The attacks Sunday on Christians in Sri Lanka were shocking in their horrific cruelty. Just as worshippers were assembling to celebrate the doctrines of renewal, resurrection, atonement and forgiveness, so central to the worship of Jesus Christ, murderous bombs tore through churches and hotels catering to believers.
The world was stunned, but it should not have been surprised.
Believers are under frequent attack in many nations. Sri Lanka may be a surprising target because of its relatively peaceful conditions, but worshippers are under near constant bombardment throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa and in many parts of Asia. In some countries, they may not be systematically murdered, but they are denied employment and face other forms of discrimination.
The Pew Research Center published a report in 2016 cataloguing the rise in these crimes. It found that Christians face harassment in 144 nations. Muslims were right behind them, facing harassment in 142. Jews faced similar treatment in 87 countries. Each of these numbers was considerably higher than in a similar study published in 2007.
It is appropriate to ask, why is the United States not making this a bigger focus of its foreign policy? Why are Christian congregations of all denominations, so prevalent in this country, not doing more to help their brothers and sisters? Where is the sense of outrage?
Sri Lanka caught the attention of the media because of its awful scope — at least 290 people killed and more than 500 wounded — and because of its timing on Easter morning. But smaller atrocities happen all the time with little notice. In parts of the Middle East, Christians have been virtually eradicated. In Libya last December, authorities discovered the remains of 34 Ethiopian Christians buried in a mass grave, put there by ISIS fighters.
Some experts estimate that the persecution of Christians is worse worldwide today than during the Roman Empire, when they were fed to lions as entertainment, or during the reign of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union.
And yet Americans, and indeed much of the Western world, appear to be largely ignorant.
Giles Fraser, a parish priest in England, wondered about this recently in The Guardian. “We are living through one of the most serious phases of Christian persecution in history, and most people refuse to acknowledge it,” he wrote.
“Why no outrage? Yes, these horrendous murders will make the press for a day or two — but we generally care more about the fire in a famous cathedral than we do about those people who have their bodies blown to bits in architecturally less significant places of worship.”
We would clarify that the fire in the Notre Dame Cathedral was indeed a tragedy on many levels, worthy of the attention it received. But the systematic persecution of Christians, Muslims and Jews worldwide also deserves much more attention than it is receiving.
It ought to be a focus of the White House, as well as of Congress. The nation’s leaders also should revive a sense of the need to safeguard religious liberty in this country, to which persecuted people often look for protection.
And despite the current anti-immigration climate, this nation should be a refuge for the many who would flee persecution.
Sri Lanka may seem far from here, but its people are not so different from us. Those who approached Easter morning with a sense of joy and thanksgiving were no different than the many who did the same here.
The victims deserve more than just fleeting attention. They deserve a resolve to do more to end religious persecution wherever it exists.