religious persecution

Religious persecution remains a controversial reality in our world today

Religious persecution remains a controversial reality in our world today

Early in the Iraq war, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana took part in a congressional fact-finding trip to meet with U.S. troops.

Some of the lessons he learned during his first trip to that troubled land had more to do with religion than with warfare. While meeting with local officials, for example, Pence watched the local imam rush to embrace a friend -- the Catholic bishop in southern Iraq. A translator said the imam thanked the bishop for staying in touch after the recent death of his mother.

That was enlightening, said Vice President Pence, during the recent "Help the Persecuted" summit in Washington, D.C. But he also learned a crucial fact that day. 

"I turned to the diplomatic aide who was with me," Pence recalled, "and said, 'So there's a Catholic church in al-Basrah?' And he said, 'Yes, yes there is.' And I said, 'How long has there been a Catholic church in al-Basrah?' And he said, 'About 1,500 years.' "

That's a sobering fact, since Iraq's Christian population has fallen 80 percent since that 2004 meeting, said Pence. The Christian population of Syria has fallen 50 percent in the past six years.

"As you all know, no people of faith face greater hostility or hatred than followers of Christ," said the vice president. "In more than 100 nations, spread to every corner of the world … over 245 million Christians confront intimidation, imprisonment, forced conversion, abuse, assault or worse."

Nohere is this onslaught more evident than in the "ancient land where Christianity was born," he added. "In Egypt we see the bombing of churches during Palm Sunday celebrations. In Iraq we see monasteries demolished, priests and monks beheaded and the two-millennia-old Christian tradition in Mosul clinging for survival. In Syria, we see ancient communities burned to the ground and believers tortured for confessing the name of Christ. … Christianity now faces an exodus in the Middle East unrivaled since the days of Moses."

Pence has made similar remarks before, but these statements rarely gain traction outside the world of Christian media. The problem is that the words "religious persecution" -- especially when linked to suffering Christians -- remain controversial among some public officials and journalists.

In Britain, for example, immigration officials ruled against the asylum claim of an Iranian national who had converted to Christianity. Here's what made headlines: The Home Office backed this action with claims that Christianity is not a religion of peace, quoting Leviticus 26:7 ("Ye shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword") and the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:24 ("Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword").

Meanwhile, the Christian Broadcasting Network and other conservative groups have noted, in recent weeks, the deaths of an estimated 120 Christians in central Nigeria.

Persecution of Christians is 'old news'? Prince Charles begs to differ

Persecution of Christians is 'old news'? Prince Charles begs to differ

Once again, Coptic Christians faced bloody bodies in the sands of Egypt, as terrorists killed seven pilgrims who had just prayed at the Monastery of St. Samuel.

No one was surprised when the Islamic State took credit for that November attack south of Cairo. After all, 28 pilgrims were massacred near the same spot in 2017.

In Syria, Orthodox believers marked the fifth anniversary of the kidnapping of Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church -- who were trying to negotiate the release of priests seized weeks earlier. Today, their followers know less about the identity of the attackers than they did in 2013.

In the Nineveh plains of Iraq, Christians slowly returned to communities in which their ancestors had worshipped since the first century after Christ. Zero Christians remained in Mosul after ISIS demanded that they convert to Islam or pay the jizya head tax, while living with brutal persecution.

But nothing remained of the 1400-year-old Dair Mar-Elia (Saint Elijah's Monastery), after invaders blew it up twice and then bulldozed the rubble.

Try to imagine the faith it requires for believers to carry on after all this has taken place, said the Prince of Wales, speaking at a Westminster Abbey service last month celebrating the lives of Christians who endure persecution in the Middle East.

"Time and again I have been deeply humbled and profoundly moved by the extraordinary grace and capacity for forgiveness that I have seen in those who have suffered so much," said Prince Charles, who has worked to build contacts in the ancient Christian East.

"Forgiveness, as many of you know far better than I, is not a passive act, or submission. Rather, it is an act of supreme courage, of a refusal to be defined by the sin against you. … It is one thing to believe in God who forgives. It is quite another to take that example to heart and actually to forgive, with the whole heart, 'those who trespass against you' so grievously."

The persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East was not one of 2018's big news stories. Instead, this parade of horrors became a kind of "old news" that rarely reached the prime headlines offered by elite newsrooms.

What Vice President Pence said about global (not U.S.) persecution of Christians

What Vice President Pence said about global (not U.S.) persecution of Christians

Their loved ones died on a Libyan beach, beheaded by Islamic State militants as cameras recorded their agony for a 2015 propaganda video.

Some of the Coptic Christians died repeating these words: "Lord, Jesus Christ." An ISIS leader in a ski mask, in turn, offered this warning: "We will conquer Rome with Allah's permission."

