Remembering Global Persecution of Christians during the Fortnight for Freedom

In 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, was gunned down just outside his home in Islamabad. Last year, Church officials in Pakistan opened a cause for his beatification. Bhatti’s life was striking for the depth of his vocation. He had taken up his post out of a calling to protect Pakistan’s downtrodden minorities. Knowing that his life was in danger, he had renounced marriage so as not to leave behind a fatherless family. Shortly before he was assassinated, he stated in a video, “I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us, and I am ready to die for a cause. I’m living for my community … and I will die to defend their rights.”

As the Church rightly draws our attention to the growing curtailment of religious freedom in the United States in recent years during this Fortnight for Freedom, let us not forget that Christians around the world like Bhatti suffer the violation of their religious freedom through killing, torture, arbitrary arrest, unjust interrogation, the burning of their churches and property, and numerous forms of heavy discrimination.

“How many people are being persecuted because of their faith, forced to abandon their homes, their places of worship, their lands, their loved ones!,” exclaimed Pope Francis in a recent video. A report published earlier this year by the Center for Studies on New Religions in Turin, Italy, held that some 90,ooo Christians were killed for their faith around the world in 2016 and that between 500 and 600 million Christians were in some manner persecuted or barred from living out their faith.

While the mainstream media and major human rights groups by and large have not given the global persecution of Christians the coverage that it deserves, we can be grateful that some important voices have brought the trend to the world’s attention. Critical, for instance, was the U.S. State Department’s decision to designate as genocide the persecution of Yazidis, Christians, and other religious minorities in Syria and Iraq in March 2016.

Once the world comes to acknowledge the persecution of Christians, the question must then be asked: What do Christians do when they are persecuted? How do they respond?

Bhatti responded to persecution not only through being ready to accept martyrdom but also through constructively promoting religious freedom through political means. For instance, he advocated for the reform of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws, constructed coalitions of religious communities, and counseled the forgiveness of his enemies.

How Christians around the world respond to persecution is the subject of the Under Caesar’s Sword project, based at the University of Notre Dame and the Religious Freedom Institute. The project’s premise is that with good answers to these questions in hand, the rest of the world can exercise more effective solidarity with persecuted Christians.

On a generous grant from the Templeton Religion Trust, the project assembled a team of fourteen world class scholars of global Christianity and sent them out to investigate how Christian communities respond to persecution in countries ranging from Iran to Indonesia, Syria to Sri Lanka.

The findings were numerous (and reported here). The most common responses to persecution were strategies of survival, through which communities seek to remain alive and to practice their most basic activities. The second most common response was strategies of accommodation, through which they seek to strengthen their position by constructing relationships with other churches, religious communities, and secular actors – much like Bhatti did. The least common was strategies of confrontation, which involves direct opposition to persecuting regimes, including martyrdom, the fate that Bhatti ultimately met. Striking was the rarity of violence as a response to persecution. Evangelicals and Pentecostals suffered more persecution, and reacted more assertively to persecution, than older, established churches like Catholic and Orthodox communities. The most central finding was that Christian communities engage in a creative pragmatism by which they undertake short-term measures to build their position with the long-term theological hope that one day the persecuting regime will fall and that they will then blossom.

With these findings in hand, we who live in relatively free environments may actively support our beleaguered brothers and sisters who, like Bhatti, struggle to respond faithfully to persecution.

“I ask you: how many of you pray for persecuted Christians?,” queries Pope Francis.

No time is better to undertake such prayer – as well as other forms of support – than the Fortnight For Freedom.

 Daniel Philpott is Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame

 

¡Si Se Puede!

Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the United Farm Workers union in 1962, is pictured in an undated photo. Chavez, who died in 1993, began grass-roots organizing in the 1950s while working in the fruit and vegetable fields of California and defined the farmworker union movement. (CNS file photo)

 

Si se puede – yes we can! It was the mantra of the United Farmworkers Union (UFW) and the movement that they and its leaders, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, popularized. It captured an attitude that things, no matter how bad they appeared, could be changed.

At 24 years of age, I joined the United Farmworker’s movement on the staff of their national boycott. I went to work for the UFW as an organizer, not knowing what organizing was, only what some of the outcomes of the organizing had been. One of those outcomes was managing to convince millions of people to forgo eating grapes and lettuce from California. The UFW had organized a national boycott of grapes and lettuce, which brought striking farm laborers from California to tell Americans across the country of the meager wages and horrible working conditions they labored under. They waged their battle non-violently, embracing the tactics and vision of Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King.

