Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and Director of the South and Southeast Asia Action Team at the Religious Freedom Institute. He is also the Wilson Distinguished Professor of Religious Freedom at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and a research professor in political science. He is the author and editor of more than twenty books on religion and politics, with a focus on religious freedom.
The number of Christians worldwide will not decline, according to a report by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on the Status of Global Christianity in 2022. Contrarily, it will grow, but the expansion will be generated by the developing countries in Asia and Africa rather than the Western world. At the same time, Christians in these countries are expected to be faced with the most severe persecution. Which countries would you highlight where significant growth can be predicted in terms of the threats Christians face?
The places where we can expect growth in the persecution of Christians are the ones where it is already happening and is quite intensive. Maybe the first place we should mention is China. China is repressing all its religious minorities—indeed all of its people, including Falun Gong, the Uighur Muslims, and so on. As part of this, and in some ways, even larger, is the intensification of the persecution of Christians. The number of Christians in China is probably 80, 90, a 100 million. In the last seventy years they have always been subjected to some level of restriction and persecution. But it was relatively open in the 80s and 90s and tightened slightly in the 2000s. But now, under Xi Jinping, there is an intense crackdown, including the enforcement of the rule that nobody under 18 can be involved in any religious work, and a person under 18 cannot attend church. All sermons, all clergy and all worship are subject to government regulation, and any meetings outside of that can be subject to disruption and arrest. The result is that the number of arrests and detentions of pastors and the closing and destruction of churches is higher than it has ever been since the end of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. And I expect that to continue.
North Korea is perhaps the worst place on the planet to be a Christian. I’m not sure it is worsening; it’s hard to see how it could worsen. Christianity, like other religions, is illegal.
Practicing real Christianity will send you to a labour camp.
Shifting away from those countries, in India, you’ve had increased persecution of Christians over the last 20 years—we have seen a high level of violence against Christians. Nigeria and India are probably the countries where there’s the most physical violence against Christians. When I say physical violence, I don’t just mean robberies or other crimes that afflict everybody. I mean, it is religion-related: the fact that they’re Christians is a factor in that violence.
In India, a lot of this violence is driven by a fear that the place of Hinduism in Indian society is being undercut. So, there is a lot of pressure around the conversion of Hindus to other religions, mainly Christianity. Many of the states in India have passed anti-conversion laws. These laws usually state that it’s illegal to offer some inducement for someone to convert; that is a bribe. We would understand that to be a bribe if it was an offer of money, or a job, or something like that, something that we in the West would condemn. But inducement is defined so broadly in the law that if you were to say to somebody that if you believe and trust in Jesus Christ, your sins will be forgiven, that’s an inducement. And so, it would be illegal to say that. So, anything stressing the benefits of the Christian faith itself, not talking about money, housing, or jobs, but talking about the benefits of the gospel, in those settings, it’s illegal. So, the people are arrested, but more often, it’s mob violence that occurs.
Nigeria is a country where the most Christians are being killed now. And it’s hardly ever in the news. In the north, you get bandits who are in it for money, but also very widespread radical movements. Al Qaeda and ISIS, the Islamic State, both have affiliates throughout West Africa and are very active in northern Nigeria. Al Qaeda and ISIS are probably killing more people now than ever. The idea that they have disappeared is simply untrue. They’re operating in different places and in a major part of Africa. There have been thousands of deaths of Christians in Nigeria, perhaps 20,000 over the last five or six years, at the hands of radical Islamist groups, and then the Fulani tribal group also tends to be very radical. They are also attacking Christians and other Muslims. What’s happening in West Africa is very frightening.
These groups are also operating in other parts of Africa, as far down the east coast as Mozambique. You’ll find them to some degree in Tanzania and Kenya as well, and they are very active in Congo and Uganda.
One possible hopeful sign is Iran. Iran could be both hopeful and also a place where the persecution of Christians could intensify. As we all know, there are massive ongoing demonstrations in Iran. The police beat to death a woman who was showing too much of her hair; this caused an eruption, which may trigger a regime change, which would make the situation of many people, including Christians, much better. Tied in with that, two things are happening. One is that the Iranian government is arresting more and more Farsi-speaking Christians. Farsi is usually linked to Iranian nationality and to Persian identity. There are many Christians in Iran whose language would be Armenian or Syrian. They’re a separate ethnic group, and the state largely leaves them alone because they don’t seek to spread their faith. But you now have Farsi-speaking churches evangelizing and converting people, and they are very successful. If you have a Farsi-speaking Christian, the likelihood is they used to be a Muslim. And that’s why the state is cracking down on them—they are ‘apostates‘. Over the last twenty years, their numbers have grown to up to a million. Obviously, their church is semi-underground, so it’s hard to tell the exact figures. But I think every observer agrees that there is a massive expansion of the Farsi-speaking church in Iran, which has caused the government great worries. One thing driving the growth of the church is the awfulness of the government—if the government represents Islam, then many young, and not so young, people do not want to have anything to do with it.
