The interactions between religion and society constantly pop up in media headlines worldwide, with Russia fully exemplifying the trend. Not long ago Foreign Affairs, a magazine with a solid reputation for political punditry, pinpointed a paradigmatic shift in the US when it wrote that “...whereas the past saw partisans of different religions (often with an ethnic tinge) face off in the political arena, today partisan divisions are not defined by denomination; rather, they pit religiously devout conservatives against secular progressives”. Moreover, the authors of the quoted piece argued that “to a degree not seen since at least the 1850s (and perhaps not even then), religious mobilization is now tied directly to party politics”.
It could resonate with certain audiences that B. Obama defended his tax and healthcare reforms with a reference to Christ's teachings. Nevertheless, shortly thereafter the US President went public with his backing of gay marriage, drawing fiery criticism from his Republican opponents many of whom felt that the position on the polarizing issue and the essentials of Christianity were impossible to reconcile.
The cover of a 2012 issue of Newsweek featured a photo of a complacent-looking young man in a crown of thorns, plus a slogan reading “Forget The Church, Follow Jesus”. Portraying the decline of institutionalized religion in the US and praising a basics-only brand of Christianity, the author of the corresponding article, A. Sullivan (b. 1963), maintained that “The crisis of Christianity is perhaps best captured in the new meaning of the word “secular.” It once meant belief in separating the spheres of faith and politics; it now means, for many, simply atheism”.
As for Russia, the fallout of the Pussy Riot incident continues to saturate the country's media across the spectrum. On the one hand, the call for a new Evangelization voiced by Pope Benedict XVI is being relayed from site to site on the web, and the broad attraction of the idea of a stronger relationship with God is impossible to deny. On the other, opposition to the reinstatement of religion in society occasionally prompts curious combinations: D. Agranovski, a communist, and A. Piontkovski, a liberal, glossed over the otherwise sharp political divide to jointly advocate the atheist cause at a roundtable debate titled “Should the church respect the rights of atheists?”.
In a case that drew ample coverage, Great Britain's Advertising Standards Authority sparred with the Coalition for Marriage over ads in support of the notion of marriage as an exclusively heterosexual alliance. Their author, a Christian blogger, faced an official probe, but it did not evade critics of the step that the regulator's chairman, Lord Chris Smith, is an outspoken proponent of the legislation of same-sex marriage and, according to a credible Pink News account, ranks among the top 30 influential gays in the British politics.
Developments in various parts of the globe echo with public reactions which, under certain circumstances, carry a substantial religious component. Far from the epicenters of the respective conflicts, crowds gathered in Paris to pray for Christians in Sudan and in London – for the Christians of Eritrea.
Strikingly, the political pastime - heated disputes, parliamentary votes on pertinent resolutions, and street rallies which may be in part religiously colored - parallel deafening silence on the genocide against Christians which is raging in the East, in the area stretching from Indonesia to Tunisia. These days, 75 out of every 100 lives claimed by violence stemming from religious intolerance are those of Christians. Raymond Ibrahim, a US researcher from a Coptic family with Egyptian roots, warns that “... the persecution of Christians in the Islamic world is on its way to reaching epidemic proportions“. He stresses that the mistreatment of Christians is growing into permanent practice even in regions which used to be completely problem-free in this regard, such as Mali. Ibrahim lists “hatred for churches and other Christian symbols; sexual abuse of Christian women; forced conversions to Islam; apostasy and blasphemy laws that criminalize and punish with death those who "offend" Islam; theft and plunder in lieu of jizya (financial tribute expected from non-Muslims); overall expectations for Christians to behave like cowed dhimmis, or second-class, "tolerated" citizens; and simple violence and murder” as widespread forms of the persecution of Christians.
Detailing a vast array of cases, Ibrahim, in particular, supplied documented evidence of mounting offenses against the Orthodox Church in Tunisia where “Church members are described as living in a state of terror”: “The abuse has gotten to the point where Salafis covered the cross of the church with garbage bags, telling the church members that they do not wish to see the vision of the Cross anywhere in the Islamic state of Tunisia”. The local bishop received a letter pressing him to either convert to Islam or pay the so-called jizya, a tax imposed on non-Muslims living under the Muslim rule. The situation deteriorated “so much that the Russian ambassador in Tunisia specifically requested the nation’s Ministry of Interior to protect the church”, reported Ibrahim.
At the moment, the international politics largely revolves around Syria, and, in a tribute to the recurrent theme, Ban Ki-moon recently cited “unacceptable levels of violence” in the country. The response obviously being warranted, the question arises whether the UN Secretary General is under an impression that the levels of anti-Christian violence which is spilling over Asia, Africa, and the Middle East should count as “acceptable”? Is there a chance that any of the world's leaders will finally urge the UN Security Council to give the issue a line on its agenda? Top powers never hesitated to exert pressure on Iran and Libya, and currently talk tough to Syria, but the plight of present-day Christians seems to leave the world unperturbed, with the problem largely going unreported and signs of alarm over a brewing humanitarian disaster or pledges of sanctions completely missing from the picture.
It should be further noted that Christians are not the only group targeted on a regular basis by the Salafis. Even geographically, the oppression of and violent outbreaks against the Shia Muslims have a distinct tendency to trail the attacks on Christian communities.
One must be hopelessly naive to expect that invectives churned out during roundtable meetings or declarations and resolutions condemning violence would somehow help shield Christians from the persecution. The forces responsible for it are notoriously unreceptive to gentle persuasion, and it would take serious measures to really make things revert to normalcy.