I was impressed by the work of their founder, Cesar Chavez, a diminutive Chicano, born in Arizona to Mexican parents who had lost their small homestead in Arizona to foreclosure and then migrated to California to work as farm workers. Chavez dropped out of school in the 7th grade to work with his family in the fields picking peas and lettuce, cherries and beans, corn and grapes.

What attracted me and thousands of other volunteers and organizers to “the Union” was Chavez. He was a different kind of leader. He was not flashy; he did not wear a suit or drive big cars. He had none of the trappings of power. Instead what was attractive about Chavez was his honesty, his willingness to put others first, his hunger and thirst for justice in a state (California) and a country where agricultural workers had experienced precious little justice.

Chavez became a symbol of Si Se Puede. He showed that change was possible, not with guns and not with riots – both of which were being romanticized in the late 60’s and early 70’s and in some ways glorified by revolutionary movements throughout Latin America and in the streets of Detroit and Oakland and Buenos Aires – but with peaceful determination and organizing.  Chavez exemplified a life committed to non-violence, self-discipline, and service to others.

I recall a march to Modesto, California, in which I participated. At the front of the marchers were several priests beside Chavez and other UFW leaders. Someone was carrying an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. For me it was a vivid example of religious leaders accompanying their flock, in this case in a just struggle for their rights to decent wages and working conditions and equally important – to be treated with dignity and respect.

Chavez and the UFW melded religious values with democratic values, self- interest with a vision of the common good.  Blending elements of the Civil Rights Movement, labor organizing, and community organizing, Chavez and the unique group of organizers that formed the UFW leadership exemplified a quiet dignity and austerity. Those who went to work for the UFW as organizers were paid “room and board and $5.00 a week.”  For many of the hundreds of organizers who joined the Farmworker Movement at the time, it was an antidote to the growing materialism and consumerism of our culture and a way of channeling their anger at injustice into a positive initiative to improve our nation.

Immigrant agricultural workers remain among the lowest paid and poorest workers in our nation. They are still denied collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act, and are still confronted with anti-immigrant fear and hatred. Cesar Chavez may be gone but he and the work of the UFW inspired others to organize and fight for their rights and their dignity.  Struggles are now led by leaders such as Baldemar Velasquez of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Ohio, Michigan, and North Carolina, and Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida (who the bishops’ honored in 1998 with the prestigious Cardinal  Bernardin New Leadership Award), who is spearheading a national boycott of the Wendy’s fast food chain, seeking a penny a pound increase for tomato pickers. In Vermont, the group Migrant Justice, representing dairy workers, has negotiated an agreement with Ben and Jerry’s for “Milk with Dignity,” and the Workers Center of Central New York is working on legislation to establish collective bargaining rights for farm workers in the state of New York. The brave women and men risk much working for justice for these groups in environments not always supportive of strangers from foreign countries in their communities.

Pope Francis, speaking at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Vera Cruz, Bolivia, in the spring of 2015 said,

“In conclusion, I would like to repeat: the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change.”

I say, “¡Si se puede!”

Randy Keesler is the Area C grant specialist for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.


Going Deeper

Learn more about the dignity of work and the rights of workers.  See what Catholics are doing in Yakima, New York, St. Paul-Minneapolis, and South Texas to stand with migrants.

Sowers of Change, Protagonists for Social Justice, and Bold Leaders of Action

Attendees cheer a statement about justice for immigrants Feb. 16 during a the opening program of the U.S. regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

Midway through the U.S. Regional Meeting of World Popular Movements in Modesto, California, a strong wind came up which almost blew off the metal protections of the roof of the beautiful new gym where we were meeting at Central Catholic High School.

The force and the noise of the wind reflected the force and noise of the gathering of over 700 inter faith delegates of community organizations from around the United States, with some international representation also. The force was a powerful wind of strong voices calling for the popular movements to be sowers of change, protagonists for social justice, and bold leaders of action in bringing down the walls that divide the struggles against the systems that Pope Francis mentioned in his letter of greeting to the gathering.  The Pope wrote about being confronted by “a system that causes enormous suffering to the human family, simultaneously assaulting people’s dignity and our Common Home in order to sustain the invisible tyranny of money that only guarantees the privileges of a few.”

Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., listens to a speaker Feb. 18 at the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif. His diocese hosted the event. (CNS/Dennis Sadowski)

Many voices then spoke from diverse perspectives but shared the urgency of being one people in one fight (one ‘witness’ as Cardinal Peter Turkson called it) “to rebuild society in which every person is seen as fully human, has a full voice in the decisions that shape their lives, and is able to thrive and reach their human potential.”  The noise was that of great enthusiasm for “disrupting oppression and dehumanization” as Bishop Robert McElroy, Archbishop Jose Gomez, and others spoke about and “rebuilding” systems that promote and protect justice in ownership of land, for working people, in housing, for immigrants, and in ending racism. One might wonder why the meeting was held in Modesto, California, and not some large city easily reachable by modern modes of transportation. The answer simply is that the planners felt that the great Central Valley in California provided a location that reflected the challenges being faced all over the country.

