Tag Archives: Religious Persecution

“Pagans and Christians in Late Antique Rome” (eds. Salzman et al)

In November, the Cambridge University Press released “Pagans and Christians in Late Antique Rome: Conflict, Competition, and Coexistence in the Fourth Century,” edited by Michele Renee Salzman (University of California, Riverside), Marianne Sághy (Central European University), and Rita Lizzi Testa (Università degli Studi di Perugia). The publisher’s description follows: 

This book sheds new light on the religious and consequently social changes taking place in late antique Rome. The essays in this volume argue that the once-51gcE0J9FuL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_dominant notion of pagan-Christian religious conflict cannot fully explain the texts and artifacts, as well as the social, religious, and political realities of late antique Rome. Together, the essays demonstrate that the fourth-century city was a more fluid, vibrant, and complex place than was previously thought. Competition between diverse groups in Roman society – be it pagans with Christians, Christians with Christians, or pagans with pagans – did create tensions and hostility, but it also allowed for coexistence and reduced the likelihood of overt violent, physical conflict. Competition and coexistence, along with conflict, emerge as still central paradigms for those who seek to understand the transformations of Rome from the age of Constantine through the early fifth century.

  • The most up-to-date analysis of the texts and archaeological evidence from late antique Rome
  • Written by an international team of scholars with diverse backgrounds and approaches
  • Illuminates new approaches to ancient history by addressing the nature of religious change in the largest city in the Mediterranean world – Rome

Lenski, “Constantine and the Cities”

In February, the University of Pennsylvania Press will release “Constantine and the Cities: Imperial Authority and Civic Politics” by Noel Lenski.  The publisher’s description follows:

Over the course of the fourth century, Christianity rose from a religion actively persecuted by the authority of the Roman empire to become 15509the religion of state—a feat largely credited to Constantine the Great. Constantine succeeded in propelling this minority religion to imperial status using the traditional tools of governance, yet his proclamation of his new religious orientation was by no means unambiguous. His coins and inscriptions, public monuments, and pronouncements sent unmistakable signals to his non-Christian subjects that he was willing not only to accept their beliefs about the nature of the divine but also to incorporate traditional forms of religious expression into his own self-presentation. In Constantine and the Cities, Noel Lenski attempts to reconcile these apparent contradictions by examining the dialogic nature of Constantine’s power and how his rule was built in the space between his ambitions for the empire and his subjects’ efforts to further their own understandings of religious truth.

Focusing on cities and the texts and images produced by their citizens for and about the emperor, Constantine and the Cities uncovers the interplay of signals between ruler and subject, mapping out the terrain within which Constantine nudged his subjects in the direction of conversion. Reading inscriptions, coins, legal texts, letters, orations, and histories, Lenski demonstrates how Constantine and his subjects used the instruments of government in a struggle for authority over the religion of the empire.

Fox, “The Unfree Exercise of Religion”

In February, the Cambridge University Press will release “The Unfree Exercise of Religion: A World Survey of Discrimination Against Religious Minorities,” by Jonathan Fox (Bar Ilan University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Religious discrimination is the norm in many countries around the world, and the rate is rising. Nearly every country which discriminates9781107133068 does so unequally, singling out some religious minorities for more discrimination than others. Religious tradition does not explain this complex issue. For example, Muslim majority states include both the most discriminatory and tolerant states in the world, as is also the case with Christian majority states. Religious ideologies, nationalism, regime, culture, security issues, and political issues are also all part of the answer. In The Unfree Exercise of Religion Jonathan Fox examines how we understand concepts like religious discrimination and religious freedom, and why countries discriminate. He makes a study of religious discrimination against 597 religious minorities in 177 countries between 1990 and 2008. While 29 types of discrimination are discussed in this book, the most common include restrictions in places of worship, proselytizing, and religious education.

  • Examines how we think about concepts like religious discrimination and religious freedom, which are often used but rarely examined and defined, helping readers think more systematically about these topics
  • Discusses evidence that religious discrimination is the norm rather than the exception and is on the rise, even in democracies
  • Seeks to help undermine incorrect stereotypes and assumptions on the topic of religious discrimination

Christians, the State Department, and Genocide

syrian christians

Photo from The Guardian

At USA Today, columnist Kirsten Powers writes about the State Department’s apparent reluctance to refer to ISIS’s persecution of Iraqi and Syrian Christians as a genocide. The reluctance is puzzling. According to press reports, the Department is poised to declare a genocide ISIS’s persecution of another religious minority, the Yazidis. If Yazidis are the victims of genocide, she asks, why not Christians? The situation of these two persecuted minorities is quite similar.

