persecution

The passion that loomed over the historic meeting between Rome and Moscow

Like all veteran journalists who cover global religion news, Robert Moynihan of "Inside the Vatican" is used to getting interesting emails from sources in interesting places.

Normally, Moynihan asks the questions. But that wasn't the case in 2006 when he heard from Russian composer Hilarion Alfeyev, who was completing a new Passion According to St. Matthew, based on scripture and prayers from the Orthodox Divine Liturgy.

It's crucial to know that, in 2006, this composer was already a Russian Orthodox bishop. Today he is known as Metropolitan Hilarion and, as chair of his church's Department of External Church Relations, he has long been a key player in behind-the-scenes talks seeking a meeting between the pope of Rome and the patriarch of Moscow.

In that email, the composer said his goal was to premiere the work in Moscow in March of 2007 -- just before Easter in a year in which Catholics (using the Gregorian calendar) and the Orthodox (on the older Julian calendar) would celebrate the Paschal feast on the same day.

Hilarion wondered "if there might be a way for this work to then be performed in Rome and if I could help organize such a concert," said Moynihan. "We both knew this would be incredibly challenging. … But we did it and that night was like a miracle."

The Moscow premiere was on March 27 and, two nights later, the exhausted Russian choir and orchestra were in Rome for a performance attended by several Catholic Cardinals, as well as numerous students, scholars and dignitaries. One Orthodox participant was Metropolitan Kirill -- now the Russian patriarch.

Anyone probing the roots of the historic encounter between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis -- the first meeting of this kind between Rome and Moscow -- must study the years of cultural and musical contacts that built a bridge to this moment, said Moynihan, in an interview days before the Cuba summit. In the end, mutual concerns about the slaughter of Christians in Iraq and Syria made such a meeting an urgent necessity.

2015 and beyond: So much news about religious liberty battles at home and abroad

The goal of The Atlantic Monthly's recent LGBT Summit was to gather a flock of politicos, artists, activists and scribes to discuss the "Unfinished Business" of queer culture, after a historic win for gays at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The summit's final speaker was Andrew Sullivan, the British-born, HIV-positive, occasionally conservative, liberal Catholic whose trailblazing online journalism helped shape so many public debates.

Sullivan ranged from the genius of "South Park" to the impact of smartphone apps on dating, from the positive impact of gay porn to the lingering self-loathing that prevents some gays from embracing drugs that could end AIDS. He attacked Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, while yearning for another term for President Barack Obama.

Most of all, he stressed that it's time -- after a "tectonic" cultural shift on sexuality -- for professional LGBT activists to end the "whiny victimhood" in which they recite a "you're a bigot, we're oppressed, why do you hate us" litany to Americans who disagreed with them about anything.

Calling himself a "classical liberal," Sullivan stressed that gay leaders must accept that some believers will not surrender the ancient doctrines that define their faith. Thus, it's time for honest conversations between believers, gay and straight.

"The blanket … I would say, yes, bigotry towards large swaths of this country who may disagree with us right now … is not just morally wrong, it's politically counterproductive," he said, drawing screams of outrage on Twitter.

"Religious freedom is an incredibly important freedom. To my mind it is fundamental to this country and I am extremely queasy about any attempt to corral or coerce the religious faith of anybody."

Sullivan's comments captured one of the tensions that dominated the Religion Newswriters Association poll to select the Top 10 religion news events of 2015.

Religion news 2014: The pope, ISIS, persecution and the rest of the Top 10 stories

Soon after his elevation to the Chair of St. Peter, Pope Francis warned that the world was entering a time when Satan would increasingly show his power, especially in lands in which believers were being crushed.

Looking toward a rising storm in the Middle East, he warned that the persecution of religious minorities is a sign of the end times.

"It will be like the triumph of the prince of this world: the defeat of God. It seems that in that final moment of calamity, he will take possession of this world, that he will be the master of this world," said Pope Francis. "Religion cannot be spoken of, it is something private, no?"

A year later, the pope was even more specific in a letter to churches in the ancient lands of the Bible.

"I write to you just before Christmas, knowing that for many of you the music of your Christmas hymns will also be accompanied by tears and sighs. Nonetheless, the birth of the Son of God in our human flesh is an indescribable mystery of consolation," said Pope Francis.

Too strong for television: Tragic stories from the vicar of Baghdad

The 5-year-old boy was named Andrew, to honor the British priest who baptized him at St. George's Anglican Church in Baghdad.

 When Islamic State forces moved into Qaraqosh, the boy's parents faced an agonizing choice that has become all too common in the ancient Christian towns of the Nineveh Plain. The choice: Convert to Islam or suffer the consequences. 

Andrew was cut in half, his parents said, while they were forced to watch.

 The traumatized parents were later reunited with Canon Andrew White, long known as the "vicar of Baghdad." This is one of many stories he has been sharing with journalists -- for years he acted as special envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury -- in an attempt to raise awareness of the hellish details behind the now-familiar television images.

