News Analysis

Week in review

Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb in Abu Dhabi on Monday (CNS)

The big story of the past seven days

✣ Jeremy Hunt vows to defend persecuted Christians

What happened?

Jeremy Hunt, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, has criticised the Government’s past response to anti-Christian persecution, pledging to “banish any hesitation to look into this issue”. Speaking at the launch of an independent review into global persecution of Christians, he said that “a quarter of a billion Christians are suffering some sort of persecution all over the world”, and that 80 per cent of victims
of persecution were Christian. They “happen to have the faith that I have”, he added.

What the media said

The papers were especially struck by Hunt’s analysis of Britain’s “reluctance” to address the issue – “because of our imperial history, because of the concerns that some people might have in linking the activities of missionaries in the 19th century to misguided imperialism”. As the Guardian put it, Hunt was suggesting that “postcolonial guilt about Britain’s imperial past has held the country back from addressing the deepening persecution of Christians”. The Sun headline read: “Foreign Secretary warns political correctness is harming the fight against Christian persecution”.

Premier magazine stressed Hunt’s point about how persecution shapes society. It paraphrased him as saying that “Freedom of worship acts as an invisible line distinguishing between free and non-free societies.”

What sceptics said

At the Spectator website, Luke de Pulford raised a dissenting voice. The review would be “toothless”, de Pulford argued. For one thing, “The review isn’t going to be cross-departmental. So it won’t involve the Department for International Development or the Home Office.”

As a result, it seems unlikely that the Government will redirect funding towards the persecuted, or will change an asylum policy “that led to just one or two per cent of Syrian refugees granted asylum being Christian, and a refusal to offer a safe haven to Asia Bibi”. Hunt’s careful language about “freedom of worship” rather than “freedom of religion and belief”, meanwhile, sends the message: “Pray if you want, but the minute your belief system conflicts with our equality agenda, you’re on your own.”

The most overlooked story of the week

✣ Pope Francis signs interfaith declaration

What happened?

During his historic trip to Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis and Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar in Egypt, signed a “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”. It stated that “the pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God”, provoking debate among Catholic theologians.

Why was it under-reported?

The mainstream media regard most theological debates within the Catholic Church as the equivalent of the proverbial dispute about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But Catholic commentators immediately spotted the declaration’s significance. “It is puzzling, and potentially problematic,” Chad Pecknold told CNA, “but in the context of the document, the Holy Father is clearly referring not to the evil of many false religions, but positively refers to the diversity of religions only in the sense that they are evidence of our natural desire to know God.”

What will happen next?

The papal declaration will be picked over by interfaith scholars and read closely by the millions of Catholics throughout the world who live in countries with non-Christian religious majorities. But its impact may be blunted by ambiguity. Fr John Zuhlsdorf argued on his blog that “We must seek a way to understand this without it sounding like heresy.” He suggests we interpret “willed by God” as “permitted by God”. That is an acceptable theological reading, but the wording could cause confusion.

✣ The week ahead

Cardinal Vincent Nichols is expected to arrive in Buenos Aires today for the Santa Marta Group Annual Meeting, which continues until next Wednesday. The Santa Marta Group, an alliance of international police chiefs and bishops, was developed by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales in 2014 to raise awareness of the nature and extent of human trafficking and slavery.

Thursday marks Valentine’s Day, which once commemorated a saint said to have been beheaded on that day in 270. February 14 is linked with love because of a medieval belief that birds begin to pair mid-way through February.

Pope Francis has appointed Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario of Bangladesh as his special delegate to mark the Church’s 27th World Day of the Sick in Calcutta, on February 9-11. There will be a Mass and a papal blessing. The World Day of the Sick was instituted by Pope St John Paul II in 1992. It is simultaneous with the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes on February 11.

The best of the web

✣ Highlights from the week online

A plea for less ambiguous language

On her website, the campaigner Marie Collins, a survivor of sexual abuse, made some suggestions for the Vatican’s forthcoming summit. For one thing, she said, there is “vagueness and ambiguity” in the use of terms. There’s no agreed definition of “zero tolerance” – an omission which lets Church leaders use the term however suits them – or even of “sexual abuse of a minor”.

