Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 77 (November 1997): 32-35.
Since January 1996, when a coalition of Christian and Jewish activists began working to publicize in America the plight of persecuted Christians abroad, there has appeared in the secular press a great deal of commentary about the arrest, torture, and execution of believers. Columnists in particular have seized upon the issue, with the New York Times’ A. M. Rosenthal alone writing over a dozen columns arguing passionately in defense of besieged Christians. The major Washington, D.C., news bureaus have also begun to cover the story regularly, as public agitation in the U.S. makes international religious oppression a hot topic in political Washington’s foreign policy debates.
But perhaps the most interesting feature of the media’s response to the persecution of believers is how little work on the story (according to the online information services First Search and Nexis) has come from the international reporters and foreign correspondents actually covering the countries where that persecution occurs. While editorial page editors—in such major newspapers as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today—fill their pages with columns, op-eds, and letters about the persecution of Christians abroad, the foreign desks of those same newspapers are nearly mute.
Take the situation in China, where government officials have undertaken in the last year a massive and deliberate crackdown on unregistered Catholic and Protestant churches. As a report issued by the U.S. State Department this July declared:
They raided and closed several hundred "house church" groups, many with significant memberships, properties, and financial resources. Local authorities used threats, demolition of property, extortion of "fines," interrogation, detention, and reform-through-education sentences in carrying out this campaign. Some leaders of such groups were detained for lengthy investigation, and some were beaten. There were reports that unofficial groups were particularly hard hit in Beijing and the nearby provinces of Henan (where there are rapidly growing numbers of Protestants) and Hebei, a center of unregistered Catholics. At present, four Catholic underground bishops are among the many Christians who remain imprisoned or detained, or whose whereabouts are unknown.
On a fact-finding mission to China this summer, a Freedom House delegation observed the government’s aggressive campaign to eradicate the underground Christian churches that form—thanks to China’s successful suppression of independent labor unions, newspapers, and human rights groups—the only nationwide nongovernment institutions existing even clandestinely in China today. With hundreds of house churches demolished or shut, their pastors sent to labor camps to be beaten and tortured, and several Catholic bishops behind bars, the Chinese government has systematically set out to crush this affront to its power—waging a battle that affects millions of underground Chinese Christians.
During the year of this crackdown, not a week has passed that the topic of China has not appeared in the U.S. press. Over a thousand articles mentioning the country were published in the last twelve months in the four major American daily newspapers. China’s economic development, environmental problems, internal politics, take-over of Hong Kong, foreign relations, and military build-up were all given ample coverage. But the year-long siege of China’s underground Christian communities received little or no foreign news coverage in the four major national papers.
As of October, the Washington Post has not published in 1997 a single story on the persecution in China (making only a passing reference in a June 26 article on Hong Kong). The New York Times has published only two. The Times’ first story, "Catholics in China: Back to the Underground," run on January 26, gave a helpful account of the Catholic situation but made no mention of the situation of the house-church Protestant evangelicals, now thought to number between twenty and fifty million. On April 3, the Times, running a narrow report from the Associated Press wire, carried its second piece on religious persecution in China—entitled "China Said to Raid Home of Catholic Priest" and again concerned exclusively with Catholics. Now over a year old, the last story the Washington Post ran about China’s Christians appeared on October 6, 1996, entitled "China Has More Catholics, More Repression"; like the Times’ stories, it omitted reference to the plight of evangelicals. (Television news coverage has been somewhat better, with both Dan Rather on CBS and Peter Jennings on ABC airing segments on China’s persecuted evangelicals and Catholics.)
When on June 26 the Wall Street Journal at last reported on the Christian situation in China, it carried perhaps the most distorted essay of any that appeared in the major press. Uncritically accepting Beijing’s assertion that China’s Communist Party leaders "are showing increasing tolerance for a religious revival now sweeping China"—the main message of Religious Bureau Chief and Communist hardliner Ye Xiaowen during his visit to the United States in July—the Journal article was rife with inaccuracies and misleading statements that minimized the persecution. Inaccurately reporting that two leading Protestants jailed in March had been released, the article pointed to the expansion of the YMCA as evidence of religious tolerance—not mentioning that the YMCA has operated in China as a propaganda tool for the Communists since before the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, a former director wrote a Communist tract (entitled "How to Hold a Successful Accusation Meeting") explaining to the Party cadres that "big accusation meetings constitute a most effective means of helping the masses of believers to comprehend the evil wrought in China by imperialism, to recognize the fact that imperialism has utilized Christianity to attack China, and to wipe out imperialist influences within the church."
