The drama of intolerance

According to a report by the Dutch-based Open Doors Foundation, the persecution of Christians worldwide is still a problem that deserves great attention. In 2019 more than 3,000 Christians were killed because of their religious beliefs. In addition, large numbers of Christians in dozens of countries suffer from other forms of persecution or from serious obstacles to the practice of their faith. These can include imprisonment, torture, being ostracized from the community, a ban on gathering for church services, open evangelism, as well as economic obstacles and thwarted careers. North-Korea once again ranks first among the wordt offenders. China continues to score very high, while Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Sudan and Pakistan also remain near the top of the list. (For a ranking of the fifty worst culprits, see Sometimes special incidents reach the world press, such as when the Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death, was given permission to leave the country. And we haven’t forgotten how in 2014 some 50,000 (Christian) Yezidi’s tried to save their lives on the Sinjar Mountains in northern Iraq, fleeing the terror of Isis.

As a Christian I naturally feel very directly concerned when the lives of fellow Christians are in danger, or when they are unfree in the ways they can profess and practice their faith. For Seventh-day Adventists this interest is particularly strong, because Adventists have often been (and sometimes still are) a specific target of deplorable measures in intolerant countries. But it is important to remember that it is not only Christians who are affected by intolerance. Unfortunately, there are still horrible (and sometimes deadly) expressions of anti-Semitism–not only in the Middle East but even in the so-called civilized countries of the Western world.

Muslim minorities are also persecuted in a range of countries. This is the case, for example, in India, but also in Myanmar, where the Rohingya are in such dire need that they felt they had no option but to flee their country on a large scale. The situation is such that a number of nations, led by The Gambia, have even accused Myanmar of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The Chinese measures against the Uighurs also justifiably arouse a great deal of indignation throughout the world. An estimated one million men and women from this ethnic Muslim minority are now locked up in re-education camps. And this does not exhaust the list of examples of large-scale religious terror.

Unfortunately, we also have to conclude that groups within a particular religion can persecute each other, as for example the Islamic Shiites and their Sunni brothers and sisters! But before we, as Christians, judge these groups too harshly, we do well to remind ourselves that for centuries there has been hatred, and often deadly violence, between Catholic and Protestant Christians.

And, going a step further, we must recognize that intolerance goes far beyond physical persecution. Feelings of aversion and intolerance, as for instance towards Islamic immigrants, can poison social relations. It is not so long ago that Catholics and Protestants were at each other’s throats in Northern Ireland. The relationship between Protestants and Catholics has not yet been normalized everywhere in the world, and various Protestant groups also have great difficulty respecting each other.

Even within church communities there is often still a considerable way to go when it comes to tolerance. Incomprehension is frequently the cause. But whatever the background, we must not forget that intolerance (and even outright persecution) starts with feelings of antipathy and aversion that easily turn into hate and hostile behavior. Freedom of confession and practice of belief is a fundamental human right, which becomes increasingly important as the world further globalizes. However, the exercise of that right does not stop at the contours of a religion or religious community, or even at the walls of a local mosque, synagogue or church!