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Persecuted Christians?

by Stephen A. Allen on Sep 30, 1999

In India, a Roman Catholic nun is abducted, stripped, threatened with rape, and forced to drink her captors’ urine. This is the latest in a series of attacks on Christians in that nation that included the brutal murder of an Australian missionary and his two sons in January.

Although the possibility that something similar might happen in the United States may seem very remote, some American religious leaders speak as if Christianity were under siege in this country.

The Sunday after the attack on the nun in India, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York expressed his outrage at a different assault on Christianity. In a sermon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he said, “One must ask if it is not an attack on religion itself and in a special way on the Catholic Church.”

The “attack on religion itself” that O’Connor condemned, however, was not an assault on a nun or priest, or the burning of a church, or a government decree banning Christian worship. The cardinal was instead referring to an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art that contains a painting of the Virgin Mary adorned with a clump of elephant dung and images clipped from pornographic magazines.

The torture of a nun certainly qualifies as “an attack . . . on the Catholic Church,” but to describe a painting in this way is a gross exaggeration, and Cardinal O’Connor should know better. Most people in the United States have at least some passing knowledge of the persecution of early Christians–after all, the image of Christians being thrown to the lions is something of a cliche–and it is to be hoped that a cardinal would be familiar with the history of his Church.

And a bloody history it is at that. If the early narratives are to be believed, the Romans excelled in devising ways to kill Christians. In addition to the stories of the proverbial lions, there are tales of martyrs being burned alive, beheaded, dismembered, roasted, drowned and starved.

Many accounts of the sufferings of the early martyrs are wildly exaggerated, if not completely fictional. But later, better documented deaths are no less unpleasant. For example, 26 Roman Catholics were crucified in Japan in 1597. Compared with this, a single blasphemous painting seems trivial.

O’Connor isn’t the only religious leader who thinks that Christians are under attack in the United States. Jerry Falwell recently claimed that “most hate crimes in America today are not directed toward African-Americans, or Jewish people, or lesbians. They are directed at evangelical Christians.”

Falwell’s comments come after the slaughter of eight people at a Baptist church in Texas, and it is understandable that he might be upset. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find anyone in the United States who does not condemn this shooting. 

Still, the fact that nearly 90 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian makes Falwell’s claim difficult to believe. And while it is true that some Christians historically have been victims of persecution in the United States, those Christians are not generally evangelical Protestants.

Roman Catholics, for example, were tolerated in only two of the original thirteen colonies, Pennsylvania and Maryland. In the nineteenth century, with the rise of the “Know-Nothing” movement, opposition to Catholicism became a respectable political position. The Ku Klux Klan targeted Catholics well into the twentieth century. As recently as 1960, major Protestant leaders questioned whether a Roman Catholic should be allowed to become president of the United States.

But again, this sort of discrimination pales when compared with the systematic attacks on Christianity under the early Roman emperors, in sixteenth-century Japan, or under Fascist and Communist governments in the twentieth century.

Christians in the United States live under a legal system designed to ensure freedom of religion. Christians in other countries and at other times have suffered under legal systems designed to eliminate their religion entirely.

Christians in the United States are not allowed to offer officially sanctioned prayer in public schools, a barrier that Falwell and other conservative Christians claim is discriminatory. Christians in other countries have been forbidden to pray at all. 

Christians in the United States, according to Cardinal O’Connor, are under attack from a single painting in a temporary exhibit. Christians in India have come under attack from armed mobs.

Christians in other countries are truly persecuted. Christians in the United States have it easy.

Stephen A. Allen is a doctoral candidate in the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame and a writer for the History News Service.

[The Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556-5692. e-mail:]