Sudan provides another example of the foreign desks of America’s national press turning a blind eye to the story happening on their own beats. Islamic fundamentalists declared Sudan an Islamic state in 1983, and government attempts to apply Shari’a (Islamic law) to its sizable non-Muslim population was one of the key factors leading to civil war. The militant Islamic government’s tactics in its religious war in the southern part of the country have resulted in the deaths of about 1.5 million people and the displacement of more than three million. To eradicate the non-Muslim population, Sudanese agents have burned and looted villages, enslaved women and children, forcibly converted non-Muslim boys before using them as shock troops in battle, relocated entire villages into concentration camps called "peace villages," and withheld international food aid to starving non-Muslim communities until they convert. The U.S. State Department, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, and numerous independent human rights investigators have all documented that Christians and animists are victims of an ongoing brutal campaign of forced Islamization sponsored by the Khartoum government.
In the past year, however, not a single story on Sudanese religious persecution has appeared from the foreign desks of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, or USA Today. Charles Jacobs, Research Director of the American Anti-Slavery Group that has been documenting the enslavement of black Christians in Sudan for four years, expresses the bewilderment of all who have worked to inform the world about this situation: "Where are American reporters? We have the names of children kidnaped into slavery. We know their villages, parents, and stories. Their plights are newsworthy."
A great many other examples exist in the century that David Barrett has painstakingly demonstrated to be the worst century of anti-Christian persecution in history, with Christians the most persecuted religious group on earth today. Already 1997 has proved for Egypt’s Christians to be the worst year in decades. The Copts, practicing their faith in Egypt since the first century a.d., form the largest population of Christians in the Middle East. But earlier this year, Copt villages in Upper Egypt were attacked by Islamic militants, leaving some thirty dead. According to local human rights groups, Egyptian authorities had first withdrawn police protection from the besieged Coptic villages and then failed to prosecute and convict anyone for the murders, despite the fact that some of the gunmen were identified. The Washington Post did report the assaults on March 18 in a piece appropriately entitled "Egypt’s Endangered Christians," while the New York Times carried the story on March 15. But the foreign desks of the Wall Street Journal and USA Today ignored the massacres and their larger significance for the continued existence of Christian communities in the Middle East—communities that have long been under serious assault. According to Vatican sources, since the early part of this century the number of Christians in Iraq has decreased from 35 to 5 percent of the population; in Iran, from 15 to 2 percent; in Syria, from 40 to 10 percent; and in Turkey, from 32 to 0.2 percent.
A violent rampage of thirty thousand Muslims against a Christian area of Punjab in Pakistan in February—sparked by a rumor of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad (a capital offense in Pakistan)—left thousands of Christians homeless and caused $25 million in damages. When Pakistani Christians marched on the capital a few days later to protest the destruction and demand greater protection, they were brutalized and arrested by police, though the leaders of the original rampage remain at large. But these developments went unreported in America’s major newspapers.
So too the story of Vietnam’s repression of Christians over the past year—including the ordeal of an American woman who was put under house arrest for two months after she ran afoul of that country’s religious restrictions while visiting her Vietnamese family—has also been ignored by the major foreign news desks. And so too has persecution in Saudi Arabia, which allows no non-Muslim religious expression and prosecutes those Christians, mostly foreign workers, who attempt to pray secretly: two Filipino Catholics were beheaded in Riyadh last May.
Some excuse for America’s media lies in the difficulty of reporting on underground and marginalized communities in situations of persecution. New York Times correspondent Patrick Tyler revealed in his January 26 article that both he and a colleague from the Washington Post had been detained while investigating the crackdown on Catholics in different parts of China—and even under normal circumstances, foreign reporters in China have their offices and phones tapped and their movements monitored, with the threat of expulsion ready if they are too critical too often. A place like Sudan presents other problems because of its remoteness and the dangers posed by war and disease.
But these practical difficulties are surmountable. Such major wire services as the Associated Press and Reuters, which exist to supplement news reporting for the media, have done for the most part a fair job supplying information on anti-Christian atrocities. Religious and human rights groups monitoring persecution—Freedom House, Christian Solidarity International, Voice of the Martyrs, the Cardinal Kung Foundation, Christian Concern International, the China News and Church Report, and the Christian news service Compass Direct—undertake investigations that could themselves be the subject of mainstream reporting, much as the New York Times and other papers frequently covered reports on Central America from human rights groups during the 1980s.
Even original reporting is possible, given the will, as was demonstrated last year when the relatively small Baltimore Sun ran a three-part series on the slave trade in Sudan after two of its journalists, with the help of Christian Solidarity International, went to Sudan and personally bought Christian slaves. The Boston Phoenix also sent a reporter to Sudan to cover firsthand the slave revelations, while ABC Dateline brought cameras in to document the slave markets of Sudan.
