The visit of Pope Francis to Egypt last week (April 28-29) was an act of personal courage. It also testified powerfully to his desire for religious tolerance. His visit reminds us of two things. The first — the need for mutual respect among people of varying beliefs who seek God — is obvious. The second is rather different, but no less important.
Here’s the first thing.
In meetings with both Muslim and Christian audiences, the Holy Father spoke eloquently against religious fanaticism. On a local level, Egypt’s Muslims and Christians often live in peace. But the nation’s ongoing political turbulence has a painful streak of religious hatred. This year, Francis’s urgent words came just weeks after a wave of bloody violence against the nation’s Christian minority.
The bombings of Egyptian churches on Palm Sunday were uniquely vile because of the sacredness of the season. But they weren’t isolated incidents. Harsh treatment of Christian minorities has scarred the Middle East for a very long time. But it’s often downplayed or overlooked because of Western corporate and foreign policy interests.
Saudi Arabia bans Christianity completely. In Iraq, much of the ancient Christian community has fled due to Muslim extremist attacks. And Turkey, a NATO ally, still denies one of the worst genocides of the 20th century: the deliberate killing by Turkish authorities of between 1 million and 1.5 million Armenian Christians in an ethnic and religious cleansing campaign from 1915 to 1922. (Unlike many other world leaders and to his great credit, Pope Francis has named this genocide in his past public comments. The tragedy is captured in the film drama The Promise, released on April 21 and now playing in theaters.)
With Egypt, a quick news search shows a thread of anti-Christian violence going back many decades. Recent history includes attacks on churches, the murder of priests and laymen, the abduction, rape and forced conversion of Christian women, inadequate police protection, and chronic harassment. While most Egyptians are Muslim, as much as 10 percent of the population remains Christian 14 centuries after the Islamic conquest.
Most Egyptian Christians belong to the ancient Coptic Orthodox Church founded, according to tradition, by the Apostle Mark. A small minority are Coptic-rite Catholics.
Of course, violence against Christians in the Middle East does not license prejudice (or worse) against Muslims and other minorities in our own country. If we press for religious tolerance abroad, we need to show it ourselves here.
But the scope of anti-Christian violence does demand a much louder voice from American Catholics in defense of persecuted Christians overseas. It’s good that so many of our citizens today speak out so forcefully against anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. But it’s troubling when many of those same citizens, along with many of our news media, seem indifferent to the scale of bitter anti-Christian discrimination in other nations, many of them Muslim-dominated.
This unhappy fact is what makes efforts like “Under Caesar’s Sword” so vital. “Under Caesar’s Sword” is a joint global research project by the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, the Washington D.C.-based Religious Freedom Institute, and Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Research Project.
Christians are now the most widely persecuted religious community in the world. “Under Caesar’s Sword” exists to chronicle the scope of that persecution and the Christian response to it. It’s an effort I strongly endorse, and I encourage Catholics around the Greater Philadelphia region to visit the project website and share its information with their families, friends and parishes.
But as I said at the start, the papal visit to Egypt reminds us of two things. Here’s the second and quite different thing.
Whether history judges the record of Catholic discipleship in our own country as a success or a failure finally depends on us — bishops, clergy, religious and laypeople alike — and how zealously we live our faith; how deeply we believe; and how much apostolic courage we show to an unbelieving world that urgently needs Jesus Christ. We American Catholics have far more freedom to live and preach our faith than Christians in nearly any other nation. And God will hold us accountable for how we use it.
We live in a confused time, with deep anxieties even within the Church. But we’ve been here before. The “Nicene Creed” we recite every Sunday in our worship, the statement of belief that fundamentally expresses our faith, emerged largely from one of the most hotly contested gatherings in the life of the Church: the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. It was a meeting marked by fierce conflict between leaders of orthodox Christian belief and leaders of the Arian heresy — a heresy that appealed to many of the learned, comfortable and powerful.
The Council of Nicaea could have failed. That council, and all the long history that followed it, could have turned out very differently. It didn’t because of one man – a young deacon and scholar (and later bishop) named Athanasius.
Earlier this week, on May 2, we celebrated the feast of this man we now remember as one of the greatest bishop-saints in history. His episcopal See was the city of Alexandria, now in modern Egypt. And his life is a lesson for all of us in the years ahead.
Athanasius fought for the true Catholic faith at Nicaea and throughout his entire career. Arian bishops excommunicated him. Emperors resented him. His enemies falsely accused him of cruelty, sorcery and even murder. He was exiled five times for a total of 17 years and survived multiple assassination attempts. And in the face of it all, he became the single most articulate voice defending the orthodox Catholic faith, which is why even today we remember him as Athanasius contra mundum: “Athanasius against the world.”
He had courage. He had the truth. He fought hard for it. He never gave up. And in the end, the truth won. The faith we take for granted today, we owe largely to him.
Now, that’s my idea of a Catholic believer fully alive in Jesus Christ. And if bishops, their priests and their people choose to live that same apostolic courage once again — beginning here, now, this week — then a new dawn for Christian life really will rise in the Church as a light to the nations.
Archbishop Chaput served as a commissioner with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, 2003-06.