June 23, 2015 // Local

ND project studies how Christian communities respond to persecution

By Ann Carey

NOTRE DAME — Christians are being persecuted today more than members of any other faith, and the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Civil and Human Rights has launched a project to study how various Christian communities respond to persecution, which ranges from harassment to death.

Titled “Under Caesar’s Sword,” the three-year global research project has enlisted 15 of the world’s leading scholars of Christianity to study 100 beleaguered Christian communities or churches in 30 countries, including China, Indonesia, Nigeria, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan and India.

Most of those scholars currently are on the ground in the countries where travel is possible. If visiting an area is too dangerous, the researcher will gather information through contacts in those countries, by interviewing Christians who have fled the persecutions, and by working with human rights organizations with knowledge of the situation in a particular place.

The scholars then will prepare their findings to be discussed at a major international conference in Rome Dec. 10-12, on the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom, “Dignitatis Humanae.”

Notre Dame Professor Daniel Philpott conceived the idea for the project when he became director of Notre Dame’s Center for Civil and Human Rights in January of 2014. Philpott is a fellow of the university’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies and a concurrent professor in the law school.

Philpott told Today’s Catholic that he wanted the center to be involved in research on global religious freedom, and he felt more attention needed to be paid to the persecution of Christians, for people in the Western World are not adequately aware of this persecution.

He noted that Pope Francis has spoken frequently about persecution of Christians, and he cited the pope’s Easter Monday address in which the pope asked the international community not to be “silent and inactive” in the face of the “unacceptable crime” of persecuting Christians.

While some good books had been written on the topic, Philpott said, nobody had yet studied the whole range of how Christian communities respond to persecution. That response could be varied, like the non-violent protests in Poland led by Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II; or complex diplomacy, as used by Christian churches in China; or simply fleeing the persecutors, as have the surviving Christians from Iraq.

“A lot of Christian communities who are persecuted can be very isolated,” Philpott said, “and if they had a broader global understanding of the way that other Christian communities responded, that may give them some inspiration and some vision, as well.

“Also, it speaks to the part of the world that wants to be in solidarity with persecuted Christians, that might want to help them, assist them, speak on their behalf. If they can know how Christian communities respond and how they might respond, they would be better able to support these communities.”

Philpott already had a close collaboration with the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The two centers teamed up on the project and won a $1.1 million grant from The Templeton Religion Trust to carry out the research. They procured another $300,000 from smaller sources.

The research scholars, all experts in countries they study, will try to answer three questions. The first is: “What strategies do Christian communities adopt in response to persecution?” Communities could use more than one strategy, or adapt their strategies over time, depending on circumstances.

The second question is “Why were these responses chosen?” Answers to this question could include factors like a community’s beliefs about justice, legitimate authority and the relationship of the state to religion.

The third question is: “What outcomes have Christian communities’ responses to repression brought about?” Philpott hopes the answers to this question will assist persecuted churches as well as their outside supporters to know what strategies would work best for their particular circumstances.

“We’re looking at having this kind of fresh, first-hand, systematic, comparative information,” Philpott said. “It will be the first global, systematic research on what Christian communities do when they are persecuted.”

An important part of the three-year project is getting the results of the research disseminated, so several methods have been planned to do this. The first is the December conference in Rome, at which the scholars will present their findings publicly for the first time. Philpott plans that several high-level Church people from around the world will attend and speak about their own regions to give a global perspective to the meeting.

Other methods planned for disseminating the research results include an easily accessible human rights report of the findings to be translated into four languages and distributed around the world and be made available on the Internet; an edited volume of scholarly essays in which the researchers present their findings in their full academic rigor; a documentary film that will include interviews with Christians in persecuted areas; and development of curricula for schools and churches to educate people on the topic.

Questions about the Rome conference or other aspects of the project may be directed to the project manager Zahra Vieneuve at [email protected].


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