During the recent World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians, relatives of these modern martyrs stood to receive the applause of participants, who came from 136 nations -- including the ravaged lands of the Middle East and Africa.

"Today our Christian brothers and sisters across the world are facing persecution and martyrdom on an unprecedented scale," said the Rev. Franklin Graham, who hosted the event for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. "No part of the Christian family is exempt -- Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox -- nor is any part of the world exempt."

There were other poignant moments, including an Iranian woman ringing a memorial bell for the dead, including her father who was hanged for converting to Christianity. Summit speakers represented the global church, including remarks by Archbishop Christophe Louis Yves Georges Pierre, the U.S. ambassador for Pope Francis, and a major address by Metropolitan Hilarion, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church's ecumenical office.

But this meeting was held in Washington, D.C., and led by the always outspoken Franklin Graham -- who called the persecution of Christians "genocide." Also, an address by Vice President Mike Pence guaranteed some mainstream news coverage, as well as a hot spotlight on the U.S. political implications of his remarks.

Thus, a Huffington Post news report claimed: "Pence reiterated a common belief among conservative Christians in the U.S. that they are among the most persecuted people of faith in the world."

While the vice president alluded to trends in the United States, he made it clear that his primary worries and prayers about persecution were global.

Religion 2010 -- Rose petals in Pakistan

In terms of giant headlines and spilled ink, there is no question that the lightning strike by U.S. special forces that killed Osama bin Laden was the year's most spectacular news event, featuring a deadly brew of religion, politics and violence. Thus, it isn't surprising that members of the Religion Newswriters Association selected the death of the world's most infamous radical Muslim as No. 1 in their poll to name the year's top 10 stories on the religion beat. In addition to the symbolism of bin Laden's death in a post 9/11 world, the poll's organizers said the killing spurred “discussions among people of faith on issues of forgiveness, peace, justice and retribution.”

However, when I think about religion news events in 2011, another image from Pakistan flashes through my mind -- a shower of rose petals.

I am referring to the jubilant throngs of lawyers and demonstrators that greeted 26-year-old Malik Mumtaz Qadri with cheers, rose petals and flowers as he arrived at an Islamabad courtroom to be charged with terrorism and murder. Witnesses said Qadri fired 20 rounds into Salman Taseer's back, while members of the security team that was supposed to guard the Punjab governor stood watching.

Moderate Muslim leaders, fearing for their lives, refused to condemn the shooting and many of the troubled nation's secular political leaders -- including President Asif Ali Zardari, a friend and ally of Taseer -- declined to attend the funeral. Many Muslim clerics, including many usually identified as “moderates,” even praised the act of the assassin.

Calling himself a “slave of the Prophet,” Qadri cheerfully surrendered. He noted that he had killed the moderate Muslim official because of Taseer's role in a campaign to overturn Pakistan's blasphemy laws that order death for those who insult Islam, especially those who convert from Islam to another religion.

A few weeks later, Pakistan's minister of minority affairs -- the only Christian in the national cabinet -- died in another hail of bullets in Islamabad. Looking ahead, Shahbaz Bhatti had recorded a video testimony to be played on Al-Jazeera in the likely event that he, too, was assassinated.

”When I'm leading this campaign against the Sharia laws, for the abolishment of blasphemy law, and speaking for the oppressed and marginalized -- persecuted Christian and other minorities -- these Taliban threaten me,” said Bhatti, who was immediately hailed as a martyr by Catholic bishops in Pakistan. “I'm living for my community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights.”

Meanwhile, the gunmen tossed pamphlets near Bhatti's bullet-riddled car that threatened him by name and stated, in part: “From the Mujahideen of Islam, this fitting lesson for the world of infidelity, the crusaders, the Jews and their aides ... especially the leader of the infidel government of Pakistan, Zardari. ... In the Islamic Sharia, the ruling for one who insults the Prophet is nothing but death.”

The assassinations of Taseer and Bhatti placed 16th in this 2011 poll. As for me, I fear that these events say as much, or more, about the future of Pakistan and trends worldwide than the long-expected death of bin Laden.

Here's the rest of the Religion Newswriters Association's top 10 list:

No. 2 -- Congress holds intense hearings on trends among American Muslims, with the House focusing on evidence of radicalism in some mosques and the Senate focusing on crimes reported against Muslims.

No. 3 -- Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn is charged with failure to report the suspected abuse of a child -- the first active American Catholic bishop to face criminal prosecution in such a case.

No. 4 -- Catholic leaders introduce a new English version of the Roman Missal, the first major change to this translation since 1973.

No. 5 -- Leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) vote to allow “local option” on the ordination of partnered, noncelibate gay clergy.

No. 6 -- Pope John Paul II is beatified -- the last step before sainthood -- in a Vatican rite attended by a million-plus people.

No. 7 -- Radio preacher Harold Camping predicts the end of the world, twice.

