When we think about the persecution of Christians at the present moment, what comes to mind for most of us are places like China, the Middle East, or pariah states like North Korea, Venezuela, or Cuba. These situations are occasionally noticed but not exactly well publicized in the secular media. We mostly have to rely on religious outlets, Catholic and Protestant, to do the heavy lifting of keeping us informed about the plight of fellow believers in the modern world.
But there’s a whole other dimension of threats against Christians that goes almost unnoticed. We know of the pressures that churches and religious organizations – and even single believers like florists and bakers – come under these days in America when they resist attempts by State or Federal agencies to impose the new sexual ethos, or to enforce rules on alleged “hate speech” or bias on believers.
The Supreme Court has so far been fairly good at protecting religious liberty. And if President Trump – as is highly likely – appoints another justice (or two?) to the Court, sensitive to Constitutional protections of religion, we may have at least some long-term shelter from the constant anti-Christian drumbeat in the universities, media, and Hollywood.
I’ve been aware for years of similar problems in Europe, where there are generally not the same kind of First Amendment protections or judicial recourse. But I had no real idea of the extent of the problems there – I think almost no one does – though we now have a very useful tool to take its measure.
The Vienna-based Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe has published a 74-page 2018 Report that’s a real eye-opener (you can read it online here). This is not simply a compilation of complaints or over-sensitive reactions to clashes in pluralist societies. It provides a portrait of an extensive problem that everyone who cares about liberty, religious liberty included, should be aware of.
One of the most striking things about the report is the care with which it has been put together, starting with defining its terms: “The term ‘intolerance’ refers to the cultural or social dimension and, at its worst, includes hate crimes against Christians; the term ‘discrimination’ refers to the legal dimension and includes interference with freedom of expression, religion, conscience, association and assembly, rights of parents, contractual freedom, governmental removal of Christian symbols, laws that negatively impact Christians, and unequal access to justice.”
Just to read this passage is to be amazed that such things are happening in Europe now. The Observatory quotes Pope Francis that there are two types of anti-Christian persecution. The first is overt, the kind of thing you see in a place like Pakistan, which is clear and explicit and undeniable. The second is “polite persecution. . . .disguised as culture, disguised as modernity, disguised as progress.”
The Report also sorts European persecution into two categories with more colloquial names: “Squeeze” and “Smash.” Squeezes now seem to be turning into an international phenomenon, as witness these descriptions (which have parallels in America): “In France, a pharmacist was sanctioned for refusing to sell an IUD, the abortifacient device. Swedish prolife midwives who refused to participate in abortions lost appeals challenging their employment termination cases and were ordered to pay court costs. A Catholic nursing home in Belgium was fined for preventing doctors from giving a lethal injection, and a Christian nursing home in Switzerland was ordered to allow assisted suicide on its premises or risk losing its charitable status.”
This is already bad enough, indeed. But the Smash cases are even more ominous. Many of them involve attacks by Muslims on clergy or people wearing crosses or other religious artifacts. If you only get your news from mainstream media, you’d barely know such things happen unless there’s a case impossible to ignore like the 2016 murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel in France by two Muslim extremists.
It’s not only Muslims, however, and the bulk of the Observatory’s report describes over 500 cases of intolerance and discrimination along with links that enable you to look further into what’s happening.
One sign of the seriousness of this whole undertaking is that the Observatory is not content merely to record these outrages, but makes concrete suggestions about what might help counter what appears to be a growing trend. Two caught my eye as crucial in societies where reflexively anti-Christian attitudes are gaining acceptance: “Opinion leaders must be aware of their responsibility in shaping a tolerant public discourse, and should refrain from negative stereotyping of Christians or Christianity. Artists should be respectful of religious sites and symbols, bearing in mind that the object of their art might be most holy to religious believers.”
That would already be a great gain, of course, though the Cultured Despisers of Religion are very unlikely to take such simple fairness to heart. Ultimately, however, public authorities at all levels have to be confronted with the evidence of their own biases and misdeeds. And shamed into not forgetting them.
In the American Masterpiece Cakeshop case, our Supreme Court rightly noted the open religious hostility displayed by the Colorado civil rights commissioners towards the baker who would not create a special cake for a gay wedding. Some have since cynically commented that it wasn’t much of a win because it made it appear that courts would only act when there was evidence of overt anti-Christian bias.
That’s a warning well worth keeping in sight, given that more such cases will doubtless arise. But our European friends have rightly called out governments at all levels for allowing subtle discrimination and – as we’ve also seen in the United States – the clever abuse of anti-discrimination laws to discriminate against Christians.
This is not going to be an easy battle. But the more work all of us do in registering and speaking out on the kinds of abuses the Observatory has identified, the less easy a time of it anti-Christian bigots are going to have.