 A recent trip to Washington, D.C., brought him to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, a setting that raised agonizing questions about the massacres carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria -- which has claimed the power to establish a new Islamic caliphate in the region.

What would Pope Francis pick as top 2013 news story?

Popes come and popes go, with a new pope elected every few years or decades. Thus, when viewed through the lens of history, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was a stunning event in the history of Roman Catholicism and, thus, all of Western Christianity. He was the first man to resign St. Peter's throne in 600 years. Surely this was the most important religion-news story of 2013?

But when seen through the lens of the mainstream press, the bookish Benedict's exit was a mere ripple in the news flow compared to the tsunami of headlines inspired by the rise of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as the first Latin American pope. During his remarkable media honeymoon, Pope Francis has been humble and savvy, pragmatic and charismatic.

Most of all, this pope has shown that he wants a mission-minded church that balances a defense of Catholic doctrine with a renewed commitment to offering mercy and pastoral care to the poor, the powerless and those of little or no faith. He wants to build a church defined by its actions, not just by words.

To no one's surprise, the election of Pope Francis was selected as the year's No. 1 religion story by the journalists in the Religion Newswriters Association, with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI the No. 2 story. Pope Francis was also named Religion Newsmaker of the Year.

But here is an interesting question to ponder: Based on his own words and actions, what 2013 event or trend would Pope Francis have selected as the most important?

As the year came to a close, it appeared the pope's attention was increasingly focused on the persecution of believers around the world, especially endangered Christian minorities in Egypt, Syria and throughout the Middle East. In a sermon on Nov. 28, he even urged his listeners to recall that when people are forbidden to worship, and faith is driven from public life, the end times could be near.

"What does this mean? It will be like the triumph of the prince of this world: the defeat of God. It seems that in that final moment of calamity, he will take possession of this world, that he will be the master of this world," he said, in remarks that drew little commentary from world media.

When this happens, explained Pope Francis, "religion cannot be spoken of, it is something private, no? Publicly it is not spoken about. The religious signs are taken down. The laws that come from the worldly powers must be obeyed. You can do so many beautiful things except adore God."

The rest of the RNA Top 10 list included these events and trends:

(3) In another 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for gay marriage in California and voided the ban on federal benefits to same-sex couples. Supporters of gay marriage celebrated victories in other states as well, with Illinois and Hawaii becoming the 15th and 16th states to legalize same-sex marriage.

(4) Legal battles continued in courts nationwide over the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most non-profit ministries to offer health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives, including "morning-after pills." The U.S. Supreme Court accepted a case brought by Hobby Lobby, a for-profit corporation led by conservative Christians who claim that the mandate violates their freedom of religious expression.

(5) Battles continued in the Middle East over the political role of Islam, with violence escalating in Syria and continuing in Egypt -- where the military ousted the freely elected Muslim Brotherhood-led government and violently cracked down on its Islamist supporters.

(6) Nelson Mandela died at age 95 and was remembered as a prophet of non-violence and reconciliation in South Africa.

(7) Attacks on religious minorities continued around the world, including bloody attacks on Christians in Egypt, Syria, Pakistan and Kenya.

(8) A Pew Research Center survey found that more than 1 in 5 American Jews now claim no ties to Judaism as a faith. The number of professing Jewish adults is now less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, although Jewish identity remains strong.

(9) Leaders of the Boy Scouts of America voted to accept openly gay Scouts but not Scoutmasters. While most evangelicals opposed this change, Catholic and Mormon leaders were divided.

(10) Muslims joined others in condemning the Boston Marathon bombing committed by two young Muslim men who attended colleges in the area.

Hellish flashbacks on the Christian persecution front

Churches were burning in Pakistan, while African Christians died and radical forms of Islam threatened monasteries, sanctuaries and villages in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. That was 1997. Human-rights scholar Paul Marshall kept hearing one question over and over when he addressed this rising tide of persecution: Why didn't more American Christians protest as their sisters and brothers in the faith were jailed, raped, tortured and killed?

Some Christians, he said, were distracted by apocalyptic talk in which persecution was a good thing, a sign that the end of the world was near. Others weren't that interested in violence on the other side of the world that threatened believers in ancient churches that looked nothing like their own suburban megachurches.

"The result is a stunning passivity that calmly accepts such suffering," said Marshall, in an interview for an earlier column for the Scripps Howard News Service. "Perhaps this ... could be justified if we were dealing with our own suffering. But to do this with the suffering of another amounts to theological sadism."

That was 1997. Marshall had just co-written the groundbreaking book "Their Blood Cries Out," with journalist Lela Gilbert. Since then, I have worked with both of these writers in global projects about religion-news coverage.

Now it's 2013 and the news about the persecution of Christians has only gotten worse. Marshall, Gilbert and Catholic lawyer Nina Shea recently completed a new volume entitled "Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians."

The bottom line: This topic is more relevant than ever.

