The long, harrowing, bloody history of persecution of Christians
In St. John’s Gospel, Christ told His apostles that if the world hates them, it hated Him first. He then said: “But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated Me without reason.’” (John 15:25) In his recent book Hated Without a Reason, Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo, the author of more than two dozen books and a long-time champion of persecuted Christians, tells the remarkable and harrowing story of Christian persecution through the centuries.
It is extraordinary that a work of little more than 220 pages can cover a subject so vast, particularly as it also recounts how, when, and where Christianity spread in the first place. It is almost three books in one. In addition, it explains not only why Christians were persecuted, but why they were willing to endure persecution.
As is well known, Christianity was born in a haemorrhage of blood – first Christ’s, then almost all His apostles’. Roman and Islamic Christian persecution is fairly well known, but Sookhdeo’s accounts from India, Africa, south-east Asia, China and other parts of the Orient may be news to many. Some of the treatment is sketchy because so little is known of what actually took place due to the paucity of historical sources from early ages and far-flung places.
A tour d’horizon must of necessity be sweeping, yet the book is studded with fascinating historical details. Did you know, for instance, about the disappeared Christian church of Arabia, which once contained eight dioceses? Sookhdeo provides archaeological evidence and intriguing photographs of it.
As this illuminating book demonstrates, hatred without a reason ironically turns out to be hatred with a reason – not surprisingly related to the reason that Christ was killed in the first place. He was accused of blasphemy.
Sookhdeo dispassionately explains the ways Christianity threatened the homogeneity of many of the societies into which it was introduced – beginning, of course, with the Roman Empire. Christians refused to sacrifice to the emperor. If Christ was God, no one else could be. That included ancestors. Any society based on ancestor worship (e.g. Korea, Japan, China) was bound to feel endangered by Christianity and its teaching of a direct relationship between the individual person and God, unmediated by family or state. This revolutionary revelation eventually overthrew the ancient world in its entirety, but not until a lot of blood was spilled.
Once Christian societies were established in what came to be called Christendom, other forces, like the Vikings, came from outside not only to loot and plunder, but to extirpate Christianity because of a profound animus towards it.
Not only pagan and other religions persecuted Christianity, but so too did the “isms” of the 20th century – fascism, Nazism, communism, Maoism, Islamism, and secularism. In a deft way, Sookhdeo demonstrates that in each case the “isms” were really substitute religions. In a brilliant turn of phrase, he calls Mao Tse-tung “Marxist word made flesh.” These few words express the true pseudo-religious character of Maoism (and you shall have no other gods before him) far better than many lengthy tomes.
Also included in the lineup of “isms,” in what may be another surprise to readers, are Buddhist nationalism and Hindutva (India).
The chapter on “The Long Twentieth Century” constitutes a quarter of Hated Without a Reason. The emphasis seems appropriate, as it encompasses the horrific persecutions under the communists and Nazis, as well as others. John Paul II’s Commission for the New Martyrs of the Great Jubilee claimed that the “20th Century has produced double the number of Christian martyrs [than] all the previous 19 centuries put together.” (Sookhdeo points out that no one is really sure of the figures.)
In the first part of the chapter, the account of the persecutions of the Armenians provides perhaps its seven most horrifying pages. It is a subject about which Sookhdeo knows a great deal. He edited the book Surviving the Forgotten Armenian Genocide. A grim statistic gives the overall perspective on the fate of Christians in the area of Ottoman Turkey. In 1900, they constituted 32% of the population. Today, says Sookhdeo, “it is thought to be less than 0.2%.” The recent catastrophes in Iraq and Syria have brought about similar Christian depopulations in these Arab countries.
Christian persecution is still happening. The bloodbath extends well into the 21st century. Sookhdeo quotes Philip Mountstephen, Bishop of Truro, who said in 2019: “the figures suggest that 80 percent of religiously motivated discrimination and persecution worldwide is directed against Christians, and I think it is very simple to say they have not received 80 percent of the notice…”
Both this book and Patrick Sookhdeo’s lifetime of work to document and alleviate Christian persecution have been dedicated to changing that.
In this even-handed book, the author does not hesitate to point out how quickly Christians were to use the tools of oppression once they themselves became the rulers. This, of course, included the notorious Christian-on-Christian violence of the religious wars of the Reformation period and beyond.
As a partial solution to this unfortunate propensity, Sookhdeo posits the requirement of religious freedom for all, based on the foundation of the imago Dei inhering in each person. However, can that foundation be secure in cultures that do not recognise the imago Dei in man in the first place? The continuing hemorrahage of Christian blood today gives the sorry answer to this question. In the face of it, Sookhdeo counsels hope, and calls for courage and the powerful witness that suffering for one’s faith brings. As this book amply testifies, it was, and is, the victims of Christian persecution who were, and are, largely responsible for its extraordinary spread. It turns out that love without a reason trumps hatred without a reason.
Robert R. Reilly is the director of the Westminster Institute and the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind.
You can purchase Hated Without a Reason, by Patrick Sookhdeo here.