naive and essentially incoherent at best, disingenuously incorrect at worst.

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