“Persecution is growing because Christianity is growing in the places where people are persecuted,” said Todd Johnson of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Speaking during a Dec. 5 media call, he characterized anti-Christian persecution as “growing fast.” His research estimates that one in five Christians, 500 million people, currently live in countries where Christians are likely to be persecuted. By 2020, their numbers are expected to rise to 600 million, 25 percent of the Christian population.
Johnson noted that the Christian population has significantly shifted from Europe and North America to the “Global South”: Africa, Asia and Latin America.
He also observed a change from 20th century anti-Christian persecution, which was predominantly state-based.
“Persecution in the 21st century is both state-based and society-based,” Johnson said. “Persecutors today represent a wide variety of ideologies: communist, national security state, religious nationalists, and Muslim majorities.”
However, Muslim majority countries’ persecution of Christians makes up only 25 percent of all such oppression.
Johnson is one of several scholars who will be taking part in the upcoming conference, “Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives.” The conference, which will be held Dec. 13-14 at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome, aims to highlight Christianity’s political, religious and economic contributions.
Timothy Shah of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, also participated in the media call, explaining that the Rome conference intends to “get behind the headlines” about global anti-Christian persecution and ask “fundamental questions” about trends in persecution and their impact on society and global stability.
“Wherever you look, there are headlines about this growing phenomenon of attacks (and) persecution against Christian communities, from Indonesia to China, to India, to sub-Saharan Africa and to the Middle East,” Shah said.
Also discussed during the Dec. 5 conference call was the situation of Coptic Christians in Egypt.
Mariz Tadros of the University of Sussex noted that Christians in the Middle East do not consider themselves “minorities” because “they see themselves as part of the fabric of society. They see their faith extending over 2,000 years to when the initial churches were built.”
She said that the recent political revolution in Egypt initially had an “extremely inclusive” goal to create space for all citizens irrespective of their religion, gender and class.
However, the rise of some Islamic political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood has correlated with an increase in “a very exclusionary discourse” that puts pressure on Christians, non-mainstream versions of Islam and other non-Islamic religions.
Christian churches in Egypt suffered intense attacks in mid-August, when over 64 churches were attacked or burned in one 24-hour period.
Tadros said the attacks on Christian churches are unprecedented in modern Egypt since its establishment three centuries ago.
Although religious intolerance is increasing, Tadros also noted a “strong resistance movement” against anti-Christian violence. She stressed that there were no instances of a Christian responding to violence with violence.
“This was extremely important in not bringing the country into a state of civil war,” she explained.
Coptic civil society leaders are advocating not only for the rights of Christians, but for all citizens irrespective of their religion, she said.
Tadros also lamented “misrepresentation” and “bias” in news coverage in the U.S. and other Western outlets that neglected the situation of Christians in Egypt.
“The plight of the Christians was completely uncovered,” she said. “It made people think ‘why is it some people’s suffering is considered more newsworthy than others?’”
She urged media coverage to convey local voices and civil society associations that are talking about persecution in their area. However, she also cautioned that such news coverage “does a lot of damage” when it is linked to the interests of the U.S.
Christianity is also growing in China, where there are still “very strict” restrictions that tend to burden Christianity more than other religions, said Fengang Yang of Purdue University.
He explained that the Christian population has passed a “critical threshold” of 5-10 percent of the population.
“The number of Chinese Protestants is going to grow dramatically,” he said.
According to the scholar’s projections, China could become the largest Christian country in the world at some point between 2025 and 2032, surpassing the number of Christians in the U.S. His projections, which are not certain, indicate China’s Protestant population might reach 255 million people.
Fengang said Christianity has become more visible in part through Christians’ prominence in disaster relief efforts, such as the response to the massive 2008 earthquake in Sechuan province.
Researchers say the Christian population is growing in regions that experience anti-Christian persecution, though this threatens their ability to contribute to societies.