No. 8 -- Evangelical progressive Rob Bell publishes “Love Wins,” a controversial book challenging centuries of Christian doctrine about hell and damnation.

No. 9 -- The Personhood Initiative, designed to outlaw abortion, fails at the polls in Mississippi. The number of laws restricting abortion, however, rises nationwide.

No. 10 -- Historians and readers celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, while traditionalists, including Southern Baptist leaders, criticize the latest gender language tweaks in the New International Version.

St. Peter in Westminster Abbey

During his long exile in Normandy, the Saxon prince who would become known as Edward the Confessor vowed that he would make a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Peter once he returned to England. After his coronation as king, the pope released Edward from this vow -- if he built a monastery dedicated to the first bishop of Rome. Thus, St. Peter's Abbey was rebuilt in Westminster.

Pope Benedict XVI gently stressed this history in the first words of his address during his recent visit to Westminster Abbey, where he prayed with the archbishop of Canterbury.

"I thank the Lord for this opportunity to join you ... in this magnificent Abbey church dedicated to St. Peter, whose architecture and history speak so eloquently of our common heritage of faith," said Benedict. "Here we cannot help but be reminded of how greatly the Christian faith shaped the unity and culture of Europe and the heart and spirit of the English people. Here too, we are forcibly reminded that what we share, in Christ, is greater than what continues to divide us. ...

"I thank the Lord for allowing me, as the successor of St. Peter in the See of Rome, to make this pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor."

Benedict's historic visit to England's national shrine received little coverage, in part because his remarks there were intensely spiritual. Meanwhile, journalists had to notice that his Westminster Hall address on the role of reason and faith in politics drew a secular flock that included, as an Associated Press report noted, "former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, who recently converted to Catholicism."

Speaking in the hall in which the Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More was convicted of treason for his loyalty to Rome, Benedict warned that the modern world -- take Europe -- is increasingly hostile to those who try to act on their beliefs.

"There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere," he said. "There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue -- paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination -- that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience.

"These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square."

The abbey visit created no sparks, in part because earlier that day the pope told Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams that there was no need to "speak of the difficulties that the ecumenical path has encountered and continues to encounter. Those difficulties are well known." Thus, there were no clear references to tensions about female priests, gay bishops in America's Episcopal Church and the Vatican's controversial decision -- after many appeals by Anglican traditionalists -- to make it easier for members of the Church of England to enter the Church of Rome.

Instead, Benedict repeatedly stressed that unity must be found in scripture, creeds and moral doctrines that date back to the early church. These words, however, are controversial in an age in which the global Anglican Communion is divided over teachings as central as the resurrection of Jesus and claims that salvation is found through Christ, alone.

"Our commitment to Christian unity is born of nothing less than our faith in Christ, in this Christ, risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead," he said. "It is the reality of Christ's person, his saving work and above all the historical fact of his resurrection, which is the content of ... those creedal formulas. ... The church's unity, in a word, can never be other than a unity in the apostolic faith, in the faith entrusted to each new member of the Body of Christ."

Finally, Benedict stressed -- yet again -- that he was speaking and acting in "fidelity to my ministry as the bishop of Rome and the successor of St. Peter, charged with a particular care for the unity of Christ's flock."

Rosenthal refused to remain silent

During his decades as a New York Times correspondent, the late A.M. Rosenthal saw lots of dead bodies in Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Kashmir, India and other troubled lands.

One day in Calcutta he started asking questions: What if some of these people are dying, but not yet dead? Was he supposed to help them? These questions stayed with him when he returned home to become an editor.

"I devoted a great deal of my time and thinking to wondering: When is it a sin to walk past a dying person? What number does God have? Is it one? Is it two?", asked Rosenthal, in a BreakPoint radio interview after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.

What if we know that torture is taking place, but cannot see the evidence with our own eyes or hear it with our own ears? Does God forgive those who don't act? "Is that what God is saying: 'If you can't see them, it's OK to walk away from them?' Or is he saying, 'If you can't hear them?' Suppose you can hear them, but not see them, or they're around the corner. When is apathy a sin?"

Rosenthal kept these questions to himself as his career soared. As a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter he covered the world and, as editor, he caused a journalistic earthquake when he pushed for the publication of the Pentagon Papers. For 56 years Abe Rosenthal helped change the New York Times and, thus, helped shape his times.

After leaving the editor's desk in 1986, he began writing his ?On My Mind? op-ed columns in which he championed the human-rights causes that dominated his life -- free speech and freedom of conscience. Rosenthal was a secular Jew and an old-fashioned liberal from the Bronx, but many of his old questions about liberty, sin and apathy began to break into the open and affect his work.

"Abe fought to cure our blind spots and it worked," said Pulitzer Prize-winner Nicholas Kristof, speaking at Rosenthal's May 14 funeral at Manhattan's Central Synagogue. "He did indeed teach us to see."