The Central Valley is one of the richest agricultural areas in the world but struggles with issues of water, clean air, higher unemployment, lower wages, thousands of annual migrant farm workers, large percentages of immigrant peoples, human trafficking, homelessness, and a host of other social issues including violent gangs, hunger, school drop outs, etc.   But at the same time there are so many who live in the Central Valley who want to make life better for all who live and work there. The Regional Meeting received a warm welcome and recognition by those who knew about its purpose. What made this meeting different from other church or community gatherings?

Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, poses for a photo Feb. 16 with Lira DeMoraes, a volunteer with the Merrimack Valley Project in Massachussetts at the start of the U.S. regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif.

It was the first time in the United States that community organizers from across the land were invited by the Church to come together so that the Church might hear from the people experiencing exclusion, dehumanization, and the pain of poverty.  Pope Francis had previously convened three World Meetings of Popular Movements. He spoke at all three about overcoming the globalization of indifference by “placing the economy at the service of peoples; working for peace and justice; and defending Mother Earth.” To this regional gathering in the United States the Pope sent a written greeting wishing that the “constructive energy” of this meeting “would spread to all dioceses, because it builds bridges between peoples and individuals…that can overcome the walls of exclusion, indifference, racism, and intolerance.” The Holy Father acknowledged with gratitude the sponsors of this gathering: The Catholic Campaign for Human Development; the host bishops from the three dioceses in the Central Valley; and Cardinal Peter Turkson, who leads the new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and expressed his support of the popular movements.  What was different was that Catholic dioceses hosted and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development of USCCB sponsored the meeting, which was organized and run by the popular movements under the leadership of the PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) National Network and other organizing networks. Pope Francis highlighted PICO’s work for promoting this meeting.

Although representatives of the Churches did speak and were well received, the Church leaders, including over 20 Catholic bishops, were there to listen and to accompany participants in the dialogues.  The message from the delegates at the end of the meeting was addressed to the popular movements and leaders in the United States and globally and to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Pope Francis. The message quoted Pope Francis and Catholic bishops extensively but also laid out the challenge, urging “our clergy and faith communities to speak and act boldly in solidarity with our people.” The message quoted Cardinal Tobin in his video address to the gathering that “faith leaders need to walk out in front and show that they are not afraid.” Pope Francis was indeed the inspiration for this gathering. Cardinal Turkson, by his presence and in his words, gave strong witness for the Church’s commitment to the integral development of the human person. Every human person has been created in the image and likeness of God, and full human development gives glory to God.

Stephen E. Blaire is bishop of Stockton, California.


 Going Deeper

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development provides ongoing support for community groups that work to transform their communities. Visit our map to find out where this work is happening where you live—then get involved!

Promoting Peace in Northern Ghana

kris-crs-nov-2015

Kris Ozar, Country Representative for Catholic Relief Services in Ghana

In Pope Francis’ statement for the 2017 World Day of Peace, he notes that “the Church has been involved in nonviolent peacebuilding strategies in many countries, engaging even the most violent parts in efforts to build a just and lasting peace.”

At Catholic Relief Services (CRS), our peacebuilding work often tries to anticipate conflicts and to defuse them before they explode into violence. A good example is an ongoing project in Ghana leading up to this month’s Presidential and Parliamentary elections.

You might not think Ghana, known as a beacon on stability in West Africa, is a country that needs peacebuilding work, but its northern regions are particularly troubled where a significant number of recurring conflicts that have at times erupted into violent clashes with fatal consequences. The country’s stability can be threatened when elections exacerbate simmering political, religious, and ethnic tensions.

Ghana’s youth constitutes about a third of its 26 million people. For this reason, the CRS peacebuilding project, dubbed “Promoting Peace in Northern Ghana,” is focused on helping people between the ages of 15 and 25 understand and act out their role as agents of peace. Working with partners, including three dioceses in Northern Ghana, during the several months leading up the election, CRS trained approximately 675 youth in peacebuilding and preventing electoral violence. In addition, 30 youth leaders, called Young Peace Ambassadors selected from communities particularly prone to violence have been implementing community-based peace advocacy activities to promote peaceful elections in December 2016.

For much of the next year, efforts will focus on further strengthening the role of youth as productive citizens and positive contributors to the Ghanaian economy by continuing to work with youth leaders and building up the peacebuilding capacity of diocesan units.

