As Chairman of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a Catholic charity dedicated to helping the persecuted Church, plenty of material lands on my desk depicting atrocities against Christians. I have also had many opportunities to meet with people who have witnessed these crimes.
This past month, I spent an afternoon at ACN headquarters in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with the Maronite ordinary of Syria, Bishop Elias Sleman. He described the Muslim crimes against Christians that have driven members of his flock to mountain hiding places, where they are barely subsisting.
In general, very little has been reported by the mainline media or documented by contemporary historians about Christian suffering during the past century. The Italian journalist Francesca Paci has conceded that as far as the fate of Christians in Iraq, Algeria, and India, “We ignore too many things and even more indefensibly, we pretend not to see many things.”
One notable exception is Robert Royal’s trenchant work, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, published in 2000 at the time of the celebration of the new millennium. As for twenty-first century atrocities, we are fortunate to have the newly published, The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution, by the Catholic reporter, John L. Allen, Jr.
Mr. Allen points out that the word “war” has in recent times been used too freely to promote various causes, i.e., War on Women, War on Christmas. In his judgment the correct usage means, “facing [a] situation with the necessary sense of urgency.” And because 80 percent of acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians, Allen holds that there is a compelling urgency for talking about a war on Christians.
His book does not deal with religious liberty issues confronting American and European Catholics, but actual “threats to life and limb faced by Christians in other global neighborhoods.” The book succeeds at dispelling the notion that anti-Christian violence is “rare and exceptional.”
Since the turn of the century, advocacy groups have estimated that 100-150,000 Christians have been martyred annually. Other forms of harassment Christians must endure, particularly in countries where they are a minority population, include societal discrimination, employment discrimination, legal discrimination, as well as suppression of Christian missionary activity and worship, and forced conversions from Christianity.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that between 2006 and 2010 some form of harassments against Christians occurred in 139 nations – approximately three-quarters of the world’s countries. Thirty-seven percent of them have “high” or “very high” restrictions on Christian activities.
This year the Open Doors World Watch listed the “most hazardous nations on earth in which to be a Christian.” The number one nation on the list of twenty-five was North Korea, followed by Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Iran. Eighteen of the countries on the list are majority Muslim.
The crisis is global, Allen concludes, because the top twenty-five are scattered throughout the world: “Six of these nations are in Asia, seven in Africa, eight in the Middle East. . .and four in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet sphere.”
Allen lists ten reasons why Christian persecutions are sky-rocketing; with two standing out as the root causes:
· Many countries are witnessing an increasingly strong connection between nationalism and religion, with Christianity, or some forms of Christianity, perceived as a threat to national identity.
· Christians, in some places, have become outspoken advocates for human rights and democracy, which means they’re seen as threats to authoritarian regimes – especially since Christians often can plug into international networks of support that most other religious groups don’t have.
One-third of Allen’s book is devoted to succinct descriptions of anti-Christian persecutions in twenty-eight countries located in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.
One report that I found shockingly revealing is on Columbia. I was unaware that the Vatican considers this Latin American country “the single most dangerous place on earth to be a church worker.”
Columbia, a nation of 46 million has vast lawless areas inhabited by members of drug cartels, para-military revolutionaries, and pagan tribes. What unites these disparate groups is hatred of Christian priests, ministers, and activists.
Rescue Christians, an evangelical watch group, monitors the violence in Columbia and has documented that:
· On average thirty pastors are murdered every year
· Over 200 Churches have been forcibly closed
· The Christian inhabitants of numerous communities have been driven from their homes and placed in refugee camps
· In 2011 and 2012, 60 percent of the total worldwide murders of human rights workers took place in Columbia.
Allen concludes his engrossing and readable book with a chapter entitled “What’s to Be Done.” First, he calls for public prayers similar to the prayers said after Mass by those of us over sixty in pre-Vatican II days for the conversion of Russia. The intent of those prayers established by Pope XI in 1930 was to ask that, “tranquility and freedom to profess the faith be restored to the afflicted people of Russia.”
Similar prayers for persecuted Christians worldwide, Allen believes, would remind Catholics that there are people suffering for the faith and “could help raise consciousness and steel resolve.”
He also calls for continued support by Catholics of organizations, like the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and ACN that are “suppliers of humanitarian assistance to suffering Christians.”
Finally, he calls on Catholics to “bring pressure to bear on leaders to make the defense of religious freedom a priority, and to give special attention to members of the world’s most persecuted religious body.”
At a 2011 London conference that dealt with the Christian crisis in the Middle East, the Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, bluntly asked: “Does anybody hear our cry?” For all Catholics who want to answer that cry, The Global War on Christians is must reading.