Certainly other foreign stories are filed in America’s major newspapers despite reporting difficulties. The New York Times managed to get its reporters out to survey battles on the Sudan-Uganda border in the past year. The resulting article, "Christian Rebels Wage a War of Terror in Uganda," which ran on the front page on March 5, may indicate something about the view of Christians held by America’s foreign reporters and help explain why persecution of Christians has gone unreported. Recounting ghastly acts of violence by a group calling itself the "Lord’s Resistance Army" and describing them as "Christian fundamentalist rebels," the article relates how they "embrace an eclectic group of beliefs"—"prohibiting the riding of bicycles, killing of pigs, and eating of white-feathered chickens"—and punish violators with amputation. Given that the organization is wildly heretical, lacks any known links to an established denomination, and is funded by the Islamic government of Sudan, the description of the Lord’s Resistance Army as "fundamentalist" and "Christian" is absurd.
I t may be at last a simple lack of understanding and interest, rather than logistical difficulties, that keeps foreign correspondents off the story of persecuted Christians. Though the topic sparks obvious interest in huge segments of the American public, the national press corps has a reputation within Christian circles for being irreligious or even anti religious. And it is at least true—as a number of studies have documented—that journalists are less likely to be practicing believers of any religion than the general public.
Anecdotal evidence points in the same direction. In many conversations over the years, I have often been struck by how confused and ill-informed many journalists are on religious issues. A foreign editor at one major magazine, while acknowledging that the campaign to publicize the plight of persecuted Christians has importance as part of the political debate in Washington, indicated that he considered the campaign itself as mainly a strategy for repressing the culture of Third World—an attempt to force Muslim countries to allow proselytizing by American Christian missionaries. Though Middle East Bureau Chief for his magazine and aware of Egypt’s six million Copts, he was barely conscious of the persecutions they suffered, just as he did not seem to know of Pakistan’s large indigenous Christian community and the violence it endures under that country’s draconian blasphemy laws. Like other journalists I have spoken to, he labored under the prejudice that Christianity is a white man’s religion and a tool of Western imperialism. (Three-fourths of world Christians today live in the Third World.) Another journalist from the mainstream press told me he thinks it inherently "bigoted" to report on anti-Christian persecution in particular. It is a mindset described by the Reverend Keith Roderick, director of the Illinois-based Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights Under Islam, who observes, "There is a subtle form of bigotry that inhibits a more thorough reporting of the persecution of Christians. It is quite difficult for many journalists to accept that Christians are the victims rather than the victimizers. Christianity is the last religion that can be picked on with impunity."
When the State Department released its report on anti-Christian persecution last summer, one important journalist expressed his concern that government involvement in the protest against the persecution of Christians may violate the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. And I found myself wondering whose constitutional rights would be violated. The foreign dictators? The foreign religious groups suffering enormous persecution? The objection seems to surface only when the persecuted are Christians—and was missing when the U.S. imposed trade sanctions on the Soviet Union because of persecution against the Jews, sent peacekeeping troops into Bosnia on behalf of Muslims, and registered a diplomatic demarche on behalf of Scientologists in Germany. And in fact, hardly anyone imagines that a foreign policy protecting the universal human rights of religious believers is the same as an unconstitutional promotion of religious beliefs. That important journalist’s raising of the issue is instructive, however, in exposing the mainstream media’s wariness about religious freedom as a legitimate human rights concern.
Similarly, other journalists expressed concerns—echoing a line sometimes put forward by the Beijing authorities—that Christian worship uncontrolled by a government is likely to produce dangerous cults like the Aum Shinri Kyo, who released poison gas in a Tokyo subway. The tone of the journalists as they argued this issue suggests an underlying fear that evangelicals and Catholics, especially those so committed that they would be willing to suffer persecution and death for their faith, are dangerous fanatics—though they readily acknowledge the heroism of political dissidents who risk the same fates. When another mainstream journalist took note of the huge grassroots lobby forming within American Christian communities to press the Administration to stand up for religious freedom abroad, she admitted to me that she had sympathy for the point of view that it was "dangerous for foreign policy" to involve "people who know nothing about the world." But she acknowledged that she had no similar qualms about the anti-apartheid campaign of the 1980s.
There are certain hopeful signs that the campaign to publicize the international persecution of Christians has begun to succeed. Representative Frank Wolf and Senator Arlen Specter have put forward the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act that has a good chance of passage, and the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, scheduled for November 16, has captured the attention of a growing number of America’s churches. But coverage of the issue of religious persecution by the mainstream prestige press remains important. It provides critical information to the public and to policymakers, and it sets a standard for smaller media outlets. Moreover, it sends a message to foreign despotisms—whose embassies scour these papers—that America cares. The foreign desks of America’s major newspapers must abandon their prejudices and end the self-censorship of reporting on history’s worst century of the persecution of Christians.
Nina Shea is Director of the Center on Religious Freedom of Freedom House in Washington, D.C., and author of In the Lion’s Den, a book on anti-Christian persecution.