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'We Can Make Supporting the Suffering Church a Priority' -- and We Should!

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This month may well mark a milestone in the life of the US Church: on Nov. 11, in his final Presidential Address to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York called on his brother bishops to make action on behalf of the suffering and persecuted Church around the world "a priority"--"not one good cause among others," as the Cardinal put it, "but a defining element of our pastoral priorities."

Important as the fight for religious freedom is in the US--in the face of the government requiring that employers cover birth control, for example--the Cardinal said, such battles "pale in comparison" to the suffering of Christians in countries such as China, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan and Nigeria. "If our common membership in the mystical body of Christ is to mean anything, then their suffering must be ours as well," the archbishop said.

We are greatly encouraged by and deeply grateful for the Cardinal's fiery speech. We salute him also for including Aid to the Church in Need among organizations preforming "heroic work" on behalf of the persecuted and suffering Church.

However, we also have to be realistic: the Cardinal's clarion call generated few potent headlines. Amazingly, even Catholic media were pretty silent. This story deserves much, much better. Here follow excerpts from Cardinal Dolan's talk:

" ... This morning I want to invite us to broaden our horizons, to "think Catholic" about our brothers and sisters in the faith now suffering simply because they sign themselves with the cross, bow their heads at the Holy Name of Jesus, and happily profess the Apostles' Creed.

Brother bishops, our legitimate and ongoing struggles to protect our "first and most cherished freedom" in the United States pale in comparison to the Via Crucis currently being walked by so many of our Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, who are experiencing lethal persecution on a scale that defies belief. If our common membership in the mystical body of Christ is to mean anything, then their suffering must be ours as well.

The new Archbishop of Canterbury has rightly referred to victims of Christian persecution as "martyrs." We are living in what must be recognized as, in the words of Blessed John Paul II, "a new age of martyrs." One expert calculates that half of all Christian martyrs were killed in the twentieth century alone. The twenty-first century has already seen in its first 13 years one million people killed around the world because of their belief in Jesus Christ--one million already in this still young century.

That threat to religious believers is growing. The Pew Research Center reports that 75 percent of the world's population "lives in countries where governments, social groups, or individuals restrict people's ability to freely practice their faith." Pew lays out the details of this "rising tide of restrictions on religion," but we don't need a report to tell us something we sadly see on the news every day.

While Muslims and Christians have long lived peacefully side-by-side in Zanzibar, for instance, this past year has seen increasing violence. Catholic churches have been burned and priests have been shot. In September one priest was the victim of a horrific acid attack. Nigeria has also been the site of frequent anti-Christian violence, including church bombings on our holiest days.

The situation in India has also been grave, particularly after the Orissa massacre of 2008, where hundreds of Christians were murdered and thousands displaced, and thousands of homes and some 400 churches were torched. Just recently, a Christian couple was recently attacked by an angry mob just because of their faith, their Bibles torn from their hands.

We remember our brothers and sisters in China, where Catholic bishops and other religious leaders are subject to state supervision and imprisonment. Conditions are only getting worse, as the government closes churches and subjects members of several faiths to forced renunciations, so-called re-education, and torture.

Of course, it's not just Christians who suffer from religious persecution, but believers in other faiths as well. Much religious persecution is committed by Muslims against other Muslims. Buddhists in Tibet suffer under government torture and repression. In Myanmar Muslims suffer at the hands of Buddhist mobs. All of us share apprehension over reports of rising anti-Semitism.

But there is no escaping the fact that Christians are singled out in far more places and far more often.

I don't have to tell anyone in this room that our brothers and sisters in the Middle East face particular trials. As Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has observed, for Christians in the Middle East, "even the simple admission of Christian identity places the very existence of [the] faithful in daily threat...Exceptionally extreme and expansive occurrences of violence and persecution against Christians cannot leave the rest of us--who are blessed to live peacefully and in some sense of security--indifferent and inactive."

