Documentary: Christian students talk self-censorship, death threats & why sharing faith is not optional

By Carolina Luciano Burgos |
Self-censored documentary screenshot
Nine students – seven countries – one concern: “Self-Censored” explores the situation of Christian students across Europe who perceive different degrees of difficulty when sharing their faith and convictions at their universities. The film presents the genuine and honest conversation of nine students who identify a similar experience across their denomination and national differences: Most of them tend to withhold some of their thoughts and opinions or even hide their faith out of fear of conflict, rejection, or other consequences. | YouTube / OIDAC Europe

A study recently published by the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe (OIDAC) in 2022 revealed the reality of self-censorship, most prevalent among college students. A documentary film based on this study launched in January 2024. In it, students, who were identified only by their first names, admit to keeping quiet when they believe they should’ve spoken in name of their faith.

Students from Belgium, England, France, Vienna, Spain, Hungary, Germany, Ireland, and Peru were interviewed about the extent to which self-censorship affects them. They came from different denominational backgrounds, and found common ground in their self-censorship experiences. Together they explored what they can do to promote “an atmosphere that enables free expression.”

Why do people self-censor?

Many of the students interviewed said they censored themselves for social acceptance. Mary, from Northern Ireland, found herself in a classroom with an atheist professor who made “horrendous claims” about the God of the Bible.

“I didn’t want to stand up in a lecture theatre of 300 other people who were laughing and finding it funny,” said Mary. “It felt like me against the world, and I felt I very much couldn't speak out.”

Valeria, from Peru, started censoring herself when she began university. “I remember not hiding it, but I definitely wasn’t … open about it,” she said. “I was already in a mindset of, ‘I’m just not going to say anything.’”

Yusuf lives in Hungary but was born in Nigeria. He explained that his upbringing in Nigeria plays a part in his self-censorship. 

“The situation in … the northern part of Nigeria, has been getting a bit bad,” said Yusuf. “If there’s an event that could spark some outrage, then that’s when the Christians usually have to fear for their lives.”

Markus, from Vienna, said, “I got the feeling [Christianity is] a big topic in society. It’s a big topic at university, but it’s so difficult to talk about it.”

Threats and intimidation

In Spain, Mafe was the only student who expressed views against abortion when one of her professors brought up the subject in one of her classes.

“[The professor] was trying to create a conversation … but it turned around to an attack,” she said. “After that conversation, because I was the only one, I received a death threat. [My classmate] told me, ‘I know the subway you take every day, so be careful’.”

After this, Mafe had to be escorted home by police officers for a month. “They always made me feel so bad about sharing my beliefs or my way to live,” she said. “I learned over time to just be very careful of what I was going to say.”

Mary managed the social media for the pro-life society at her university. She would constantly receive death threats and malicious comments from users with graphic descriptions of how they would harm her. “I’m more than happy to share my beliefs, but if it’s going to result in personal attacks like that … It’s very difficult to face, walking around campus [with] people knowing who you are,” she said.

Valeria believes these behaviors have been normalized to a certain extent. “I guess [these things are] not seen as an aggression.”

Challenging stereotypes

Sixtine, from France, said she once had a roommate who was an atheist. At the end of their year together, her roommate said that Christians were nothing like she initially thought.

“I think [my roommate] thought we were really extreme in our ideas, [and] political ideas, in our anything,” said Sixtine. “While living with me … she discovered it wasn’t the case at all.” 

Sara, from Germany, thought Christians would be boring. “I never thought I would crash into it and love it!” she said. Now a follower of Jesus, she loves her faith, and she shares about it with others.

“I’ve [had] very good experiences when you have the courage to just speak out,” she said, “which is a completely different perspective than the world has now in some areas.”

Yet the students also recognized that Christians can also unfairly condemn and judge others.

“We need to be able to call out situations or call out people that we feel sometimes take advantage of Christianity as … to be able to get votes,” Yusuf stated. “They may not properly represent what we stand for.”

Mary explained, “In the UK, you might see people that hold signs on the streets that say, ‘If you don’t follow us, you’re going to hell’, which I don’t think is helpful for anyone.” 

“Let it be between you and your God.”

Many students explained feeling like their faith had to be something discussed only in the private spheres.

The first few years after he came to Hungary, Yusuf struggled. “… I thought there was an unwritten law somewhere that people just felt like, ‘If you believe, then let it be between you and your God and leave us out of it,’” he said. “I felt like in Europe, everyone preaches the message that religion is an individual thing,” stated Yusuf.

Markus explained that it’s easier to share Christian convictions in one-on-one conversations, but “if you talk in a big hall or in a discussion group, it’s getting very difficult.”

“I’ve been at the same workplace for 16 months and I don’t think they know I’m a Christian,” said Wouter from Belgium. “I don’t hide it, I just don’t talk about it.”

Valeria disagreed with this approach. She believes it’s unacceptable for the Christian identity.

“Today people [might say], ‘Yeah, believe whatever you want but just keep it to yourself’… ‘Your artistry and your faith are separated. You do this, and your faith is on the side’ and I think that’s a no-go.”

These students see their Christian faith as an integral part of who they are as people rather than something to keep private.

“It’s the best way to be who I am,” said Sixtine.

What can be done?

The students in the study were also asked what they would change to create an atmosphere where Christian beliefs do not need to be set aside.

“We’re living in a world full of different people, different religions, different cultures,” said Sixtine. “The important thing is to know who you are. As soon as you know who you are, then it’s so important to be able to discuss [it] with other people.”

“Sometimes we talk about what we believe to be true, but don’t really understand why we believe it,” said Wouter.

Overall, these students understood that no matter the circumstances, following Christ could still bring negative situations.

Daniel, from England, quoted George Orwell who said, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people things they do not want to hear.” He believes that “one of the best things students can do is be more courageous about what you want and be outspoken about what you want in your university.”

Yet he also explained that living fully as a Christian, or making that conversion, could come with negative consequences even if you are not completely rejected. “Potentially you might lose some friends who think you’ve suddenly become bigoted or whatever.”

Other students agreed pointing out that the polarized social atmosphere classifies some views and beliefs as offensive which decreases free expression. This makes debates on controversial topics less likely to take place and increases self-censorship.