Powers makes a very good point. The 1948 Genocide Convention defines “genocide” as, among other things, “deliberately inflicting on” a religious group “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Obviously, what ISIS is doing to the Yazidis qualifies. So does what ISIS is doing to Christians. ISIS is driving Christians from their homes, seizing their property, and, quite often, killing them in the most horrible ways. How does that not qualify as a genocide?

Apparently, the State Department is hesitating because, unlike Yazidis, Christians have a way out. As “People of the Book” under classical Islamic law — which ISIS has purported to restore in its newly declared caliphate — Christians can choose to abide by the terms of the Dhimma, the notional contract that governs the treatment of Christians, Jews, and some other minorities. As dhimmis, Christians may remain in the new caliphate as long as they follow the rules – paying the jizya tax, for example, and accepting social subordination. (I detail the dhimmi restrictions ISIS has imposed on the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria here).

As Powers point out, however, on many occasions, ISIS has disregarded the dhimmi rules. Moreover, even at their best, the rules are punishing. The jizya is often set at a level where many Christians cannot pay it. These Christians have no choice but to leave. More fundamentally, how is it acceptable to tell religious minorities that things are comparatively good for them because they can “choose” to accept oppressive and demeaning treatment and manage to survive? Quite obviously, ISIS’s goal is to eliminate these ancient Christian communities. And it is largely succeeding: those Christians who can do so are fleeing. Some experts believe that Christianity will disappear from Iraq and Syria – places where Christians have lived the religion began – within one or two generations.

Last Friday, a group of Christian leaders, human rights advocates, and scholars sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking for a meeting on this question, at which they hope to persuade him that Iraqi and Syrian Christians, as well as Yazidis, should be included in any designation of a genocide. (Full disclosure: I am one of the signatories). Secretary Kerry has not yet responded.

Some persecuted minorities are funny

Take a look at this clip from a recent episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In the clip, Colbert mocks Republican presidential candidates who argue for admitting Syrian Christians as religious refugees. At least I think that’s what he’s doing. Unfortunately, in attacking the GOP, Colbert, who often speaks publicly of his devotion to Catholicism, uses Syrian Christians as a cheap prop.

Republican candidates want to admit Syrian Christians, but not Syrian Muslims, Colbert says, because they think Americans can “relate to average Syrian Christians.” After all, Syrian Christians are “basically Methodists.” For example, he continues, with the cutesy irony that has made him rich and famous, consider Syriac Orthodox Christians. They say something called the Ramsho Prayer every evening—“Ramsho Prayer,” incidentally, is how you say “Vespers” in Syriac—and read their Bibles in Aramaic. He continues with what he apparently thinks is a hilarious sendup of the Syriac Orthodox patriarch, His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem II. Flashing a picture of the patriarch in his liturgical robes, Colbert jokes that the vestments make Ignatius look like “Golden Snake Santa Pope,” a comic figure who would fit right in as King of Mardi Gras. Colbert’s piano-playing sidekick joins the audience in guffawing.

Now, I’m sure Colbert, who often makes jokes about his own church, thinks this is all good-natured fun. How clever! These GOP candidates know nothing about real Syrian Christians, and if they did, they’d be shocked, those ignoramuses. But it’s in very bad taste. The whole joke turns on showing how weird and unrelatable Syrian Christians are. That’s why the audience is laughing so hard. (You want us to admit these people?) The Syriac Orthodox have suffered for centuries and are enduring one of their worst trials right now, and Colbert is using them for a cheap gag. The joke is particularly unfortunate with respect to Ignatius himself. I’ve talked to people know him personally, and Ignatius is a saintly man. (But what about those silly clothes?). For many years, he was the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop in New Jersey. He could have continued to live a pleasant life here in the United States, but returned to the hellhole that is Syria last year in order to lead his flock.

