On one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar, on Easter Sunday suicide bombers attacked and killed more than 200 people worshipping at Christian churches in three separate locations in Sri Lanka. While no group has taken responsibility for these actions, the tactics were borrowed from jihadist playbooks, and Islamic State supporters have cheered on the bombing, calling it “revenge” for past injustices against Muslims.
These attacks are only the latest and deadliest in an uptick of violence against the Christian minorities in Sri Lanka, who make up 17 percent of the populace. In 2018, Buddhist extremists burned down both Muslim-owned shops and Christian churches across the country, while the state police and civil authorities were criticized for not adopting stronger measures to protect the religious minorities targeted.
Violence against Christians spreads far beyond Sri Lanka. Pew Research lists Christians as the most harassed faith in the world, with significant levels of persecution in 144 countries, according to 2016 data. People of all faiths should care about this, because the world climate is growing increasingly hostile to religious freedom as religious fundamentalism creeps into national politics and people increasingly define themselves in opposition to other people’s faiths.
The idea of religious toleration, a proud feature of some parts of Middle Eastern history, is losing currency among a fundamentalist wave in the region. Throughout the twenty-first century, more than 2 million Christians have been displaced from countries like Egypt, Syria, and Iraq due to the effects of Islamic fundamentalism and sectarian violence in the region. Few groups have suffered as Christian minorities have due to the rise of Islamist political parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and ISIS in Libya, with arson, displacement, and even beheadings occurring in these persecutory domains.
It is not just backwards Islamist regimes who are persecuting Christians, either. China’s authoritarian atheist government, fearful of the revolutionary potential of Christian minorities, is tightening its restrictions on the country’s Christians, enforcing its laws against Chinese “house churches” (churches that operate outside the purview of the official state church) and evangelistic speech with greater severity than in previous years.
South Asia is also becoming a hotbed for anti-Christian persecution. According to Open Doors USA, an organization tracking Christian persecution across the world, Indian Christians now face an “extreme” level of persecution, up from “high” just five years ago, due to spikes in Hindu extremism targeting churches, as well as halfhearted government responses failing to protect these minorities. Open Doors USA now claims with evidence that one in three Christians in all of Asia currently face some form of persecution.
Even in the enlightened West, religious freedom is facing its biggest challenge in centuries. Journalists have reported a record 47 documented desecrations of church property in France for February 2019. In Germany, three-quarters of resettled Christian refugees claim to experience persecution, mostly from the Muslim refugees which surround them. The number of attacks on Catholic churches in the whole of Europe is already up 25 percent compared to the number of attacks during a similar period last year.
While many European journalists rightly blame mass migration from majority-Muslim countries for these religious persecution issues, migration is not the only factor here. Just as significant is Western Europe’s culture of enforced secularism, a world where religious speech is policed and religious symbols (such as burqas) are not allowed in French public schools or German business settings.
Western Europe no longer inspires religious freedom. Western Europe is instead now a land where public religion is actively discouraged, a world where religious differences are often hashed out in the dark rather than debated in the daylight.
No matter your faith, we should be concerned about the state of religious freedom in the world today. For thousands of years, the world had little concept of religious freedom—you were whatever religion your prince was, cuius regio, eius religio—but the death of millions in the Thirty Years’ War in Europe finally shook the continent into adopting rudimentary principles of religious toleration, to keep everyone from slaughtering each other.
These principles were eventually condensed into a single line in the U.S. Constitution, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That’s the first line of the First Amendment.
It took thousands of years and millions of lives to enshrine the principle of freedom of religion into the liberal tradition of governance. Just when we Americans thought we could export this principle to the rest of the world, instead we are seeing it crumble before our very eyes, with Christian minorities harassed and persecuted for their faith in ways we’d never dreamt of.
Christian minorities are just one religious group facing persecution across the world. One only need to remember the horrific shooting of 50 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand to understand that religious persecution cuts across all faiths. Many of the same attacks against Christians are made against Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish minorities all over the world. Today, however, the horrible Sri Lankan bombings have cast Christian minorities in the world’s tragic spotlight.
The persecution of religious minorities across the world should make all Americans here grateful for our country’s stronger protections religious freedom, despite their legal and cultural erosions. It should remind us that these freedoms are never free, and that they must be guarded jealously against illiberal forces that seek to undermine them in the courts and in the court of public opinion. And it should motivate us to stop being complacent while people of many faiths bear sickening persecution for practicing what they believe.