Would you believe Christians are the most persecuted religious group?

From a Canadian perspective – indeed, a Western perspective in general – the idea that Christians are particularly persecuted is hogwash, to put it mildly. But a new release from Pew Research Center challenges that. What’s going on here?

[Logo of Pew Research Center.]

Pew Research Center

Before we even start, let me address the immediate objections that the source is Pew Research Center. It’s true that Pew has close ties to Christian groups, and it is heavily funded by groups that openly push Christian agendas. It’s also true that Pew’s choice of what to research and how to present the results slants toward religion sometimes. But none of this makes Pew’s data all that dodgy. They may choose to research things that they think will interest Christians, but that doesn’t mean the results they get aren’t sound. They may choose to frame the results in their write-ups in a way that aligns with a Christian agenda, but that doesn’t mean actual results are tainted.

The new release was apparently prompted by a speech given by US Vice President Mike Pence , at the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians. Yeah, I know. In that speech, Pence made comments like:

The reality is, across the wider world, the Christian faith is under siege. Throughout the world, no people of faith today face greater hostility or hatred than the followers of Christ.

So it was basically your usual Christian persecution complex masturbation fuel. There are certainly problems with a sitting Vice President taking such a strong religious position in his official capacity, but that’s a problem for the Americans to deal with.

If you’re like most atheists, you probably almost tore a muscle eye-rolling at Pence’s comments. But Pew’s press release says the data actually backs him up.

The data referred to comes from a Pew report released , titled “Global Restrictions on Religion Rise Modestly in 2015, Reversing Downward Trend”. That report chronicled the frankly worrying uptick in oppression of religion, especially in supposedly free, Western nations.

So is it true? Are Christians really the most persecuted religious group?

Well… yes and no. It really depends on your perspective.

Christianity is the biggest religion

The first problem with that conclusion is that Christianity is simply the biggest religion, by quite a bit. Using Pew’s own data (, that estimated 2010 numbers), Christians make up 31.5% of the world. Second place falls to Islam at 23.2%. That gives Christianity a lead of 8.3%, which is pretty substantial.

[Pie chart showing the sizes of religious groups in 2010: Christians, 31.5%; Muslims, 23.2%; Unaffiliated, 16.3%; Hindus, 15.0%; Buddhists, 7.1%; Folk Religionists, 5.9%; Other Religions, 0.8%; Jews, 0.2%.]

So right off the bat, it shouldn’t come as any great shock that Christians are the largest persecuted group. They’re the largest group period. Even if they aren’t the group with the largest proportion of persecuted members, by dint of simply being so big, they can be the group with the largest absolute number of persecuted members. Hold that thought.

The other thing with Christianity is that it is, by a landslide, the most geographically spread-out group. With the second-largest group – Muslims – more than half, and almost two-thirds, of Muslims are concentrated in the Asia–Pacific region. If you throw in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, barely 2 or 3% of Muslims live elsewhere in the world.

[Bar chart showing data from: http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/ .]

Being less concentrated increases the possibility of persecution, because it increases the chances of being in some other religion’s “territory”. Or to look at it another way, if a religious group is highly concentrated, they are more likely to have large numbers in a small area, which gives them the majority in that area, which makes it less likely that they’ll be a persecuted minority.

So by the simple fluke of large numbers, sure, there can be more Christians living in places where they are being persecuted than other religions. But just because more Christians are being persecuted, that doesn’t necessarily mean Christians are more likely to be persecuted.

To see why, consider the following chart:

[Bar chart showing percentage of religious groups living in countries where their groups experience harassment: Jews, 99%; Hindus, 99%; Muslims, 97%; Others, 85%; Folk religions, 80%; Christians, 78%; Buddhists, 72%.]

As you can see, 78% of Christians live in a country where they are likely to face harassment. That’s bad… but it’s the second lowest on the list! 99% of Jews, 99% of Hindus, and 97% of Muslims live in countries where they’re likely to be persecuted. Heck, even 85% of “Other” live in countries where they’re likely to be persecuted… which includes all the unaffiliated (and without a doubt, if you pulled the unaffiliated out, they would be much higher than 85%). The only religion less likely to be persecuted is Buddhists, but see the charts above to note that they’re a small group (only 7.1% of the world total) that is incredibly concentrated (something like 99% are all in the Asia–Pacific region).

So you can see that it’s all a numbers game. Christians are much less likely to be persecuted than other religions when you consider the proportion of the group facing persecution… but slightly more likely when you look at absolute numbers.

Now, the million dollar question is: Which metric is more honest when considering which group is more likely to be persecuted?

My answer to that is: Pew and Pence are being dishonest. The correct measure is the proportion of the religious group likely to face persecution. That answers the question: “How likely is a randomly chosen ___ (Christian/Jew/Muslim/whatever) facing persecution?” Using the absolute numbers answers a different question: “How likely is it that a randomly chosen person is a persecuted ___ (Christian/Jew/Muslim/whatever)?”

The numbers include Christian-on-Christian persecution

As the Pew report itself admits:

Due in part to the large number of Christian-majority countries, Christians were actually harassed mostly in Christian-majority countries.

Yeah, really.

To really understand how this is possible, you have to remember that “Christianity” is not a religion. “Christianity” is a family of religions. (Same for “Islam”, etc..) And quite often the nastiest persecution by a religion is reserved for the closest heresies.

The release mentions Eritrea, where the dominant sect is Eritrean Orthodox Christianity, and where Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses face discrimination. A better-known example would probably be Russia, which is mostly Russian Orthodox, but in recent months has cracked down on Jehovah’s Witnesses. (They’re also persecuting atheists, natch, as is Eritrea, but that’s a story for another day.)

Sum up all the sect-on-sect antipathy, and what falls out of it is that Christians make up the largest group of persecuted believers in the world… but most of them are being persecuted by other Christians.

What the release doesn’t mention, but which I would be very curious to see, is not how likely each religious group is to be persecuted, but rather to be the ones doing the persecuting. That, of course, doesn’t fit with the martyr-complex narrative Christians want to hear, and thus we’re not likely to see it coming from Pew. But it would be interesting to see!

Some iffy cases of “Christian persecution” are included

In the release, to add to examples of a Christian majority sect persecuting a Christian minority sect, an example of a Christian majority sect being persecuted is given. That example is the case of Nicaragua, which is majority Catholic.

Here’s how the persecution is described by Pew:

For example, in Nicaragua – where an estimated 59% of the population is Catholic – the Catholic Church reported that the government monitored its emails and telephone conversations and granted financial support for churches based on the clergy’s political affiliation. The church also reported that the Nicaraguan government used Catholic traditions and symbols when promoting political agendas, saying it undermined the church’s religious authority.

Gee, that sounds pretty bad, sorta. But… let’s dig a little deeper.

[Flag of Nicaragua.]

Nicaragua

The relationship between the Catholic Church and Nicaragua is… complicated. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when there were waves of Marxist and socialist revolutions against the various US-backed dictatorships across South and Central America, the Catholic Church usually sided with the dictators. That was the case in Nicaragua.

But the revolution prevailed, despite US interference (that later landed them with convictions in the International Court of Justice), and a party representing the people took power in the first free election. The Catholic Church quickly switched sides, and condemned the former dictators. But then, right-wing forces took over in the next election – once again, amidst accusations of US interference… and the Catholic Church switched sides again! And then, a few years back, evidence of serious corruption caused the collapse of the US-backed government, and the re-election of the left-wing former revolutionary government… and the Catholic Church switched sides… again!

So now we have a Nicaraguan government that is staunchly Catholic to the point of enforcing Catholicism by law and by government power (which the Pew release cagily fails to mention)… however… one that has been repeatedly burned by the Church itself.

Armed with that background knowledge, let’s look closer at that alleged persecution. The two accusations in the release are that the government spied on the Church, and that it used Catholic traditions and symbols when promoting political agendas, … [undermining] the church’s religious authority. Now, the spying thing is probably true… but that’s not really oppression of the Catholic religion; it’s clearly just targeting the Church as a political entity.

