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Editorial: Who can you trust on the persecuted Church?

2 February 2017

Suddenly the world has woken up to the fact that not everything out there on the internet is true. The latest buzz word is “fake news”. Yet the sad truth is that even in the Christian world we frequently see news reports about persecuted Christians that either refer to events long ago as if they have just happened, or are greatly exaggerated, or in some cases simply untrue. There are still urgent prayer request emails circulating about the imminent capture of the Christian town of Qaraqosh in Syria by Islamic State (IS). In fact, Qaraqosh fell to IS in August 2014.   

There are also stories which appear deliberately designed to deceive Christians, such as an email prayer request currently circulating which claims that 20 churches have just been burnt down by Buddhist extremists in the Indian province of Olisabang – there is no such place – and that the extremists intend in the next 24 hours to destroy another 200 churches and to kill 200 missionaries. This story first surfaced early in 2010 and reappeared again (sometimes with a denial) in May 2012, April 2015, and April 2016.   

The impact of these stories reflects the new ability of millions of people to publish their own stories and comments on internet blogs. As a result, anything circulates, from a mischievous “joke” to subtle disinformation planted with the intention of deceiving millions and perhaps affecting national and international actions at the highest level. The impact is also due to a significant change in how Western society views “truth”. Until recently the strong influence of Judaeo-Christian values meant that telling the truth was just that – telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Now, in a post-modern world, truth has changed.

Twelve years ago a leading political journalist published a book called The Rise of Political Lying, in which he suggested that we now live in a “post truth” environment where “public statements are no longer fact based but … are constructed to serve a purpose”. That is exactly what we are seeing with the rise of fake news.  

There are several reasons that people circulate inaccurate, misleading or simply wrong news about persecuted Christians. Sometimes, it is because they are unwittingly forwarding false information, believing it to be true. 

Sometimes people exaggerate, or claim statistics which are simply unverifiable. Barnabas Fund has always avoided publishing statistics about the number of martyrs worldwide. In countries such as Saudi Arabia or Somalia or even Syria, and many a remote region of Asia or Africa from which news does not filter out, only God knows how many have died for Christ.

Some exaggerated claims are made innocently, as a result of genuine mistakes. The number of Iranian converts from Islam to Christianity has sometimes been calculated by adding together all the converts known to various missions and ministries, without taking account of the fact that their networks overlap so some individuals get counted two or three times. 

Other people, perhaps a little less innocently, may massage the figures more intentionally. In the case of Christian martyrs, some estimates have come up with huge figures because the definition of “martyr” has been fudged, expanding it to include “living martyrs” who suffer for Christ but have not been killed, or all those who died on the “Christian” side of religiously based wars and conflicts, irrespective of the circumstances.

Exaggerated reports of suffering may be deliberately published with good intentions to highlight the suffering of persecuted Christians. But they are still untrue, and it is wrong to publish them. Sadly, inflated figures sometimes appear to be used as a means to raise money for individuals or their ministries, as for example with Syria and Iraq at the moment. We must never let the world squeeze us into its mould.

However, we are also coming across people and organisations who appear to be deliberately planting fake persecution news. Fake news can be used as a weapon against Christians to discredit genuine reports of Christian persecution.

Even in the West we are seeing sophisticated attempts to stop us reporting on issues of anti-Christian prejudice and persecution. For example, we at Barnabas Fund periodically receive emails from people claiming that a story we published is not true and pointing to a website that claims to be an independent “fact-checking” site. When we investigate we invariably find the “fact-checking” website in fact promotes a particular agenda and seeks to prevent the publication of any alternative views. They dispute minor details in a story and then claim the whole story is a fabrication. In other words it is a sophisticated form of intimidation that works by threatening to falsely label views they disagree with as “fake news”. They are part of a range of threats to the reporting of Christian persecution in the West.

Recently there have been attempts to regulate this online jungle. The BBC has set up an agreement with Facebook to remove any news stories the BBC fact-checking unit says are untrue. However, it has long been claimed that the BBC itself has its own bias and sometimes gets things wrong itself. In fact, just this week Barnabas Fund wrote the BBC Director-General to correct a serious error in the 10pm TV news on Sunday

At Barnabas Fund, we have three guiding principles in our reporting of Christian persecution:

  1. We aim for scholarly accuracy. We cross check reports and use well documented and reliable sources whenever possible. But the ideal of 100% verification of every report is not realistic, unless infinite time is available, so a wise balance based on experience has to be struck. This means that sometimes we do get it wrong; when this is brought to our attention we publish a correction. 
  2. We seek to have a compassionate concern for people, especially for the persecuted Christians whom we exist to serve. Therefore we try to think through any possible negative impacts that publishing a story could have – and on occasions we choose not to publish.
  3. We seek to be faithful to Christ, who is the Truth.