The following unsigned editorial appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of Catholic New York, archdiocesan newspaper.
America’s Catholics have been rightly focused on protecting their right to religious freedom in the face of mounting threats — most notably the Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring contraceptive coverage in employer-provided health insurance even if doing so violates the employer’s religious beliefs.
But that struggle to protect a cherished freedom here at home should not keep us from joining our brothers and sisters in faith around the world, where Christian practice, or even Christian identity, can result in persecution that’s almost unbelievable in its force and scope.
As New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan noted in a November speech to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “If our common membership in the mystical body of Christ is to mean anything, then their suffering must be ours as well.”
In mid-December, more than a dozen Orthodox Christian nuns and three orphanage workers, kidnapped by extremists in Syria, were still in captivity, and two archbishops and a priest kidnapped previously remained missing.
In other examples: In Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania where Christians and Muslims have co-existed peacefully for years, violence against Christians escalated dramatically in 2013, with Catholic churches being burned and priests being shot.
In multiethnic Nigeria, anti-Christian violence is on the upswing, including church bombings on our holiest days, and in the predominantly Christian Central African Republic, armed Muslim rebels have forced tens of thousands of Christian farmers to flee their homes.
In India, the 2008 Orissa massacre left hundreds of Christians murdered, thousands displaced and more than 400 churches set afire; in China, Catholic bishops and religious leaders are subject to state supervision and imprisonment; and in Pakistan, a suicide bomber attacked a Christian church in September.
Pope Francis is among those who have called for attention, and prayers, for religious freedom throughout the Middle East. In places like Iraq, Syria and Egypt and other areas of the Holy Land, where Christian communities have flourished for centuries, violence and persecution in recent years, like the kidnapping of the nuns, has driven away thousands of families who will likely not return.
After meeting in November with bishops from the region who pleaded for support, the pope said, “We cannot resign ourselves to thinking of a Middle East without Christians, who for 2,000 years have professed the name of Jesus.”
At his general audience Sept. 25, the pope appealed to all of us to examine our consciences: Are we indifferent when we hear that so many Christians in the world are suffering, he asked, or do we feel as if it’s a member of our own family? “It’s important,” the pope said, “to look beyond one’s own fence, to feel oneself part of the church, of one family of God.”
Cardinal Dolan, in his talk to his fellow bishops, offered some ideas about what the bishops, and all Catholics, can do to help.
First, he said, bishops can encourage intercession for the persecuted, in private and in liturgical celebrations, to develop a “culture of prayer” and to help shape a sense of what’s going on in places where Christians are persecuted. Bishops can also help raise awareness among the faithful, using their columns, blogs, speeches and pastoral letters, and by encouraging pastors to preach on the subject and to facilitate study sessions and activist groups in their parishes.
He also encouraged support for organizations such as Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Catholic Relief Services and the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. Finally, the cardinal said, the bishops can insist that our country’s leaders make the protection of at-risk Christians abroad a foreign policy priority for the United States.
Blessed Pope John Paul II and the new Archbishop of Canterbury have both spoken of modern-day victims of Christian persecution as “martyrs.”
That such a word is still a present-day reality, with regard to Christians or to any believer, is shameful. Whatever we can do to erase it, we must do.
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