A year ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, "Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world." While some mocked her words, a Pew Research Center study in 2011 found that Christians were harassed, to one degree of violence or another, in 130 countries -- more than any other world religion. British historian Tom Holland told a recent London gathering that the world is witnessing the "effective extinction of Christianity from its birthplace" in the Middle East.

Recent losses endured in Egypt have been staggering, with more than 100 Christian sites attacked by well-organized mobs in mid-August, including the destruction of 42 churches -- the worst assault on the Coptic Orthodox Church in 700 years. In Syria, rebels linked to al-Qaeda overran Maaloula -- famous for being one of three remaining villages in which locals speak ancient Aramaic, the language of Jesus -- damaging the priceless St. Thekla monastery and trashing two churches.

Then the headlines got worse, with Islamist gunmen killing 67 or more people in the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya. While Muslims were freed, hostages who would not recite the Shahada -- an Islamic confession of faith -- were tortured and killed, before their bodies were mutilated. Days later, the Taliban claimed credit for an attack by two suicide bombers on the historic All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, in which at least 85 worshipers died.

Pope Francis addressed these issues during remarks on Sept. 25, noted John L. Allen, Jr., of the National Catholic Reporter, when reached by email. He is the author of a new book entitled "The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution."

In Allen's translation of the event, the pope asked the crowd: "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? ... How many of you pray for Christians who are persecuted? How many? ...

"It's important to look beyond one's own fence, to feel oneself part of the Church, of one family of God!"

While the truth is painful, said Marshall, it's important to asking questions about all those silent believers and their silent churches. If anything, it appears that many American Christians are even less interested in global persecution trends than they were in the past, while their churches are even more independent and focused on a therapeutic, individualistic approach to faith.

"It's like all of these horrible events are just blips on the screen. They are there, then they are gone and forgotten," said Marshall. "Sometimes, it's easy to think that Christians in America don't even know what is happening to their brothers and sisters around the world."

Religious liberty in crisis -- almost everywhere

Here's a tough question for American pastors: If local school officials voted to limit the freedom of Muslim students to publicly practice their faith, would you urge your flock to protest? Those who believe in religious liberty must answer "yes," according to the Rev. Rick Warren, leader of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.

"If a school district tells me that a Muslim girl can't wear a headscarf to school, I'm going to oppose that rule," he said, during a recent forum held by the Religious Freedom Project of the Berkley Center For Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

"If they say she can't wear a headscarf to school," he said, then "tomorrow they're going to say that I can't wear a cross and carry a Bible."

This raises another question: If the leader of one of America's most prominent megachurches headed to the barricades to defend the rights of Muslims, would the press coverage say that he is taking a "liberal" or a "conservative" stand?

Then, would Warren receive the same label if he protested in support of a local Christian college's rejection of the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover all FDA-approved forms of contraception, sterilizations and even "morning-after pills"?

Both protests would be in support of freedom of religion.

"The worse thing that could happen" in public discourse today, he said, would be for the term "religious liberty" to become a "code word for one side or the other, for liberals or conservatives, or Republicans or Democrats. ... That would be a fatal mistake for the party that didn't support the first freedom of this country."

Recent American debates about religious liberty have centered on whether the White House or any other branch of the government can decree that "freedom of worship" is more worthy of protection than the "free exercise" of religious freedom, a much broader constitutional concept.

While the HHS disputes will almost certainly reach the U.S. Supreme Court, the organizers of the Georgetown forum dedicated just as much attention to limitations on religious freedom worldwide, a trend being documented in annual reports by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The most recent survey noted: "Because some of the most restrictive countries are very populous, three-quarters of the world's approximately 7 billion people live in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion, up from 70% a year earlier. ... The rising tide of restrictions ... is attributable to a variety of factors, including increases in crimes, malicious acts and violence motivated by religious hatred or bias, as well as increased government interference with worship or other religious practices."

The bottom line is that religious liberty is important for believers and unbelievers and is linked to the success of any state or government, said Thomas Farr, director of the Berkley Center. Studies indicate that religious liberty promotes economic development, women's rights, political stability and improved care of the poor and the vulnerable.

But severe restrictions on religious freedom, especially for religious minorities, are increasing and not just in the developing world, he said.

"Christians are the most likely victims and Muslims come in a close second. While most of the persecution takes place outside the West, neither Europeans nor Americans can afford to be complacent," said Farr. "Social hostility toward religion is rising faster in Europe than any other region of the world. And here in America, where religious liberty has long been considered the first freedom of our constitution and our history, both social hostility and government restrictions on religion are on the rise."

For Warren, the key is for Americans to be willing to stand up for the rights of others, even those whose religious beliefs they believe are eternally in error. Many American Christians "need to repent" because they have failed to display that kind of true tolerance, he said.

"God gave us the freedom to chose. ... We make moral choices," he noted. "God gives me the freedom to choose what I believe. God doesn't even force me to love him -- he gives me the choice to love him or reject him. He gives me the choice to obey him or to disobey him. If God gives me that choice, then I owe you that choice and you owe me that choice."