The Martyr’s Compass: Understanding the Motivations & Drivers of International Religious Persecution | Persecution

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The Martyr’s Compass: Understanding the Motivations & Drivers of International Religious Persecution

By Colton Grellier, JD

Why are Christians persecuted abroad?

The question may sound ridiculous to some. “Because Jesus said that Christians would always face persecution,” “Because Satan is opposed to the work of the Church,” “Because the Gospel speaks directly on matters of sin, absolute truth, and redemption.”

Perhaps it would help to narrow the question. Why are Christians specifically persecuted in China? Why are Christians specifically persecuted in Iran? Why are some Christians (but not others) persecuted in Russia? What does persecution in these countries have (or not have) in common?

The reality of modern persecution is that it is as diverse and varied as the dozens of countries where it is found. Each instance of modern persecution is the result of potentially centuries of unique political, cultural, ethnic, and religious context. And no country’s persecution will look exactly like another’s.

“Ok, so why does any of that matter? Persecution shouldn’t be allowed regardless of why it exists.” That is true, but specific situations require specific tools. You don’t use the same socket wrench for every repair on a car simply because it helped you change a tire. The same is true here. The solution for persecution in one country may not work in another (and in some cases, could even make the situation worse!).

If we’re going to meaningfully combat persecution anywhere in the world, we must know what “kind” of persecution is going on. We need to be informed of what is actually going on.

The Spectrums of Persecution

Fundamentally, all modern religious persecution today has consistent elements; there are the “motivations” of persecution and there are the “drivers” of persecution.

The motivation of persecution is simply that: what motivates persecution in any country? When you look any nation with persecution, past or present, the motivation of persecution usually falls somewhere on a spectrum between two points.

On the one hand, persecution can be motivated by a desire to exercise control. This is the case for countries like modern China and the former Soviet Union. Here, Christianity (or any minority religion) presents an alternative, opposing worldview to the powers at be, and the powers at be wish to stamp out any and all competition. Governments may dislike a religion simply for the fact that it is not theirs and they cannot control it.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have persecution that is religiously motivated. Here, persecutors see Christianity (or any minority religion) as an affront to their own belief system. The animosity can spring from causes such as jealously over loosing followers, loss of community influence, or a need to “stamp out heresy.” It can take many forms, but ultimately what fuels this form of persecution is one religious community deciding it cannot live peaceably with another. Two of the best examples of this are modern-day Iran and the Wars of Religion in 16th Century Europe.

So, for this first “motivation” spectrum, you have persecution on one side that is motivated by a desire to control, and on the other end, you have persecution that is motivated by a competing worldview.

Now, the second spectrum of persecution looks at the “drivers” of persecution; what are the actual forces carrying out persecution?

First, you have persecution that is driven by the state. Here, national, regional, local governments use their resources to persecute certain religious communities, such as in Saudi Arabia and Myanmar. This can take the form of judicial prosecution, harassment by secret police, excessive fines, regulating printed materials, and so on.

Alternatively, persecution can be driven instead by society. This is where everyday common people, rather than the government, are the primary actors. Pakistan and Nigeria are examples of countries where societal and cultural norms are the biggest factors contributing to persecution. This can take the form of someone threatening to accuse their neighbor of blasphemy to stir up a mob, refusing to sell goods to someone, ostracizing a person from local community life, or harassing another over someone’s beliefs.

So, for this second “drivers” spectrum, you have persecution that is driven by governments on one side, and on the other, you have persecution driven by members of everyday society.

The Martyr’s Compass

Now, countries will often feature attributes of both extremes and fall somewhere in the middle, that’s why these elements are best viewed as spectrums rather than absolute categories. To help visualize how these spectrums interact with one another, look at the chart below. Based on the popular political compass to that’s used to chart political leanings, this is the Martyr’s Compass.

(Quick note: the compass is a tool that is subjective to whoever is using it. Some people may place countries elsewhere on the chart based on their own knowledge. The listed countries are merely those I have previously done research on and felt comfortable enough to list. Also, this chart is not exclusive to measuring Christian persecution but of can be applied to any persecuted worldview.)

Going back to an earlier point, every instance of persecution will have both a unique motivation and a unique driver. With that in mind, a person can use what they know about persecution in a specific country to see where on both spectrums a country will land, thus giving a better understanding of what is actually going on.

Now, using this chart to visualize both spectrums, what can we see about persecution in China? We can see there we are dealing with an extreme case of control motivated, state driven persecution. Now what about Pakistan? Pakistan is instead a case of largely religiously motivated, society driven persecution.

So, if we meaningfully wanted to do something about persecution in these countries, do you think we would address persecution in China the same way would address it in Pakistan? Or might we use different approaches, different tools to achieve religious freedom in these specific instances?

This is honestly the beginning of a much larger conversation that needs to be had concerning international religious freedom in the 21st century. For now, my hope for the Martyr’s Compass is that it will bring an appreciation for just how diverse and unique persecution around the world is, and how we must fight it from a deliberate and informed position.


Colton Grellier is a research fellow at ICC who earned his juris doctorate from Liberty University School of Law. Graduating with a specialization in international law, Colton has since worked on and researched religious freedom issues such as the Nigerian Fulani crisis’s effect on women, the legal rights of the Egyptian Coptic Church as concerns places of worship, the role of the IMF and The World Bank in supporting human rights, and creating a comprehensive guide to applying for sanctions against human rights violators under the Global Magnitsky Act.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.

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