Syrian Christians, and Mideast Christians more generally, have a public relations problem. The fact is, they are culturally different from Americans, and it is genuinely difficult for many American Christians to relate to them. That’s one reason why the United States has done so little to help them in the current crisis. Mocking them as weirdos doesn’t help. Those golden snakes on Ignatius’s staff are an ancient symbol of wisdom. Colbert should display some of it himself.

Pupcenoks, “Western Muslims and Conflicts Abroad”

In December, Routledge will release “Western Muslims and Conflicts Abroad: Conflict Spillovers to Diasporas,” by Juris Pupcenoks (Marist College).  The publisher’s description follows:

This book explains why reactive conflict spillovers (political violence in response to conflicts abroad) occur in some migrant-background 9781138915527communities in the West. Based on survey data, statistical datasets, more than sixty interviews with Muslim community leaders and activists, ethnographic research in London and Detroit, and open-source data, this book develops a theoretical explanation for how both differences in government policies and features of migrant-background communities interact to influence the nature of foreign-policy focused activism in migrant communities. Utilizing rigorous, mixed-methods case study analysis, the author comparatively analyses the reactions of the Pakistani community in London and the Arab Muslim community in Detroit to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq during the decade following 9/11. Both communities are politically mobilized and active. However, while London has experienced reactive conflict spillover, Detroit has remained largely peaceful.

The key findings show that, with regards to activism in response to foreign policy events, Western Muslim communities primarily politically mobilize on the basis of their ethnic divisions. Nevertheless, one notable exception is the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is viewed through the Islamic lenses; and the common Islamic identity is important in driving mobilization domestically in response to Islamophobia, and counterterrorism policies and practices perceived to be discriminatory. Certain organizational arrangements involving minority community leaders, law enforcement, and government officials help to effectively contain excitable youth who may otherwise engage in deviant behavior. Overall, the following factors contribute to the creation of an environment where reactive conflict spillover is more likely to occur: policies allowing immigration of violent radicals, poor economic integration without extensive civil society inter-group ties, the presence of radical groups, and connections with radical networks abroad.

Conference on Christian Responses to Persecution (Rome, December 10-12)

A reminder that “Under Caesar’s Sword,” a joint research project of the Center for Civil and Human Rights at Notre Dame and the Berkeley Center at Georgetown, will hold a conference in Rome next month on the Christian responses to persecution:

The main objective of the conference is to introduce the results of the world’s first systematic global investigation into the responses of Christian communities to the violation of their religious freedom. The scope of Under Caesar’s Sword extends to some 100 beleaguered Christian communities in around 30 countries….

The conference will feature plenary speakers from among the world’s most respected advocates of religious freedom. It will offer a lively discussion of the global persecution of Christians among church leaders, government officials, scholars, human rights activists, representatives of world religions, students, and the interested public. Finally, the conference will shed light on the experiences of millions of Christians worldwide whose religious freedom is severely violated.

Details about the conference, co-sponsored by the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome, are here.

Adida, Laitin, & Valfort, “Why Muslim Integration Fails in Christian-Heritage Societies”

In January, the Harvard University Press will release “Why Muslim Integration Fails in Christian-Heritage Societies,” by Claire L. Adida (University of California, San Diego), David D. Laitin (Stanford University), and Marie-Anne Valfort (Paris School of Economics and Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne).  The publisher’s description follows:

Amid mounting fears of violent Islamic extremism, many Europeans ask whether Muslim immigrants can integrate into historically Christian countries. In a groundbreaking ethnographic investigation of France’s Muslim migrant population, Why Muslim Integration Fails in Christian-Heritage Societies explores this complex question. The authors conclude that both Muslim and non-Muslim French must share responsibility for the slow progress of Muslim integration.

Claire Adida, David Laitin, and Marie-Anne Valfort found that in France, Muslims are widely perceived as threatening, based in large part on cultural differences between Muslim and rooted French that feed both rational and irrational Islamophobia. Relying on a unique methodology to isolate the religious component of discrimination, the authors identify a discriminatory equilibrium in which both Muslim immigrants and native French act negatively toward one another in a self-perpetuating, vicious circle.

Disentangling the rational and irrational threads of Islamophobia is essential if Europe hopes to repair a social fabric that has frayed around the issue of Muslim immigration. Muslim immigrants must address their own responsibility for the failures of integration, and Europeans must acknowledge the anti-Islam sentiments at the root of their antagonism. The authors outline public policy solutions aimed at promoting religious diversity in fair-minded host societies.

