As for the larger [Syria] conflict, the Christians are caught in the middle. The churches have not allied with the Assad regime. They have no armed protector, inside or outside the country, and they have no militias of their own. But they are not simply suffering collateral damage. They are being deliberately targeted in a religious purification campaign.
It’s important to note of the agressors in these cases that some are Islamic and some are Hindu. This is a reminder for those who think that only one religion is the cause of the world’s troubles and we should also, gratefully, note that the large majority of adherents to both faiths have never committed an act of religious violence in their lives.Each case tells us something about its respective country as well. Fr. Murad’s death in Syria is a reminder of how few good options there are left for our policy towards the country. Years of US inaction as the country deteriorated now likely means little hope for many Syrian Christians. The White House is likely to be haunted by the specter of many more victims. Iraqi Christians were caught up in crossfire in the Iraq war when Bush was in the White House; Syrian Christians are now getting crushed during the Obama administration, and as US policy in Syria now consists mostly of handwringing over the deepening horror, things seem unlikely to improve.India is a different story. For 1,000 years, Indian Hindus have felt pressure from Islam, and there are hundreds of millions of Muslims today in lands that were once largely Hindu. Christianity has an even longer presence in India, but during the British Raj there were fears that British missionaries used their political connections with the country’s rulers to gain converts in dubious ways. The appeal of both Christianity and Islam in India is often to lower castes and to tribal peoples; Hindus often believe (with greater or less reason in particular cases) that missionaries offering inducements (food, health care, education) to converts are essentially forcing helpless people to change their religion in order to live. Much of India was under Islamic rule before the British came; Hindus have long memories and they are determined to hold on to their faith and their values. Pakistani-supported Islamic terrorism has deepened a sense of Hinduism under siege.For many, Hindu religion and Indian national identity go together; Gandhi wanted a secular Indian state, but not all Hindus then or since agreed with him. The BJP, one of India’s two leading political parties, is rooted in India’s nationalist and religious right; while some BJP leaders and members are mostly interested in economic reform and modernization, others are linked, sometimes closely, to radical Hindu-nationalist groups.The Hindu right has a violent side and these are not the first such attacks. Anti-Christian violence reached a fever pitch in 2008 in Orissa, and only slowed down after the BJP lost local elections. India’s next government could be a BJP-led one, and some of the political allies of the religious extremists will have some significant influence. Even if the mainstream media continues to downplay stories of Christian persecution (which it probably will), religious media in the US is widely read and follows this story much more closely. Our foreign policy cannot be insulated from the political consequences of stories like this one, and if the pace of attacks increase, India’s friends in Congress and the State Department will have a harder time keeping relations on track.Americans like to think that modernization and economic progress make religious and ethnic tensions fade away. That may be true in the long run, but often the stressful social and political changes associated with rapid economic development make intercommunal tensions worse. It was only after the Industrial Revolution was well under way, for example, that waves of nationalism and ethnic hate flamed across Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.India is an even more complicated and diverse country than the United States, and Indian society is passing through some revolutionary changes. Both Indian and US governments will have to think carefully about how religious tensions inside India can be kept from complicating a bilateral relationship of the greatest importance to both.To some, it will seem odd and anachronistic that 21st century American diplomats will be dealing with issues of religious persecution. But history grinds on, and humanity’s religious and tribal affiliations don’t seem to be fading away.[Image of Saint Elias church in Qusayr courtesy Getty Images]