The second charge deserves a bit of clarification. What the Nicaraguan government has done is flaunted its Catholicism, while using its power to force Catholicism on the population. The “problem” here is just that it’s done so without the Catholic Church telling them to do it; they did it on their own. Is that repression or harassment of Catholicism? Or is it just flipping the bird at the Church as a political entity? The Nicaraguan government has also celebrated Catholic events and holidays, but has organized state-run celebrations, which people were required to attend, and thus which pulled people away from the Church-run celebrations of the same events. Again, one can understand how that pisses off the Church… but can anyone call that repression of the religion?

All-in-all, while all of that is certainly horrifying to a secularist’s ear, and all certainly not what you’d expect from a free society… is it really plausible to say that it’s oppression of Catholicism?

You may argue that it is, and that’s fine. But that interpretation seems a bit stretched to me.

All a matter of perspective

So are Christians really the most persecuted religious group? Well… that depends. If you squint a bit, and use some dodgy definitions, then sure, you can conclude that Christians are the most persecuted.

But you have to ignore the fact that while Christians may make up the largest numbers of the persecuted, they are not the most likely to be persecuted. Not even close. In fact, Christians are among the least likely to be persecuted. There are just more Christians overall, and they’re more spread out, so even though they are less likely to be persecuted, they have the numbers to give them the “win” in the end.

You also have to ignore the embarrassing fact that most Christians are in fact persecuted by other Christians. Which, of course, also implies that Christians are probably most prodigious persecutors out of all religions. That kinda takes the lustre off the victim card people like Pence want to play.

All persecution is bad, of course. Even if Christians are the most guilty when it comes to being the persecutors, that doesn’t justify even a single Christian being the victim of persecution. But if one is actually serious about solving the problem of religious persecution in general, as Mike Pence is clearly not, then one has to get a clear sense of perspective. The reality is not what most Christians want to hear, and certainly not what would play well to the crowds Pence would like to pander to: Fretting about persecuted Christians is going to do less to reduce the level of religious persecution in the world than stopping Christians from persecuting.

5 thoughts on “Would you believe Christians are the most persecuted religious group?

  1. As always Indi, your ability to tear the data down to its nuts and bolts and get at the real story is fantastic and appreciated.

  2. There is also the danger of hiding run of the mill social persecution behind the mislabel of religious persecution.

    Sounds a slight bit less concerning if you say it’s just a bunch of religious nutjobs beating each other over the head with sticks as opposed to the whole apparatus of international socio-economic structure/system.

  3. Words matter. A lot. They guide policy decisions. And small shifts in language can cause a profound shift in action. In this case the widespread “persecution” of Christians demands a much more vigorous intervention than if Christians are simply being “harassed”.

    The PEW study measures so-called “harassment” (which includes at the extreme end a small amount of “persecution”) of Christians. But even in your informative and skeptical summary, you use “persecution”, “persecuted”, and similar terms 58 times, while you use “harassment” (the thing that PEW measured) only 4.

    Most of PEW’s reported “harassment” is pretty benign (e.g. your Nicaraguan example) but it is the severe “persecution” that is easiest to visualize(e.g. attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood or Hutu Christians wholesale massacres of Tutsi Christians).

    For some reason in many (most?) summaries of studies like this, the major but weak word (in this case “harassment”) is overwhelmed by the dramatically compelling word (here “persecution”). This is particularly true in headlines and first paragraphs, which are the only things most people read.

    This is a trick that has been used deliberately by authoritarians and ideologues for millennia, and unwittingly reinforced by others. Cast the net wide for numbers, and then conflate the vast majority of minor offenses under the compelling term used for the most extreme and harmful actions.

    Or to put it more generally, hide a big lie within a tiny truth and hope that others unwillingly follow your misdirection.

    • I fail to see any meaningful distinction between “harassment” and “persecution” in this context. Generally speaking, the distinction between the two is not a matter of “drama”, but simply that “persecution” refers to systematic harassment rather than isolated incidents of harassment. That distinction isn’t really relevant here since the context is systemic discrimination, which implies right from the start that it’s systematic.

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