In our globalized world, the plight of refugees and victims of political and religious violence has been widely distributed. Footage of and commentary on the tragedies of the Syrian Civil War and the rise of ISIS abounds on radio, television, newsfeeds, Twitter feeds and every other medium. Never before have we as global citizens possessed so much access to news and images about the world we live in. Many of these images are powerful, of wounded children and broken families, and excite great sympathy within us. It is truly a beautiful fact for humanity, that despite never meeting these people and sharing neither language, ethnicity, nor religion, we feel such compassion towards them.
Violence against Christians is widespread, and spans many countries and belief systems. Law in North Africa and the Middle East limits Christians’ civil and property rights. The Buddhist government in Myanmar actively bombs churches and kidnaps clergy. Atheist governments in North Korea and China routinely imprison and kill Christians. Even when the state allows freedom of religion, nationalist mobs and militias often target Christian settlements, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. No wonder then, so many seek aid from or asylum in the West.
Despite widespread access to information about our global community and a deep reservoir of compassion for refugees, many Americans remain unaware of the struggles faced by Christian refugees. A poll by Rasmussen found that 47 percent of self-identifying Democrats and 40 percent of those below age 40 believe Christians are not persecuted in the Islamic world, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. These numbers show a stunning ignorance of a global human rights crisis. Christians are disproportionately targeted by religious violence. The International Society for Human Rights, a secular nonprofit, estimates that 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination are directed against Christians. It is difficult to get reliable numbers on the number of Christians killed for their faith each year, particularly because “dying for the faith” can be a somewhat nebulous term, but the estimates tend to be on the order of thousands or tens of thousands.
In America, a country with strong Christian roots, the idea of oppressing Christians seems childish. Claims of religious discrimination against Christians here often are greeted with derision. We tend to project our America-centered worldview, in which hypocritical religious-right televangelists wield undue influence in politics, onto the global problem of religious violence. We fallaciously reason that if American Christians are so prevalent and potent, then the global Christian community needs nothing from us. Essentially, we are unable to visualize the struggles of Christians around the world merely because they share a religious identity with people we disagree with. We need to break out of this mentality if we are going to be good stewards of global peace.
Recently, President Trump suggested that America give “priority” to Christian refugees coming from abroad. Such a policy would of course be discriminatory and wrong, and was soundly condemned by religious groups across the spectrum. But he did speak to a significant issue: America’s existing refugee policy does seem to penalize Christians. Of the over fifteen thousand refugees let into the United States from Syria last year, only 125 were Christian, despite the fact that 10 percent of Syrians are Christian. While many have leveled false accusations against the Obama-era State Department, the most sensible reason seems to be that all refugees must be processed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who runs a number of campus for displaced persons. Many Christians and other religious minorities avoid these camps, where they can become victims of mob violence.
Some European leaders, particularly far-right governments in Eastern Europe, have voiced their support for Christian refugees and victims of violence abroad, but these statements are often paired with disgusting Islamophobic statements. I fear that the issue of helping Christian refugees may become unattractive to many, simply because of the association with these unsavory figures. As a result, the question of Christian victims of religious violence may become unnecessarily polarized. It should not be. Helping oppressed Christians, like any oppressed group, ought to enjoy broad and bipartisan support. Internationalist liberals and religious conservatives already fight alongside one another on issues like immigration and foreign aid; perhaps we can expand this collaboration to help the victims of religious violence abroad. Such cooperation would be a strong blow against those who have tried to use this issue to divide people of good conscience and could help free millions from the burden of religious discrimination and violence.