Near the middle of director Martin Scorsese’s new film, “Silence,” about two 17th-century Catholic priests who travel to Japan to aid oppressed Christians and find their mentor, an interpreter posits a word to one of the priests: korobu.
In Japanese, the interpreter says, it means “surrender.”
In this case, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) has a choice: Surrender his faith in Jesus, or surrender his congregation and watch them be tortured or killed.
“The price for your glory is their suffering,” a Japanese inquisitor warns Rodrigues.
And suffer they do in a brutal depiction of true events — which is at times difficult to watch — adapted from Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel of the same name.
Andrew Garfield, left, plays Father Rodrigues and Shinya Tsukamoto plays Mokichi in the film "Silence." | Paramount Pictures
Yet those who argue against religious persecution hope Americans will watch and make connections to what's happening to religious minorities today. The “korobu” ultimatum isn’t so different from the Islamic State group's “convert or die” mandate to the populations left in the territories it occupies.
“It’s easy to look at that film and say, ‘It’s crazy to think people did that 300 years ago,’” said Daniel Mark, vice chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). “But it’s still going on today. If the film informs people of that, it’ll have done a good thing.”
According to Pew Research Center’s 2016 religious restrictions study, 24 percent of the 198 countries studied had high or very high levels of religious restriction as of 2014.
Yet when many Americans encounter the term “religious freedom” today they are often thinking or reading about a legal battle over a Christian business owner refusing to bake cakes for gay weddings or social media sparring over “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays.”
But religious freedom means something very different in other parts of the world, said International Christian Concern advocacy director Isaac Six.
“What we want people to realize is we’re talking about persecution to the degree that the film (‘Silence’) shows — imprisonment, violent acts, murder, bans on any kind of worship,” Six said. “In North Korea, the act of possessing a Bible is an offense punishable by life imprisonment not just for you, but three generations of your family. So you, your parents and your children could all be thrown in a political prison camp.”
Now, the task for activists fighting international religious persecution is raising awareness on U.S. soil, where they fear citizens take religious freedoms for granted and are unaware of the scope of the problem.
One group taking on that task is Under Caesar’s Sword, a partnership between University of Notre Dame and the Religious Freedom Institute to study oppressed Christian communities worldwide.
The goal, says project scholar and Notre Dame political science professor Daniel Philpott, is to come up with concrete strategies for combating religious persecution by first seeing how Christian communities react to oppression. The project sent 14 religious scholars to observe oppressed Christian communities in 30 countries. A public launch of the group's findings is slated for April and will include curriculum about religious persecution for schools and churches. There is also a short documentary about the project.
Education on this issue, Philpott said, is a top priority.
“This should be household knowledge. There should be sermons on this, there should be education about this, but we’re nowhere near that,” Philpott said. “Knowing that in many parts of the world, people can’t express faith outside of closed doors without facing torture or prison — that's what keeps me awake at night.”
The challenge of caring
If religious persecution is cause for such concern, why don’t more people know about it? Advocates say it’s a complicated mix of stigma, stereotypes and lack of information. But often, people just don’t believe persecution against Christians is something to worry about.
“To be perfectly honest, people aren’t concerned. This is something that seems far away,” Six said. “Awareness about it is growing, but overall, there’s still a staggering amount of people who don’t realize this is going on.”
Data on religious persecution isn’t easy to gather, track or interpret. The data aren't as plentiful as data on other human-rights issues such as hunger, and diagnosing the scope of the problem can be confusing. Take Pew Research Center’s annual tracking of trends on global religious hostility and restrictions. At first glance, it may seem religious persecution is on the decline — Pew cited in studies in 2016 and 2015 that both religious hostility and restriction either fell slightly or remained at the same levels as the previous year.
But because many of those countries have large populations, Pew found that nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of the world’s total population still lived in countries where religious restrictions were high or very high. For Christians specifically, Under Caesar’s Sword estimates that more than 100 million Christians endure some form of persecution worldwide each year.
Yet experts say Americans don’t often think of religious liberty as a human-rights issue, even though it’s a fundamental right America was founded on.
“Think about something like human trafficking. No one is going to condemn you for coming out against that because everyone agrees that human enslavement is wrong,” Six said. “But when you say ‘religious liberty’ here, it’s considered bigotry because of LGBTQ rights. Even though most people would say they don’t think anyone should be imprisoned for life or killed for their faith, the domestic debate is so contentious that it’s a huge challenge for us to make people care.”
Another problem is the cultural image that Christians were once “the bad guys,” as Philpott put it — that even though most governments have stripped Christianity of its imperialist power today, images of the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades and exploitative missionaries colonizing the world for their rulers back home are still burned into the public’s perception of Christianity.
“With that image, that’s very different from thinking of Christians as being persecuted minorities, so much so that when we talk about persecution of Christians, we get accused of having a persecution complex,” Philpott said. “If those are the narratives you subscribe to, you’re not ready to see real persecution elsewhere.”
The consequences of not caring or buying into those narratives are dire, Mark said, citing the U.S. State Department’s designation of Islamic State attacks on religious minorities as genocide last March.
“(Former President) Bill Clinton once said that his biggest regret was not intervening in the Rwandan genocide. I wonder if we’ll find ourselves saying that again with Syria,” Mark said. “It’s a dismal silver lining that our contemporary genocide is what it takes to raise awareness about this issue. That troubles me.”
Faced with the reality of global religious persecution, Six said many people worry they can’t help the situation. But they can, he said.
“There are groups that do on-the-ground assistance for these religious communities,” Six said. “Find one and donate to it.”
Mark said religious communities here in the U.S. that enjoy religious freedoms could also do more to raise awareness. He recommended people of faith stay abreast of new information about religious persecution abroad and bring it up at their houses of worship. That sounds easy enough, but Mark said it’s hard to keep religious persecution in mind when you don’t experience it in your own life.
“In one way, people are more aware than ever because of the internet, but we have to be more vigilant not to forget,” Mark said. “If nothing else, we need a unified fight for religious freedom because we need to defend the culture in America that makes religious freedom possible. It’s easy to forget, but for all our problems, we’re not persecuted.”
Philpott said there’s much more the government could do to bring global religious freedom to the forefront, although he acknowledged that the State Department’s genocide ruling last year was a good first step.
“It should be a global diplomatic mindset because persecution of Christians doesn’t just happen in Islamic countries,” Philpott said. “It takes place in religious nationalist countries that we see as being all about peace, like India or Sri Lanka, too. There’s much more the government could be doing to bring that up.”
But policymakers are unlikely to do anything without public input, Six said. Making your voice heard on social media and elsewhere to raise awareness is key.
“One of the best things you can do is to share news about this. It spreads the word, and the more people know about it, the more it can influence legislators,” Six said. “There’s a lot the government can do to put pressures on world powers about these issues.”
For the more than 70 percent of Americans who identify as Christian, Six said staying silent in the face of religious persecution is no longer an option.
“Once we’re aware of this, it’s our moral obligation to take action in some way,” Six said. “When we fail to speak out for other Christians or for other oppressed faiths, ultimately that can come back to haunt us if, one day, no one is there to speak for us.”