As well as clearing up these confusions, Collins wrote, it would be worth clarifying “the process by which a negligent bishop or other Church leader will be brought to justice within the institution”. Pope Francis could lay out the basics: “Who is investigating? Who are the judges? What are the penalties being imposed?”

Among Collins’s other suggestions were “universal safeguarding measures”. In 2016 the papal commission, of which Collins was a member, drew up some suggested guidelines. These could be discussed and implemented at the meeting, and the Vatican could also explain what were its standards “for a local safeguarding policy to receive approval”.

Black mould eats away at historic cathedral

The eight-centuries-old Sé Velha de Coimbra is the only surviving Romanesque cathedral in Portugal, said Sequoyah Kennedy at Mysterious Universe. But now it’s under threat from “a type of black mould that scientists say has never been seen before”.

Researchers have scraped mould off the walls of the Lady Chapel, and found that it’s “part of a newly identified family of microcolonial black fungi (MCBF) called Aeminiaceae”.

Writing in the journal MycoKeys, the scientists said they had not seen this species before, describing its potential for damage thus: “Microcolonial black fungi are considered one of the main culprits for the phenomenon of stone biodeterioration, being responsible for severe aesthetic, biochemical and biophysical alterations.”

The mould can adapt to harsh conditions – high temperature, drought, radiation – making it very difficult to fight. Another odd twist to the story is that the mould had probably been there since the 12th or 13th century, when the cathedral was built from local limestone. It has been slowly growing on the cathedral – and may start to attack other limestone structures in Portugal, including many sacred statues.

A Russian church’s tale of survival

At 1 Peter 5, Oleg-Michael Martynov told the story of a St Petersburg church, Our Lady of Lourdes, which will now have a Traditional Latin Mass each month – the second church in Russia to have a regular TLM (the other is in Moscow). It also has an unusual history: built in the early 20th century, it survived the many upheavals of following decades.

Our Lady of Lourdes is one of only two churches that was never closed under the Soviet regime. In 1926, a bishop was secretly consecrated there. “In spite of all the persecutions,” Martynov writes, Catholics never stopped attending the church, “even during the years from 1941 to 1945, when there was no priest there to administer sacraments”.

✣ Meanwhile…

✣ Filipinos in Hong Kong had a surprise visitor last Sunday: President Rodrigo Duterte, accompanied by North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Or so Mass-goers may have briefly believed when the two turned up at St Joseph’s Church before Mass.

In fact, they were two impersonators, Crescenzio Extreme (as Duterte) and Howard X (as Kim). According to the AFP agency, worshippers waited until after Mass before requesting photos with the pair. One woman who identified herself as Linda thought it was “impolite” to disrupt the Mass. “Coming in here to make a scene – our Duterte is not like that,” she said.

The impersonators’ appearance was especially confusing because Duterte did visit Hong Kong last year. Around 200,000 Filipinos – mostly female domestic workers – live in the territory.

Howard X explained to the South China Morning Post that he is hoping to assemble a performance group called “The Tyrants”, featuring lookalikes of China’s Xi Jinping, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. “If anyone out there looks like these presidents, please give me a call,” he said, adding: “The guys who play Obama or Clinton have to be very proper, but the tyrants can do anything.”

The week in quotations

“Religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism”
Document signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Abu Dhabi
Vatican News

“I told him that I serve Christ’s cause”
Nicolás Maduro on a letter he sent to Pope Francis

“Allowing murder of children up to the moment of birth is evil”
Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane on new abortion legislation
Letter to his diocese

“Our methods are not infallible”
Vatican Cardinal Fernando Filoni on the Holy See-China deal
L’Osservatore Romano

Statistic of the week

The percentage of Irish people who say they Christian (compared to 73 per cent in the UK)
Source: Pew