Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. – Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
The history of religious persecution did not begin with the Jewish bondage in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. Arguably, it began with Cain, who murdered his brother in jealousy of Abel’s more worthy sacrifice. It is as old as humanity, in other words, and runs through the centuries: through the 300 years of penal laws against Catholics in England and Ireland and the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the later 19th century, through the darkness of the 20th century.
Sadly, the noble sentiment that heads these reflections is belied by the reality on the ground in much of the world in the living present. In fact, on St Stephen’s Day of 2016, Pope Francis asserted that Christian martyrs are today more numerous than they were in the first centuries of the Church.
A conference on persecution of Christians in late November 2020 in New York City examined this subject in sobering detail. Presented by the Anglosphere Society, the Knights of Columbus, the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Act in Time: Protecting Imperiled Christians in Ancient and Other Lands focused on this issue. The Anglosphere Society has through its briefings, publications and fora determined to shine a bright light on this profoundly important subject and identify, where possible, hopeful solutions.
The Knights of Columbus have signed an agreement with the United States Agency for International Development to cooperate in assisting religious minorities in the Middle East rebuild their communities following the persecution and genocide of the Islamic State.
Nina Shea and the Center for Religious Freedom work for the advancement of religious freedom and other human rights in US foreign policy as it confronts Islamic and communist extremism.
The Catholic Near East Welfare Association is a human development initiative of the Holy See that addresses conflict, injustice and poverty in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, India and Eastern Europe. Another essential organisation in this work is the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need.
Here are some of the highlights of the conference, including discussions on the Middle East, China, Africa, and the United States.
Maronite Bishop Gregory Mansour chronicled the devastation experienced by Christians and Jews in the region, saying: “In every country Christians and Jews have been driven out or left.” Anglosphere Society president Amanda Bowman sounded a hopeful note in reporting that 40,000 Christians have now returned to the Middle East, but they remain in desperate need of government protection, public and private assistance and new infrastructure.
Nina Shea has been an early and vehement critic of the Vatican accord with the Chinese government.
“Chinese Christianity is being destroyed, distorted and corrupted,” she told participants in the November conference. “As recently as 2018 people spoke of China becoming the largest Catholic country by 2030. No one says that today.” She spoke of a Church that has been “taken over by Communist ideologues,” and claimed: “Churches that don’t conform are burned.” Shea also spoke of crosses and statuary being removed from remaining churches, and censorship – sometimes outright banning – of the Bible on the internet.
Lawyer and author Gordon Chang followed Shea, declaring flatly: “One cannot work with the Communist Party.”
“This is an existential threat,” Chang said. “The Church is being driven underground, and there it is thriving. People are praying on their own. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is scared of its inability to control that. The result of the CCP/Vatican concord is that droves are turning to the underground Protestant churches.”
Stephen Rasche of the Institute for Ancient and Threatened Christianity (IATE) reported on Catholics and Protestants being persecuted in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram and Fulani forces.
Rasche credited ambassador Sam Brownback and US secretary of state Mike Pompeo for remaining stalwart supporters. Rasche told the story of Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese Christian who went to Khartoum and when her Muslim husband died was ordered to convert to Islam. She refused and was condemned to death, but because she was pregnant could not be executed under Muslim law. Eventually her sentence was commuted, she gave birth in prison while manacled, and was finally flown to Italy after diplomatic intervention. She now lives in the US and assists oppressed Christians in other lands.
“The human right to religious freedom,” said Amanda Bowman of the Anglosphere Society, which co-sponsored the conference, “affirms the moral and civic immunity of individuals and religious communities from coercion or violence on account of their religious beliefs and practice.”
Bowman noted the grave situation for religious minorities in places around the world, especially Christians and Jews, saying their plight “offers a clarion call to stir public support”.
Bowman also pointed out the lack of media attention to religious persecution, and especially the persecution of Christians. “There seems to be a conspiracy of silence where Christian persecution in particular is concerned,” she said, citing the admirably widespread coverage of the murders in the mosques of Christchurch, New Zealand, in March of 2018 – and contrasting that coverage with the muted interest in the murders of Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday of that same year.
“It is incumbent on each one of us,” Bowman said, “to bring about a time when – to echo the words of the poet Seamus Heaney – ‘hope and history rhyme’.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan closed the conference with an inspirational speech urging continued prayer and action for our Christian brethren. Two days earlier he had been named by the USCCB as chair of its Committee on Religious Liberty, and he pledged to lobby the incoming Biden administration not to backtrack on advances made on behalf of persecuted Christians and Jews under President Trump.
The threat remains very real.
A 2020 Pew study stated: “In 2018 the global median level of government restrictions on religion continued to climb, rising to an all-time high. By far the worst offender was China. According to the Pew study, Christians experienced the most harassment globally, facing persecution in 145 countries; Muslims in 139; and Jews in 88.
“This century is only two decades old,” Cardinal Dolan cautioned, “but one has already seen 1.25 million martyrs killed around the world simply because of their belief in Jesus Christ, and that threat to religious believers is growing.”
“We have to become better advocates,” Cardinal Dolan said. He’s not wrong.