“Daddy, why do people throw stones at us?” Hassan* asks his father. He’s is a five-year-old boy in North Africa. “Why don’t the people like us, what have we done wrong?”
Hassan’s father took him home after the pair were pelted with rocks.
His father had to explain to Hassan that they are hated because they follow Jesus. Hassan probably doesn’t know that he is one of millions of Christians who experience persecution simply because they claim the name of Christ.
But his simple question, in the framing of a five-year-old mind, is one everyone asks:
“Why don’t the people like us?”
Why do people around the world hate Christians so much? Why are there thousands of deaths, arrests, sexual assaults and other crimes against followers of Jesus each year?
A spiritual battle with physical scars
Of course, the battle many Christians suffer is a spiritual one. “Our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the powers and principalities that drive this flesh and blood,” says one Open Doors partner in South Asia, paraphrasing Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:12. Undoubtedly, there’s a spiritual reality that guides much of the opposition against Christians around the world.
That spiritual reality is revealed tangibly in many ways. With that in mind, here are five of the main reasons that Christians are persecuted:
1. Jesus is competition for power
Think about a dictator like Kim Jong Un. His rule over North Korea is based on the fact that he has absolute power. No one is above him or his family; no one can question him; no one can have any allegiance to anyone other than to him.
But if someone becomes a Christian, that position is filled by Jesus. He is our King, our ultimate allegiance and His name is above all others. For Kim or any ruler like him who thrives on absolute power, the idea of people having an allegiance that is greater than their power is a terrifying prospect. Jesus as King and ruler means that the dictators who rely on fear and domination are, in fact, small and weak. And no one—especially the mighty—wants to be reminded how small they really are in comparison to God.
2. Christianity challenges the surrounding culture
In every culture, following Jesus means challenging culture. A group of peacemaking people who seek justice, love mercy and orient their lives around God’s Word are naturally going to look a little … well, different!
But this can also lead to significant persecution.
In places like Vietnam, some people who belong to rural tribes are expected to participate in cultural rituals, like ancestor worship or sacrifices to idols. But when someone becomes a Christian in this setting, and refuses to follow the cultural traditions, it puts a target on their back. They and their family are persecuted because they suddenly follow Jesus, not the culture.
In some cultures, it’s fine to be a private Christian … but as soon as you tell others about Jesus, you can come under intense pressure. And that doesn’t always mean public and overt witnessing; even something like telling a friend about your hope in Jesus can land you in trouble. God asks every Christian to “go and make disciples” (Matt. 28:19); that might look a little different from place to place, but it’s always enough to challenge any laws that require Christians to keep their beliefs private and hidden.
3. Doing good means opposing the bad
In places like Colombia or Mexico, Christians, especially church leaders who are also often community leaders, are targeted because they boldly oppose organized crime and corruption—following Jesus means they stand for Jesus and truth. Standing up for justice when the surrounding culture is unjust means that persecution will soon follow.
In India, when a person from a lower caste—that ancient system in which you are born into your social class with little hope of rising—becomes a Christian, it often means the caste system suddenly holds less power. India officially has outlawed the caste system, but in actual practice the caste one is born into is still a powerful factor in peoples’ lives.
Worshiping with people of different castes means not despising anyone born into a lower caste—and it means not offering greater deference to people in higher castes. In India, Christianity upsets an unjust system, and the loss of the status quo brings persecution and opposition from people who want things to stay the same.
4. A new identity is dangerous
In many places around the world, religious faith is tied up in questions of ethnicity, culture and family. When a person converts to follow Jesus, they are doing more than adopting a new belief system; they are often viewed as having turned their backs on their families, their friends, their communities and even their nation.
In places like Somalia, becoming a Christian is dangerous because of threats from the government—but it might be even more dangerous because families and villages will harass and even kill new believers. In many places around the Middle East, if a conversion is found out, it can literally be a death sentence. In Malaysia, converting from Islam to Christianity is illegal—and even after conversion, the government will still regard any children the new Christian has as Muslim .
Being a new Christian in countries all over the world carries with it risk and suffering. Accepting the gift of Jesus means that something is bigger than family, tribe or nationality. And that new identity is viewed with suspicion, hatred and violence in places where it’s extraordinarily difficult to follow Jesus.
5. Jesus is competition for other beliefs
In many places, following Jesus is viewed as more than even a social or cultural threat—it’s seen as a direct challenge to the dominant belief system of faith. In Pakistan, Christians are regarded as second-class citizens because Christianity is viewed as inferior to Islam. Christians in South Asia can be accused of blasphemy against Islam without any proof, leading to mob violence. The assumption is that anyone who belongs to a minority religion, like Christianity, is automatically guilty of openly challenging the surrounding religion.
This is also why so many countries have anti-conversion laws. In India, many states forbid the conversion from Hinduism to another faith. In many places dominated by Sharia Law, conversion from Islam to Christianity is forbidden and illegal—the discovery of converts can lead to legal consequences.
And in still other places like northern Nigeria, Christians are viewed as outsiders and as targets by Islamic terrorist groups like Boko Haram. In their minds, Christians are lesser people because they are not Muslim. So they are fair game in the warped religious war that Boko Haram believes it’s fighting. It’s the same reason ISIS killed so many believers in Iraq and Syria during their reign of terror—if Christians aren’t really human because they serve King Jesus, why shouldn’t they be killed to prove a point?
‘All things new’
These are just five of the reasons that Christians are targeted and hated around the world. There are, of course, many more—and combinations of reasons. But Christianity is viewed as a threat by so many who fear the idea of Jesus as the ultimate giver of life.
Christians may be hated; but they are not alone. They have you and I and a Family of believers all over the planet, and Jesus commands us to love them (John 13:34). Through prayer and support, we have the opportunity to stand with believers when they are attacked, when they encounter discrimination and when they are rejected by their families, government and communities. Jesus is a King above all other kings, and His Church provides a family and a community that is above all other families and communities!
And, we can take comfort that we serve a God who is “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5)—a God who promises that though we will encounter suffering, he will wipe away every tear (Rev. 21:4) and restore a Kingdom of Peace. When our hearts break for the boy who wonders, “why do they hate us?” we can also remember that the God the boy follows has promised to rescue him—and us—forever.