The healing process wasn't painless, especially when Rosenthal latched onto one particular religious issue. Some human-rights activists are convinced that one of the reasons he lost his column and was forced to leave the Times was because he wouldn't stop writing about the persecution of religious minorities around the world.

Rosenthal couldn't understand why so many journalists just didn't "get" that story. I talked to him several times about this issue, in part because Jewish conservative Michael Horowitz sent him a copy of a 1996 column that I wrote about the slaughter of Christians and animists in South Sudan and the rebirth of the slave trade.

Rosenthal said he asked some newsroom colleagues this wasn?t a big news story. No one had a good answer. He ended up writing -- in 1997 alone -- 20 columns about the persecution of Christians, Buddhists, moderate Muslims and other religious minorities in human-rights hot spots around the world.

"You don't need to be a rabbi or a minister to get this story. You just need to be a journalist. You just have to be able to look at the numbers of people involved and then look at all the other stories that were linked to it," he told me, at the end of that year. "Why are journalists missing this? ... I am inclined to believe that they just can't grasp the concept of a movement that includes conservatives, middle-of-the-road people and even some liberals. Their distrust of religious people -- especially conservatives -- is simply too strong for them to see what is happening."

With his columns, Rosenthal helped pave the way for the passage of the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act of 1997 and the creation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Now, that hard-to-label coalition that fought for justice in South Sudan is, with a jolt of Hollywood star power, rallying support for the peace process in Darfur, where Islamists are attacking other Muslims.

Rosenthal refused to keep quiet. After his death, a Time editorial underlined the importance of a key Rosenthal statement about the Pentagon Papers: "When something important is going on, silence is a lie."

That's a great quote, one that perfectly explains why Rosenthal was so driven to write about religious persecution.

When believers are dying, silence is a lie.

Religion, relief and risk in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON -- There are rumblings from western Afghanistan that the office for the "Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" is back.

That may not sound bad. But this is the network that enforced the Taliban's codes for clothing, grooming, family life, prayers and myriad other details of daily life. It used beatings, torture, imprisonment, discrimination and other forms of terror.

On the evening news, the Taliban is defeated and on the run. But the reality on the ground may be different. If the office for the "Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" is alive, the Taliban's heart is still beating.

"Significant numbers of former Taliban officials or supporters appear to be in the process of attaching themselves to the new power structures," according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. "Many elements of the victorious anti-Taliban forces also have past records of human rights abuse, including religious intolerance and restrictions of the rights of women."

Far from the diplomats and satellite dishes in Kabul, the Taliban's version of Sunni Islamic law may rule -- with summary public executions for murder, amputations for theft and stoning and lashing for adultery.

Nobody really knows. The commission thinks somebody needs to find out.

In a report this week to the White House and Congress, it urged the expansion of an international security presence beyond Kabul, with more attention focused on the actions of local commanders and tribal leaders. It is crucial -- since religion is at the root of this crisis -- that someone promptly be assigned to the Kabul embassy to defend religious liberty.

"If the United States government is not prepared to send such a person, our commission is," said commissioner Felice Gaer, of the American Jewish Committee.

Gaer repeated this pledge a half dozen times during one press briefing. The commission will decide on a course of action by the end of June.

It may seem strange to place such an emphasis on religious liberty for minorities in a land in which Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews and Christians may number only in the hundreds. But there also have been atrocities committed by the Sunni Muslims -- 85 percent of the population -- against Shiite Muslims.

"Some people have the view, 'Well, what do you need religious freedom for?' because this is a country that is 99 percent Muslim," said commissioner Nina Shea of Freedom House. "There are many difficulties with that. Under the Taliban we saw how a harsh interpretation of Islam was imposed on everyone, whether they wanted that interpretation or not. This is a concern for the individual rights of Muslims as well as for minority religious groups within Afghanistan."

The commission report's bottom line is that "a future Afghanistan that respects human rights, including freedom of thought, conscience and religion," is much less likely to be a staging ground for terrorism. But there is another reason to stress issues of faith and tolerance -- it is crucial that religious charities and relief groups are able to safely resume their work.

But who decides who is a relief worker and who gets jailed as a missionary? Ask Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer if this question matters in Afghanistan.

The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "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 in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

This implies that all kinds of people -- from atheists to evangelists -- can speak their minds and strive to change other people's minds. But Afghanistan remains a land in which converting to another faith can be fatal. Inviting someone to convert to another faith can be fatal, as well.

The goal right now, said Shea, is to focus on issues of security and the rule of law.

"This report," she said, "is not about making Afghanistan safe for Christian missionaries to go in and convert the country. ... We are talking about basic rights of religious freedom that have been violated, probably more severely in Afghanistan than in almost any other country in the world in recent years."