... Just as Syrian Christians have suffered from the war raging in their land, the war in Iraq has devastated that ancient Christian community in that country as well. As Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Iraq tearfully told us during our spring assembly in 2012, remember, the situation of Christians there "became a tragedy of immense proportions after 2003," with many religious and lay faithful tortured and killed.

Violent attacks continue to terrorize the Iraqi people. Just a little over a year ago the war's worst massacre of Iraqi Christians occurred in a brutal attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, where some 58 believers were massacred. Those martyred for their faith included their parish priest who died holding a crucifix, forgiving the gunmen and asking him to spare his people.

The situations in Syria and Iraq wrench our hearts, but the plight of Christians in Egypt is no better. This past summer saw the serious escalation of violence against our brothers and sisters there, as the ancient Coptic Christian community has been targeted. Dozens of Coptic churches have been burned; Christian-owned businesses and hotels have been attacked; and individual believers have been murdered.

... We as bishops, as shepherds of one of the most richly blessed communities of faith on the planet, as pastors who have spoken with enthusiastic unity in defense of our own religious freedom, must become advocates and champions for these Christians whose lives literally hang in the balance.
Pope Francis recently invited us all to an examination of conscience in this regard during his General Audience on September 25:

"When I hear that so many Christians in the world are suffering, am I indifferent, or is it as if a member of my own family is suffering? When I think or hear it said that many Christians are persecuted and give their lives for their faith, does this touch my heart or does it not reach me? Am I open to that brother or that sister in my family who's giving his or her life for Jesus Christ? Do we pray for one another? How many of you pray for Christians who are persecuted? How many? Everyone respond in his own heart. It's important to look beyond one's own fence, to feel oneself part of the Church, of one family of God!"

I am convinced that we have to answer those questions of Pope Francis, not merely as individual believers, but collectively as a body of bishops.

... [W]e can encourage intercession for the persecuted. Remember how the "prayers for the conversion of Russia" at the end of Masses over a half-century ago shaped our sense of what was going on behind the Iron Curtain? A similar culture of prayer for persecuted Christians today, both in private and in our liturgical celebrations, could have a similar remedial effect.

We can also make people aware of the great suffering of our brothers and sisters with all the means at our disposal. Our columns, our blogs, our speeches, and our pastoral letters can reference the subject. We can ask our pastors to preach on it, and to stimulate study sessions or activist groups in their parishes. ...

We know the importance of supporting 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, who have done heroic work, while among our Protestant brothers and sisters groups such as Open Doors make a similar contribution. Writers such as Nina Shea, Paul Marshall, John Allen, and Phillip Jenkins here in the United States help keep the issue alive, as does our own Committee on International Justice and Peace.

Finally, we can insist that our country's leaders make the protection of at-risk Christians abroad a foreign-policy priority for the United States. We can also cajole political leaders to be more attentive to the voices of Christians on the ground, since those Christians will certainly feel the consequences of whatever the West does or doesn't do. ... [T]he protection of religious freedom abroad, and advocacy
of oppressed believers, has hardly been a high foreign policy priority for administrations of either party.

In general, my brothers, we can make supporting the suffering Church a priority--not one good cause among others, but a defining element of our pastoral priorities. As historians of this conference know, speaking up for suffering faithful abroad has been a hallmark of our soon-to-be-century of public advocacy of the gospel by the conference of bishops in this beloved country we are honored to call our earthly home.

Protecting religious freedom will be a central social and political concern of our time, and we American bishops already have made very important contributions to carrying it forward. Now we are being beckoned--by history, by Pope Francis, by the force of our own logic and the ecclesiology of communion -to extend those efforts to the dramatic front lines of this battle, where Christians are paying for their fidelity with their lives. ..."

(NB: Cardinal Dolan cites the figure of 1 million Christians having perished because of their faith thus far in the 21th century. Not all experts on the subject agree on this total, as it includes the countless number of victims killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where most of the warring factions are largely comprised of Christians and where greed, famine, disease as well as sheer brutality are likely most to blame rather than specifically anti-Christian animus.)

Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.
www.churchinneed.org