At CRS, we know from experience that violence can be contagious. But so can peace. Projects like this one in Ghana are like stones tossed in a pond, rippling far beyond those directly affected.

As Pope Francis said, “in 2017 may we dedicate ourselves prayerfully and actively to banishing violence from our hearts, words and deeds, and to becoming nonviolent people and building nonviolent communities that care for our common home. ‘Nothing is impossible if we turn to God in prayer. Everyone can be an artisan of peace.’”

Kris Ozar is Country Representative for Catholic Relief Services in Ghana.


Going Deeper

Read Pope Francis’ message for the 2017 World Day of Peace. Join with Catholics Confront Global Poverty to advocate with others to change the conditions that prevent peace globally.

Opening Wide the Door of Gospel Nonviolence

Eli McCarthy, Director of Justice and Peace for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men

Eli McCarthy, Director of Justice and Peace for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men

Pope Francis continues to amaze. As far as I know, he has just issued the first high-level official Catholic statement focused on Gospel nonviolence in this year’s World Day of Peace message. The door has been opened for the Catholic Church to enter a deeper understanding and broader commitment to Jesus’ way of active nonviolence and just peace.

Francis said “to be true followers of Jesus today includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.” Thus, we are to “cultivate nonviolence in our most personal thoughts and values,” i.e. develop the habit or virtue of nonviolent peacemaking. He pledges “the assistance of the Church in every effort to build peace through active and creative nonviolence.”

Like Jesus, we encounter stories of nonviolent peacemakers in this message, such as Gandhi, Khan, MLK, and Gbowee. These icons of nonviolent force realized that both constructive peacebuilding and nonviolent resistance were necessary compliments to sustainable conflict transformation.

Khan was a Muslim nonviolent leader in India who both developed schools for women and the first nonviolent peace army (80,000 members) to resist the ruthless British occupation. In a similar vein, today the Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) offers unarmed civilian protection in many violent conflict zones. For example, in South Sudan NP has reduced sexual assaults and rape by all armed actors from regularity to zero in the areas they patrol. They also directly saved 14 women and children from armed militia when they refused three times to obey orders from the militia to leave during an armed attack.

These models, which combine constructive peacebuilding and nonviolent resistance, represent a just peace approach. This approach offers a vision of human flourishing which includes a commitment to the social conditions that illuminate human dignity and cultivate thriving relationships. Drawing on specific criteria, virtues, and practices to guide our actions, it focuses on transforming conflict, breaking cycles of violence, and cultivating sustainable peace.

Key nonviolent practices that reflect this approach include, for example, addressing the root causes of violence, transforming the different dimensions of conflict, nonviolent resistance, restorative justice, unarmed civilian protection, interfaith collaboration, trauma-healing, and nonviolent civilian-based defense. Core virtues would include nonviolent peacemaking, mercy, solidarity, and humility.

Several just peace criteria within the broader approach would guide our action choices and apply at all stages of conflict. There are examples of a just peace approach to nuclear weapons, lethal drones, Syria, and ISIS.  

What if the Catholic Church were to make a shift to an explicit just peace approach consistent with Gospel nonviolence? Would it not be more consistent with Jesus’ way and help us recognize that all killing or lethal force is a form of violence? Would it not also liberate us more for nonviolent practices that would better build just peace, prevent war, limit ongoing war, heal after war, and even draw society away from war sooner as we more effectively live up to our “duty to strain every muscle to outlaw war” (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes par. 81).

As Catholic leaders in our communities, we have a very unique opportunity to build on this movement of the Spirit.

Here are some suggestions:

1) share the World Day of Peace with your communities;

2) provide substantial education about active nonviolence in all levels of faith formation;

3) provide a regular Gospel-based training program in various nonviolent skills, as they have in the Archdiocese of Chicago;

4) join or develop a local peace team to deploy unarmed peacekeepers, provide nonviolent skill training, and scale-up restorative justice.

May God’s love and courage be with each of us as we walk further through the door of Gospel nonviolence.

Eli McCarthy is the director of Justice and Peace for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.


Going Deeper!

For more resources, visit USCCB’s World Day of Peace webpage, where you’ll find a two-page handout in English and Spanish, past World Day of Peace messages, and other tools to promote peace.

The Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence

Marie Dennis, Co-President, Pax Christi International

Marie Dennis, Co-President, Pax Christi International

Many people around the world are living and making peace, caring about each other, and striving for social justice and right relationships with the rest of creation. Yet, war, gang violence, gun violence, terrorist attacks, fear and enemy-making, and the structural and systemic violences of poverty, racism, environmental destruction, and gender violence are present in every person’s life…virtually, if not personally. Continue reading