So that’s a very rapid survey of where I think things are bad and getting worse.
Do you believe that the spread of Christianity in Asia will have an impact on the future of the continent and on its systems of government?
We can’t be sure, but it may well be so. China studied the fall of the Soviet Union extensively. About 1991–1992, the Chinese state press said that the role of the Christian church in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union—probably with particular respect to Pope John Paul II—was a major factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union. The reports said if China does not want the same thing to happen in its land, I quote, ‘it must strangle the baby while it is still in the manger.’ This is an allusion to Herod killing the firstborn in order to destroy any coming King. We must kill this Child Jesus while he is still in the manger. There was a fear that Christianity, in the case of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, kept some civil space open. It was one of the last places, even though restricted, where people could manage some open space, and it was a counter-authority to the government. The Chinese are aware of this. That’s one of the reasons for their fear of religion in general, but particularly of Christianity.
The situation is similar in North Korea. In the past, in all of Korea, the most Christian area was the north. So, the government has great worries about that. Indeed,
in many authoritarian societies, Christianity is correctly seen as something likely to undercut dictatorial regimes.
As we all know, Christians have often supported authoritarian regimes or formed their own. It’s not like it’s an automatic process that you get Christians, they go to church, and then challenge authority. But the tendency is that way. Deeply ingrained in the Christian faith is the notion that there are at least two sorts of authority. The state or political authority and the church, and that these are distinct, and that one should not control the other. We saw this dispute for a thousand years in the medieval period in disputes between Popes and emperors. But always the sense was with Christians that there is another king; we do not owe allegiance only to the state or the political leader. We will seek to be good citizens and obey the law. But do not ask that all forms of power be subordinated to you. So that distinction between God and Caesar is in the DNA of Christianity. And many, including people in the West, haven’t realized that it has fundamentally shaped the West. People in authoritarian countries realize that there’s a particular fear of Christianity, even in a quiet pietistic form, as a subversive element because it will always insist that it also follows another king. There are similar patterns in India in that regard.
The United States is currently the country with the largest Christian population. Open Doors’ forecast shows China will take the lead by 2050. It is difficult to estimate precisely because many of them are members of underground, illegal congregations, but their number is certainly increasing. At the same time, The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is becoming tenser, as they fear that Christians may be in contact with foreign services or there may be spies among the missionaries. How do you see the future of Christianity in China?
I think the Christian church will continue to increase in China. We—and I am speaking of the United States right now—are not aware that the church spread into Asia very early. We had Christian churches in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India from the first and second centuries. We had the church in China in the sixth and seventh centuries. But then it was repressed and probably didn’t disappear entirely but shrank. In the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, there were Catholic bishops in China. Again, in the 16th century, particularly with the Jesuit missions, they expanded but then were repressed, and again, didn’t disappear but didn’t grow. We’re now historically in the fourth major era of expansion and presence of the church in China.
But, never before has it reached this level, as I say 80, 90, 100 million Christians, including Catholic, Protestant, legal, illegal altogether, it’s something like that. And its growth over the last 30 years has been amazing. It would have been about 1980 when a couple of million people started coming out of labour camps and prison camps. We’ve had, in China, the largest expansion of the church in world history. I’m not sure that will stop. The church didn’t grow under Mao because the repression was so severe. Churches were closed; pastors were given sentences of 20-25 years in labour camps, which crushed Christianity. Since then, there’s always been discrimination and some lesser persecution. But the church has grown through that. Now with Xi there is a major crackdown, but not yet at the levels under Mao in the Cultural Revolution of closing everything and imprisoning everyone. So, I think the church will continue to grow in China. Twenty years ago, many people in the Politburo, China’s leading group, argued about this, and one faction said Christians are very good citizens; I mean, they work hard and tend to be honest. If we leave them alone, they don’t challenge the government. So why don’t we just leave them alone? That position may come to the fore again; we don’t know. But I hope and pray and expect that the church in China will continue to grow and may indeed be the largest in the world by 2050. China is already the place in the world where there are more Christians in church on any given Sunday than anywhere else on the globe.