“The Protection of Religious Minorities Worldwide” (Defeis and O’Connor, eds.)

Last month, Pax Romana released “The Protection of Religious Minorities Worldwide,” edited by Elizabeth F. Defeis (Seton Hall Law School) and Peter F. O’Connor. Prof. Defeis is an alumna of St. John’s Law and a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for International and Comparative Law at St. John’s.  Mr. O’Connor is a third-year law student at St. John’s. The publisher’s description follows:

Throughout history, religious minorities have experienced discrimination, persecution, expulsion, and genocide. Further, in the last decade, the world has witnessed an unprecedented increase in violent persecution of religious minorities, particularly in the Middle East, in Asia and in Africa. Yet the international community has been a bystander and has not been able or willing to develop a strategy to protect persecuted religious minorities and to stop their expulsion and genocide. After the Second World War with the creation of the United Nations, there were great hopes that all peoples could live in peace with one another as good neighbors, based on the fundamental human rights and the practice of tolerance as stated in the Preamble of the United Nations Charter. However, the United Nations never developed specific and effective strategies to protect the human rights of religious minorities and to stop their persecution, expulsion and genocide. Even so, we must recognize that the United Nations has been providing humanitarian assistance to refugees who fled for religious reasons. The 2014 Symposium at the United Nations in New York on the “Protection of Religious Minorities Worldwide” was directed at the international community in the hope that it will acknowledge the dire situation of so many religious minorities and will adopt practical strategies and measures for protection of, and strong humanitarian assistance for, the expelled religious refugees.

Slighting Syria’s Christians

Take a look at the photo above, which appeared recently on Instagram. It’s the photo of a page from the New Testament — Acts 25, which recounts St. Paul’s trial before Festus. The page, seared into a bookshelf, is all that remains of the Bible that once contained it. ISIS recently burned the Bible, along with the Armenian Orthodox Church that held it, in Tal Abyad, Syria. The page is written in Armenian characters, but in the Turkish language, which suggests the Bible was once the possession of refugees from the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Survivors of that Genocide founded the town of Tal Abyad 100 years ag0.

I thought of this photograph while reading Nina Shea’s searing assessment, in yesterday’s National Review Online, of the US’s treatment of Syrian Christian refugees. In the past five years of the Syrian civil war, she writes, the United States has admitted a grand total of 53 Christian refugees from Syria. Fifty-three! When one considers that at the start of the conflict Christians made up 10% of the country’s population of 23 million, and that ISIS and other Islamist groups have made Christians special targets, the minuscule number of Christian refugees the US has admitted is truly shocking.

Shea says there are two explanations. First, the US has generally been reluctant to admit any refugees from Syria. Second, the US relies on the UN to process and refer applications for asylum from its own refugee and resettlement camps. But Christians and other religious minorities are reluctant to use the UN camps, which are infiltrated by ISIS operatives:

Like Iraqi Christians who opt for church-run camps over better-serviced U.N. ones, Syrian minorities fear hostility from majority groups inside the latter. According to British media, a terrorist defector asserted that militants enter U.N. camps to assassinate and kidnap Christians. An American Christian aid group reported that the U.N. camps are “dangerous” places where ISIS, militias, and gangs traffic in women and threaten men who refuse to swear allegiance to the caliphate. Such intimidation is also reportedly evident in migrant camps in Europe, leading the German police union to recommend separate shelters for Christian and Muslim migrant groups.

There are other explanations as well. The Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, is reluctant to appear too solicitous of Christian refugees. The concern is that singling out Christians would cause our allies in the region to view our humanitarian efforts as sectarian. We should get over this concern. Our allies view us as sectarian, anyway. And it’s not like our strategy of projecting even-handedness has won us much support till now.

This is a complicated situation. Many Christian leaders do not want their flocks to leave their homes in Syria, where Christians have lived for many centuries. And other religious minorities are also dying in Syria, as well as Muslims. But, for many Christians, escape to the West is the only viable option. And Christians have suffered disproportionately in Syria and deserve more help from the US than they are receiving. Shea’s piece is worth reading in its entirety. You can find it here.