A papal foundation called Aid to the Church in Need recently examined the reality of religious persecution around the world, and it concluded that not only is Christianity “the world’s most oppressed faith community” but also that “genocide and other crimes against humanity” threaten the very existence of the church in major countries and regions. How difficult is it for this to sink in with most Americans?
It really concerns me that most Americans don’t understand or acknowledge that anti-Christian persecution is a reality in so many parts of the world. We hear the “old” adage all the time: “Out of sight, out of mind.” Adages are “old” because they are true. If an atrocity does not affect us personally, then we can compartmentalize its effects and simply move on to the next story, TV show, movie or football game. Jesus did not teach anything like “Out of sight, out of mind.” Rather, he calls us every day to join in solidarity with the oppressed. The adage should be, “The harm being done to you may be out of sight, but we will offer you our prayers and our material support because you are our brothers and sisters; you are children of God.”
Is it tough to absorb the findings of Aid to the Church in Need?
It is difficult to read some of these reports because, as an American, I grew up in a country in which religious freedom has been a cherished and fundamental right. Religious freedom is enshrined in our Constitution. Religious freedom also was a major concern of the Second Vatican Council. The Council fathers issued an important document called “Dignitatis humanae,” which declared that the human person has a fundamental right to religious freedom. In recent years, we’ve seen an erosion of religious freedom even in the U.S. – battles over conscience rights in which doctors would not be able to opt out of medical procedures that run contrary to their religious beliefs or battles over churches being forced to offer insurance coverage for procedures they find morally wrong. But what is happening in China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Eritrea and other countries is an affront to human dignity – and religious freedom – on a scale that is difficult to fathom. In terms of the sheer number of people involved and the gravity of the crimes committed against Christians, we know that persecution of Christians today is worse than at any other time in history. The statistics are difficult to come by because we don’t have transparency in those countries and we don’t have people who can make those reports, but the range of Christian martyrs is estimated to range between one new martyr every five minutes and one every hour.
What specifics have you heard about anti-Christian persecution?
The report by Aid to the Church in Need indicates that intolerance to Christianity is increasing in China and North Korea. The Chinese government is clamping down on priests it considers dissident, and it has also ordered the removal of crosses and other religious symbols from church buildings. The president of China has described Christianity as “a foreign infiltration.” North Korea has a “Songbun” social stratification system, which determines a person’s access to necessities such as food, education and health care. It classifies people using 51 categories, and the lower a person scores on the scale in those categories, the more that person is classified as “hostile” to the regime. Identifying yourself as a Christian knocks you down in the pecking order. China has indicated it may implement a similar system. In Syria and Iraq, the situation for Christians is dire. The mass exodus of Christians from Iraq has threatened to close one of the world’s oldest churches. ISIS and other Islamic militant groups have committed genocide in Syria and Iraq. In January 2017, a Christian was seized by ISIS for failing to continue the Islamic “jizya” payments – kind of like protection money – that are imposed on Christians. When he couldn’t pay because he had no income – he had been injured in a bombing – the ISIS forces clubbed him and tied him hand and foot on a cross in a solitary cell. He escaped when another bomb blast caused his captors to flee. In Syria, the Christian population has plummeted from 1.7 million to 500,000 – a two-thirds drop in five years. Jihadists bulldozed parts of St. Elias Monastery in Syria, which dates back more than 1,500 years. In Mosul, Iraq, in 2016, ISIS fighters blared out the following statement on loudspeakers throughout the city: “We offer (Christians) three choices: Islam, the Dhimmi contract involving payment (of the jizya Islamic tax), and if they refuse this, there is nothing but the sword.” Governments have not stepped in to stop the genocide and bring the extremists to justice, which violates the “UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” In India, there has been increasing hostility toward Christians under the far right Hindu government of Prime Minister Modi.
What can we do?
We need to educate ourselves, first of all. I would encourage Catholics to go to www.cruxnow.com and search for John Allen’s article, “U.S. Catholics wonder what bishops are doing for persecuted Christians.” We need to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters and also demand that our elected leaders raise this issue with the countries perpetrating or fostering this persecution. We cannot let economic or strategic ties stop us from advocating for religious freedom for those who are “out of sight, out of mind.”
Questions for Archbishop Aymond may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.