As the world's more than 2 billion Christians -- one-third of the global population -- prepare to celebrate Christmas, a major conference in Rome will explore the myths and realities of global Christian persecution.
Not far from the catacombs where the martyrs of the early church are buried, dozens of experts will discuss why today's Christian martyrs — and other victims of persecution — deserve far more attention than they're receiving.
Most of these victims will continue to be ignored, however, as long as five myths continue to cloud popular thinking about global Christian persecution. Based on an abundance of new evidence, the experts in Rome will show that the myths don't stand up to the facts.
Myth 1. Just a phenomenon in the Middle East. The persecution of Christians in Egypt and Syria made headlines this year, and it was at the top of the agenda when Vladimir Putin met Pope Francis at the Vatican last week. But the fact is that anti-Christian persecution is spiking well beyond the Middle East. And it is spreading to countries known for their relative stability and religious moderation -- such as India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka.
Myth 2. Christians aren't greatly impacted. It's widely thought that the world's Christians are mostly Western, wealthy, and powerful. And so the assumption is that the most serious persecution they are likely to face is a cold stare when they say "Merry Christmas." But the fact is that Christianity has ancient footholds throughout the world. Furthermore, its unprecedented global dispersion has spread Christians to the poorest and most unstable corners of the earth. And according to non-partisan sources such as Pew, the resulting reality is that more Christians face more persecution in more countries than any other religious community.
Myth 3. Ramifications are just cultural. The myth is that, whatever persecution there is, the damage is superficial -- more a loss of multicultural diversity than anything else. But the fact is that societies that systematically persecute Christian minorities are doing themselves major political and economic harm. They are preventing productive citizens from participating in economic life or forcing them to leave altogether; they are sowing sectarian divisions that undermine stability; and they are making vibrant, pluralistic democracy impossible to achieve.
Myth 4. Christianity has been a net nuisance, bringing persecution onto itself. It's often assumed that Christian missionaries and proselytizers invite persecution. But the fact is that Christians have made longstanding and unique contributions to their societies. Christians may proselytize. But even more often their faith motivates them to build hospitals, serve the poor, educate children, and aid victims of disaster. There is statistical evidence that regions of the world that have welcomed these kinds of Christian efforts have reaped enormous economic, political, and social benefits
Myth 5. It couldn't happen here. A common myth is that it is just fear-mongering to imagine that Christians and other religious groups could suffer serious restrictions in Western countries. Of course, Western countries have been free of the kinds of violent attacks on Christians and other religious groups that have occurred in countries such as Egypt and Syria in recent years. But the trend lines are not encouraging. Non-partisan sources such as Pew show that government restrictions and social hostility against religion -- including Christianity -- have risen dramatically in recent years. Claims of restrictions on religious liberty are real, such as those by Hobby Lobby and other corporations, which the Supreme Court decided this week to consider in the coming months. Such claims should not be dismissed out of hand but taken seriously -- precisely to ensure that the rampant persecution of Christians and other religions occurring outside the West does not come to the West.
Timothy Samuel Shah is Associate Director and Scholar-in-Residence at the Religious Freedom Project, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University.