Over the past century, some of the worst persecutors of Christians have been fanatically secular, driven by Marxist-Leninist ideology.
On Oct. 31, 2010, a dozen Islamist gunmen stormed the Catholic cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, in Baghdad. Striking during a service, they butchered some 60 priests and worshipers, notionally in revenge for insults to Islam. Ghastly as that crime might be in its own right, atrocities of this kind are quite commonplace around the world. Mobs sack churches in Egypt, Nigerian suicide bombers target worshiping congregations, and Eritrea has its hellish concentration camps for Christians. "Christians today," writes John L. Allen Jr. , "indisputably are the most persecuted religious body on the planet." So widespread and systematic are the attacks, he explains, that they amount to a global war, which he proclaims "the transcendent human rights concern" in the modern world.
Mr. Allen is by no means the first writer to address this phenomenon, but he may be the best qualified. He has through the years established himself as among the best-informed commentators on the Vatican and the state of the Roman Catholic Church, and hearing so many contacts recount stories of persecution and discrimination has naturally sensitized him to anti-Christian campaigns, and by no means only those directed against Catholics.
The range of stories he tells is staggering and offers a compendium of modern-day heroes equal to anything in the church's long history. We are awed by the story of Catholic Archbishop Christophe Munzihirwa, who died in 1998 trying to safeguard his flock from the mounting carnage in the wars engulfing Congo and Rwanda. Time and again, he stood face to face with oppressors, dictators and genocidaires, until finally some soldiers shot him in the streets.
Mr. Allen's main point, though, is less to report the persecutions than to ask in bafflement why the West seems to care so little about them. Yes, the American media report individual attacks, provided they cause some critical minimum number of fatalities—20, say—but they offer no sense of generalized mayhem, any awareness that the same groups and denominations are being victimized in India and Sudan, in Indonesia and Kenya. Would such silence prevail in the face of a global campaign against any other group, ethnic or religious?
In cruder hands, "The Global War on Christians" could easily have turned into an anti-Islamic rant. Yet while Mr. Allen devotes full attention to the evil deeds of Islamists in Iraq, Nigeria and elsewhere, he also refutes the myth "that it's all about Islam." Over the past century, some of the very worst anti-Christian persecutors have been fanatically anti-religious, commonly driven by Marxist-Leninist ideology. Islam, evidently, has nothing to do with the atrocities of the North Korean regime, which has made its country perhaps the worst single place in the world to be a Christian: The government has killed thousands of Christians and imprisoned tens of thousands more, in hideous conditions. Nor does Mr. Allen succumb to the common temptation to concentrate so much on Muslim misdeeds that we ignore savage and persistent persecutions by Hindu fanatics—the pogroms, the forced conversions, the mob attacks against churches, often committed with the tacit acquiescence of police and local governments.
Mr. Allen's list of other myths surrounding the war is just as thoughtful and has important policy implications. He is properly scornful of the common post-atrocity response that "no one saw it coming," that attacks like the Baghdad cathedral massacre are all random and unpreventable rather than "the predictable result of a mounting pattern of hatred." If law-enforcement agencies aren't expecting such crimes, and aren't seeking to prevent them, they should be roundly condemned. They have blood on their hands.
I can't speak too highly of Mr. Allen's work in general, or of this important book in particular. Having said that, I do differ from him in his basic definitions of persecution and martyrdom. Among the "myths" that he confronts, we find: "It's only persecution if the motives are religious." In some cases, he is clearly right: North Korea's leaders, for instance, hate Christians as they would hate any group, secular or religious, that seeks to maintain its independence of the state and that, moreover, has suspicious foreign connections. Yet the victims suffer as a consequence of their stubborn persistence in belonging to clandestine churches and confessing the cause of Christ. This indubitably qualifies as anti-Christian persecution. Yet other cases of persecution that he discusses are less clearly grounded in anti-religious sentiment or ideology, even when the victims are Christian.
Mr. Allen approvingly cites one study claiming that Christianity suffered 45 million martyrs in the 20th century alone, mostly due to Nazism or communism. That outlandish figure can only be substantiated if we include not just Christian clergy or lay activists but every community slaughtered for whatever reason, which happened to include a substantial Christian population. The number must, for instance, include the several million victims of the Soviet terror-famine in Ukraine in the 1930s, who were surely killed because they were of the wrong social class and ethnicity rather than from any religious motivation. They were persecuted people who happened to be Christians rather than people persecuted for being Christians, and that is a crucial distinction. Similar nuances affect other more contemporary cases that Mr. Allen cites as casualties in his global war. Motives really do matter.
Yet if even Mr. Allen can't offer precise figures as to the scale of the war on Christians, the reality of that global violence is undeniable. His study makes a profound impact on the reader. His narrative is by turns stirring, infuriating and heartbreaking.
Mr. Jenkins is a professor of history at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion.