In a recent pastoral visit to our Holy Name Parish and School in Ketchikan, I spoke to a dentist, a parishioner of ours, who makes regular mission trips to poorer countries to provide dental care to the neediest of the region. As he was speaking I rejoiced in his charitable and generous spirit. Then he informed me that he may have to cancel this summer’s trip to Africa because of the widespread persecution of Christians. He said, “I’m not going to risk my life — I just may cancel or go elsewhere”. At this point, I thought about his family. He continued, “Bishop, the killings are rampant and brazen — in fact, if they identify a priest, they will simply put a gun to the back of his head.” I listened to his words in horror.
A month ago Patriarch Tawadros II, the spiritual leader of the largest Christian community in Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox Church, met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in Rome. Members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who make up about 10% of the estimated 82.5 million inhabitants of Egypt, have been the victims of increasing violent attacks by Islamic extremists that have resulted in church burnings, abductions and rapes and killings. Just weeks before his visit to Rome, extremists attacked worshippers at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark in Cairo, the seat of the Patriarch, and attempted to set the church on fire during a funeral service for those who had been killed in an earlier attack. Government leaders, who condemned the violence, have been criticized for repeated failures to protect the Christian minority or apprehend and prosecute violent extremists.
Outbreaks of mob violence or terroristic attacks against the Christian minority in nations such as Egypt, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Mali and Saudi Arabia usually occur within the context of official and unofficial prejudice, hatred, discrimination and political exclusion that makes the members of the Christian minority second class citizens with few legal rights or recourse. On May 27 in Geneva before the United Nations Human Rights Council, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s Permanent Observer to the United Nations decried the serious violations of religious freedom and systematic attacks on Christians in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. He noted that Christians in these regions (as well as other minority religious groups) in addition to being killed and imprisoned, have been forced to flee their homes and their countries of origin. They have been subject to forced conversions and endured the destruction of their houses of worship. The young women of their communities have suffered rape and forcible marriage and their spiritual leaders have been abducted.
Further, Archbishop Tomasi stated that an estimated 100,000 Christians die yearly, worldwide, either directly or indirectly as a result of violence, imprisonment, mistreatment and discrimination. Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity which works in 140 countries believes that tragically, this is probably accurate. Christians die because of their religious affiliation in countries not only directly (as when attacked in their churches as has happened in Nigeria, Iraq, India, Egypt and Pakistan), but also indirectly, as a result of the hardships when forced to flee their homes as refugees. These hardships include the effects of mistreatment and torture while in prison or because of official or unofficial discrimination that limits their access to medicine and medical treatment or they endure employment that requires them to work in unsafe, unsanitary or dangerous conditions.
Here are some examples from over the past decade:
• In August 2008 in India’s Orissa state, security forces stood by while Hindu extremists burned down 4,640 homes, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions in several weeks of mob violence that left up to 500 people dead and rendered some 54,000 homeless.
• The pre-war Christian population of Iraq, estimated at about 500,000 has dwindled to about 150,000, as tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled the country. Violent attacks by gunmen linked to Al-Qaeda, such as the Oct. 31, 2010 attack on Our Lady of Deliverance Syrian Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad , which killed 58 worshippers and wounded 70, have only increased the exodus.
Everyone has the fundamental human right to practice their religious faith freely and without discrimination or violence. In justice, states have the obligation to safeguard the right of religious believers to practice their faith and to fully participate in society. No-one should be forced to choose between practicing their faith and risking their life, or their home or their livelihood. For this reason, regardless of your religious or philosophical beliefs, we should all be concerned about the rising tide of persecution against Christians in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. They deserve our solidarity. They should not be forgotten.