When a man blew himself up inside a Coptic church in Cairo during Sunday mass, killing 25 worshippers on December 11, 2016, he not only performed a gruesome deed but added another instance to a global trend of recent years: the persecution of Christians.
Within a geographic band that writer Eliza Griswold has identified as the 10th parallel running from Libya to Indonesia, Christians suffer death, torture, illegal detention, the burning of their property, heavy discrimination, and other human rights violations on account of their faith.
By now, the trend is well-documented, including by writers for this site such as John Allen, who is one of the foremost chroniclers of Christian persecution, and Inés San Martin. Although the mainstream media and human rights groups have underreported the trend in recent years, they are now starting to give it more attention.
In March 2016, for instance, Secretary of State John Kerry declared Christians along with other minorities in Iraq and Syria to be victims of genocide.
Less well understood, by contrast, is how Christians respond to persecution. After the Cairo bombing in December 2016, Pope Francis phoned His Holiness Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Church to express solidarity in what is known as “ecumenism of blood,” whereby Christian churches are brought closer together by shared experiences of martyrdom.
After a similar bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt on New Year’s Day 2011, Muslims and Coptic Christians linked hands around one another’s houses of worship during services. Elsewhere in response to persecution, Christians have fled, worshiped underground, taken up arms, protested non-violently, built relationships with leaders of other faiths, pursued redress in courts, and accepted martyrdom.
The Under Caesar’s Sword project is the world’s first systematic investigation of Christian responses to persecution. The project commissioned a team of 15 of the world’s leading scholars of global Christianity to investigate first-hand how Christians respond to persecution in over 25 countries. They presented their results for the first time at an international conference in Rome in December 2015.
The most recent fruit of the project is a piercing 26-minute documentary film, also titled Under Caesar’s Sword. Produced by Academy Award-nominated director Jason Cohen, the film was shot in Turkey and India and contains riveting testimony from Christians who have suffered persecution first hand.
As with the overall Under Caesar’s Sword research project, the film does not merely tell about persecution but also presents the hopeful responses to persecution that Christians have undertaken.
In India, Christians, who represent 2.3 percent of the population, suffered at the hands of Hindu extremists in the Kandhamal riots of 2007-2008 and responded by building bridges to Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists; sponsoring peace-building initiatives; and invoking India’s constitution, which provides for religious freedom.
Christians in Turkey are less than 2 percent of the country’s population and have dwindled sharply in numbers since the 1923 establishment of the Republic of Turkey due to pogroms, harassment, and the imposition of discriminatory laws. Here, too, Christians have reached out to the surrounding population and sought to establish their status as free and equal citizens.
In both countries the film shows that the minority Christian communities face an uphill struggle in the drive to win respect for their freedom, but they do not lose hope and are sustained by their faith.
Under Caesar’s Sword also features the testimony of Paul Bhatti, the brother of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, who was assassinated by Muslim militants on March 2, 2011. A Roman Catholic, Shahbaz Bhatti had accepted his government post out of a calling to protect Pakistan’s “oppressed, down-trodden and marginalized,” in particular its religious minorities.
After Shahbaz was killed, his brother Paul grew embittered and did not want to live in Pakistan. Upon attending his brother’s funeral, however, Paul was moved by the outpouring of support, including among Muslims, and agreed to accept his brother’s cabinet post. Then, following the example of his mother, he came to forgive the killers.
The film, along with a discussion guide suitable for use in group settings, is available via the project’s website. You are invited to watch the film in solidarity with the world’s persecuted Christians.
Daniel Philpott, Ph.D., is a professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He pursues interests in international relations, political philosophy, and peace studies. Philpott also specializes in religion and global politics, and is co-director of the Under Caesar’s Sword project, a partnership of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, the Religious Freedom Institute, and Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project, with the support of the Templeton Religion Trust. Philpott has published articles in The American Political Science Review, World Politics, Ethics, The Journal of Democracy, the National Interest, America, First Things, Political Studies, The Journal of International Affairs, The Review of Faith and International Affairs, Security Studies, and the Annual Review of Political Science.