The pope’s imminent visit to Israel will rightly attract much attention. But two largely untold stories about global Christianity have the capacity to shake the world order.
The first is the persecution of Christians in the developing world at the hands of Islam. Boko Haram, which has kidnapped more than 250 Christian schoolgirls in Nigeria, is merely one of many Islamist groups increasingly terrorizing and killing Christians across the developing world.
According to Open Doors, a nondenominational Christian group, about 100 million Christians are being persecuted in more than 65 countries, with radical Muslims the main perpetrators in 36 of them.
In Egypt, Coptic Christians have been attacked, murdered, and driven out. In December 2013, at least 1,000 Christians were killed in the Central African Republic. In February this year, jihadists bombed churches in Zanzibar as “dens of non-believers.” In March, members of Somalia’s al-Shabaab militia publicly beheaded a mother of two girls and her cousin after discovering they were Christians.
The same month in Nigeria, more than 150 Christians were butchered in a massacre in Kaduna; this week, hundreds died in bomb attacks in the Christian areas of the towns of Kano and Jos.
In Sudan, Christians have been hacked to death for refusing to convert to Islam or burned alive inside their churches.
Last week, a pregnant mother was sentenced to death there for allegedly converting to Christianity. In Eritrea, more than 3,000 Christians are in prison. In Iran, Christians are being jailed and thousands have fled. There are countless other examples.
Remarkably, however, Western mainstream churches largely ignore this carnage amongst their worldwide communion.
Instead, they appease Islam and vilify Israel, the one country in the Middle East where Christians are safe (but that’s another story).
One wonders whether the pope will speak out clearly against this Christian victimization when he meets representatives of Islam on his visit to what he calls the Holy Land. He reportedly wants to heal the fissure between Jews and Palestinians. Very nice; but surely his priority should be stopping the slaughter of his own flock.
Yet here’s the really extraordinary thing. Across the developing world, including countries where Christians are being persecuted, the churches are experiencing phenomenal growth. If trends persist, Europe’s Christians will be overtaken by those in Africa, Latin America and Asia, most of the growth driven by the astounding expansion of Pentecostal, Charismatic and other evangelical churches.
In his book The Next Christendom; The Coming of Global Christianity, Philip Jenkins writes that, since 1965, the Christian population of Africa has risen from a quarter of the total to about 46 percent.
In Nigeria, Christian rallies draw between one and three million people. In Ethiopia, the church has some 25 million members. Churches are expanding in Niger, Burkina Faso, Toga, Benin, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Mali, Chad.
In Latin America, Christian numbers have exploded; they will reach an estimated 640 million by 2025. In Rio de Janeiro, no fewer than 700 Pentecostal churches opened during a three-year period in the early 1990s. The Jotabeche Methodist Pentecostal cathedral in Santiago, Chile, can seat 18,000 people.
In Iran, of all places, the churches are experiencing the fastest expansion in the world with estimated annual growth rates of more than 20 percent. According to some sources, the number of Iranian evangelicals has grown from a few hundred in 1979 to more than five million today.
It’s even happening in China. Mao expelled Christian missionaries and predicted that “colonialist” Christianity would disappear. Yet from a total of 900,000 then, Chinese Christians have now grown to at least 80 million.
One reason for such growth is that people who have suffered from repressive regimes are turning to a religion which (thanks to its Jewish roots) underpins freedom and human rights. The more barbaric Islamic regimes become, the more people turn to Christianity. Just a few years ago Algeria, for example, had around 1,500 Christians; under its repressive Islamist government, their numbers have swelled to nearly 200,000.
The striking feature of these new Christians is that, because they are evangelicals and thus take very seriously what is written in the Bible, they devoutly support Israel.
Algerian Christians say they pray in secret for Israel and the Jewish people. Last year, Nigeria refused to vote automatically with the Palestinians on statehood in the UN Security Council.
Westerners may feel uncomfortable about these new churches since they emphasize healing, prophecy, visions, ecstatic utterances and the supernatural. But they are amongst Israel’s best friends in the world. And their amazing growth has major global implications.
In the West, Christianity is in decline. Even in the US where the churches are still relatively strong, the culture war is being lost to the forces of galloping secularism. With the Islamic world exploiting this civilizational vacuum, Britain and Europe are steadily being Islamized. At same time, the developing world is becoming Christianized. The face of Christianity is thus changing color, from white to (its original) brown and black.
This growth is a huge opportunity for Israel because these new Christians are free from the poisonous hostility towards it of the Western churches. Encouragingly, Israel has come to view these new allies as a strategic asset, but it needs to invest in them much more, helping improve their economies and living standards, to cement this friendship and use it to transform Israel’s leverage at the UN.
It’s not true that time is running out for Israel. Time is running out for the West. It’s not true that Israel is friendless.
It has many friends. Just different ones. And it has to nurture them more carefully.
This pope seems also to be a friend, apparently wanting to put relations between the Vatican and the Jewish people onto a different footing. The ugly protests at his visit from ultra-Orthodox hooligans are sickening. Let’s hope Israel hugs Pope Francis close.
Melanie Phillips is a columnist for The Times (UK).