Let’s talk about the US. Significant tensions between religious and non-religious groups have recently emerged. I’m thinking about the abortion debate, the recent Roe v. Wade ruling, LGBTQ rights, public education, and the incident involving the arrest of a Catholic pro-life father of seven. What is your opinion of religious freedom and specifically the situation of Christians in the United Stated? Can you imagine a case that happened to the former Finnish Minister of the Interior occurring in America?
Okay, let me take the last one first. The case of the Finnish politician who primarily objected to her Church, the Church of Finland, taking part in a gay pride parade when the official teaching of the Church did not support gay marriage. She was prosecuted, but she won the case. Still, the prosecution will continue go after her and others. That’s unlikely to happen in America simply because, in the United States, the stress on freedom of speech is much stronger than it is in most of Europe. It is very much ingrained in American law. But the US is an increasingly secular society. With changing ethical stances around abortion, around the nature of marriage, now very much around questions of death and killing and what’s called assisted suicide.
Now, we see changing views on what constitutes a man or a woman, and claims that that’s indeterminate. So many of these things are now changing.
In the world, the religious freedom aspect comes to the fore, which is that if people do not support these changes, they will suffer.
I’ve tried not to say persecution yet. But we’re going to suffer harassment, discrimination, and firing. The issue is that people are being forced to support these secular views. It’s not enough to say I disagree with these things, but society’s open, so they’ll go ahead and do it. No, you must say it’s okay. It is not enough to allow it—you must support this new ‘morality’.
I’m reminded of the movie ‘A Man for All Seasons’—how St Thomas More dutifully obeyed the king but was executed for not supporting the King’s claim to be head of the church.
One famous case, it’s still with us, is of a man who bakes very elaborate cakes in Colorado; he was asked to bake a cake for a gay wedding. And he said no. He was dragged up before a tribunal after being accused of discrimination. And one point is that the people who wanted the cake were already customers. People said he refused to serve gay people, but he had served them for years. He would happily bake them a birthday cake,but would not celebrate gay marriage.
The idea is you’re being forced to support something. Similarly, with the question of transgenderism, you’re being required to say that this is a good thing, that being a man or a woman has nothing to do with biology. Not the notion of live and let live but, ‘No, you have to say it’s good’. If you deny it or do not go along, you’re hurting other people. That’s an offense, and you’re discriminatory. You may face legal consequences, like the cakemaker, the photographer, or many others. Or you may be fired from your job, on grounds that you are creating an unsafe environment if you don’t go along with this view. So, you cannot work here anymore.
While the US government is unlikely to directly censor what you say, there is a good chance that Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Google will kick you off. So, you will get practically censored but not directly by the state. Very dominant, monopolistic private corporations are silencing many people on this. One of the significant threats here is the demand that Christians, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, and others conform and say that this is okay. Countless pressures on that. That’s the biggest single concern I see.
The term ‘Christian nationalism’ is currently on the rise in the US. Where did it originate from and why is it primarily used negatively?
I think it’s mainly being used as a political ploy. You have had in America people we could call Christian nationalist groups, small, very fringy, who want the US to be declared a Christian state or something of this kind, who often teamed up with some white nationalist groups. So, you’ve heard of that fringe.
You have the second phenomenon that some of these people were part of the attack on the Capitol on 6 January 2021.
Because one person raised a cross, many people said this was a Christian nationalist uprising.
So, just to clarify a few things. Firstly, there are those fringe groups. That’s true. Secondly, in terms of the attack on the US Capitol, there have been studies coming out about precisely who these people tended to be; you had the mob of about 10,000 people, most of whom just milled around on the outside, didn’t go in, took selfies of themselves. Most of the people there were not Christian nationalists.
And then there were the more right-wing militant groups who stormed the Capitol, groups like the Proud Boys and so on, who don’t seem to have any connection with ‘Christian nationalism.’ So careful studies now say Christian nationalism doesn’t appear to be a particularly important feature of those attacks.
A third thing is that the meaning gets stretched. So, if someone emphasizes Christianity, say, like a friend of mine, Mark Hall, who’s an expert and has written several scholarly books looking at Christian influences in the American founding, then that sort of work is also called Christian nationalism, being equated or lumped in with militias or right-wing racist groups. You take the term Christian nationalism and stretch it to cover everything that deals with the relation of Christianity to the shaping of the United States. I think the historically accurate stress on the formative role of Christian beliefs in the development of the United States, and Canada, and the Western world, is often treated as the same thing as militias. It all gets lumped together.