Christianity Flourishing Where Communism Once Thrived

Lela Gilbert on Christianity in Central and Eastern Europe

Adjunct Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom

In Western Europe, as in the United States, an increasingly hostile attitude has chilled the atmosphere for believing Christians.

Just days ago at Oxford University’s Balliol College, a Christian group was banned from the school’s Freshers’ Fair, an annual event offering first-year students a chance to network and socialize.

According to the Telegraph, Freddy Potts, vice-president of Balliol’s Junior Common Room committee, said that if a representative from the Christian Union attended the fair it could cause "potential harm" to “freshers.”

“Historically,” Potts declared, “Christianity’s influence on many marginalized communities has been damaging in its methods of conversion and rules of practice, and is still used in many places as an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism."

Potts went on to say that preventing the Christian Union from attending the fair “may be a way of helping to avoid making any students feel initially unwelcome within Balliol.”

Eventually, due to an outcry against anti-Christian discrimination, wiser heads prevailed. A backlash of students called Potts and his colleagues’ position a “violation of free speech.” The Church of England, meanwhile, reminded the school that Christian Unions represent a substantial number of students of faith across the UK.

The Christian Union’s booth was still blocked this year. But it was later guaranteed a place at Balliol’s Freshers’ Fair in years to come.

This small but telling example anti-Christian hostility represents a shrill hostility darkening universities, workplaces, and media outlets throughout the West. Thankfully, at Oxford, the protestors didn’t have the last word.

Anti-Christian attitudes and activities also did not get the last word in a more unlikely setting: Russia and Eastern Europe, the former heartland of Soviet and Marxist atheism.

According to a recent Pew poll “Christianity across Central and Eastern Europe continues grow and flourish a quarter of a century after the fall of the Soviet Union and atheistic Communist regimes.”

The Christian Post explained the number of Orthodox Christians has rose dramatically between 1991 and 2015: In Russia, from 37 percent to 71 percent; in Ukraine, from 39 percent to 78 percent; and in Bulgaria from 59 percent to 75 percent.

The disavowal of atheism and a subsequent return to traditional Christian beliefs is making dramatic changes in Eastern and Central European countries.

This was profoundly expressed in Hungary in mid-October, where a significant event was held: the country’s first-ever governmental conference on behalf of persecuted Christians.

Today’s Hungary is an avowedly Christian state, and at the conference its political leadership declared themselves firmly aligned with suffering believers.

On Oct. 12, National Catholic Register reported that Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán challenged 300 representatives from 30 nations to “free [themselves] from the shackles of political correctness, speak the truth, and face the facts about the violent persecution of Christians.”

In Orbán’s introductory speech, he protested the “forced expulsion” of Christians from parts of the Middle East and Africa as “crimes” against the people and communities concerned that also “threaten our European values….The world should understand that what is at stake today is nothing less than the future of the European way of life, and of our identity.”

Nina Shea, senior fellow and director of Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., who was invited to speak at the landmark conference, congratulated Hungary for standing up unapologetically for persecuted Christians. She called for more governments to imitate Hungary, and criticized the UN for, among other things, “diverting money away from minorities who have suffered the most grievously.”

Perhaps it is unsurprising that those who struggled painfully for nearly a century under the iron hand of dictatorial rulers and ruthless police states are deeply empathetic; they grasp the helplessness of people trapped in Syria, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, and beyond. They know well the worst of times — the years spent in inhumane circumstances without hope of rescue.

Many Eastern Europeans understand — far better, it would seem, than the West’s elite professors, ill-informed students, and jaded journalists — the indignity endured by those who cannot speak up for themselves.

So it is that Hungary’s Christians, along with several hundred attendees at their recent conference, have decided to make the best of their freedom — to speak out on behalf of endangered fellow believers.