Last Sunday’s concluding episode of “The Bible” on the History Channel finished off a 10-hour miniseries that contrasted in interesting ways with a recent think-tank study about the actual treatment of the active faith it depicted.

First, it was remarkable that a series on a somewhat obscure cable channel at times registered more viewers than any other show on TV at the time, cable or broadcast.

Second, it also was striking that it was a series about faith.

The first five hours depicted some major events of the Old Testament, the core of historic Judaism, while the second focused primarily on the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus.

Regrettably, the first half focused more on the surface details of events than on their deeper meanings.

And many of the Old Testament scenes varied from the Bible’s versions, with the most significant — and deplorable — lapse being the depiction of God as a distant deity whose actions and judgments were given scant context or rationale.

There was less surface-skimming in the five New Testament episodes, although they too sometimes treated Scripture’s words with less than total fidelity.

However, at least the major themes of the Four Gospels were reasonably well-depicted.

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion,” however, about which Pope John Paul II said, “It is as it was,” remains unsurpassed as a depiction of Jesus’ final hours.

Despite the flaws of the History Channel series, one has to credit the husband-and-wife producer team of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (the “Touched by an Angel” star who portrayed Mary this time around) for a good try at updating older biblical epics.

(One story says that when they first proposed the idea to Hollywood, they were told to “try to tell it without mentioning Jesus.”)

They also have a novel that was No. 159 on Amazon this week, and DVDs in many languages are planned for worldwide distribution, with the hope that the series will become an evangelistic tool to help the world’s 2.2 billion Christians, already the world’s largest and fastest-growing religious group, expand their numbers further.

Christianity, however, has been in the news lately for less-happy reasons than a cable-channel extravaganza. While that program used entertainment’s methods and venues for a serious purpose, Christians themselves got some ominous and sobering news about religious liberty in a study released late last year by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religious and Public Life.

That study, titled “Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion” (www.pewfo rum.org/Government), said that “Restrictions on religion rose in each of the five major regions of the world — including in the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa, the two regions where overall restrictions previously had been declining.”

It continued, “Because some of the most restrictive countries are very populous, three-quarters of the world’s approximately 7 billion people live in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion, up from 70 percent a year earlier.”

The study measured abuse, including acts of violence, both by governments and by nongovernmental social groups, and came to a conclusion that may surprise some people and dismay others: The world’s most-abused religious people in the four-year period of the study (which ended in mid-2010) were Christians.

In fact, in answering the question, “Who were the victims?” the study found that over the four years covered by the report, Christians were abused in 139 nations, Muslims in 121 (including many Muslim-majority nations), Jews in 85, Hindus in 30 and Buddhists in 21.

And the situation isn’t improving. The “percentage of the world’s population living in countries where government or social hostility is about the same as in previous studies is 67 percent, but 32 percent live in areas where it is getting worse. Only 1 percent live where the level of abuse is declining.”

Where is abuse the greatest? “Among the world’s 25 most populous countries,” the report said, “Egypt, Indonesia, Russia, Burma, Iran, Vietnam, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nigeria stand out as having the most attacks on religion as of mid-2010 when government restrictions and social hostilities both are taken into account.”

China, where government restrictions on religion are stringent, ranks very low on social restrictions, so it didn’t make it onto that list. And North Korea, where any form of religious freedom is forbidden, wasn’t ranked because the study was based on specific incidents of abuse, and detailed information about that brutal, isolated dictatorship is almost nonexistent.

Interestingly, the United States rated special mention in the report, because of recent examples of heightened governmental and social hostility to various religious groups in enough cases to be rated “significant” by the compilers.

So, even as a TV series based on Scripture draws unexpected attention, Christianity itself faces violence and other forms of hostility in many places. Where will it all end?

God only knows.

 

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: [email protected]