Religious Freedom Week: Serving Others in God’s Love

Drive through just about any American town, and you will encounter St. Jeanne Jugan, St. Vincent de Paul, Ven. Dorothy Day, St. Katherine Drexel, or Our Blessed Mother. Under the patronage of these saints—and many others—Catholics in our country have built and promoted an impressive number of institutions dedicated to charity and justice. From healthcare and education to social services and community organizing, Catholics have created a legacy of institution-building that we are grateful to inherit. These institutions play a crucial role in serving the common good.

Despite their contributions to the common good, some Catholic faith-based service providers find themselves in a precarious position.

In Philadelphia, the city recently barred Catholic Social Services from placing children with foster families, despite CSS’s long track record of successful placements. Although it faces a shortage of foster families, the city decided to shut out an organization that cared for over 2,200 children in the past year because the organization’s Catholic convictions about marriage and family do not allow them in good conscience to place foster children with same-sex couples.

Recent legislation in Oklahoma and Kansas protects the rights of faith-based adoption and foster care providers to continue to serve children without sacrificing their religious principles. But that legislative victory was hard-fought, and the law’s proponents were accused of being bigots for working to ensure that faith-based organizations are able to continue their work with integrity. We cannot take for granted that Catholic institutions will continue to have the freedom to serve.

The services offered by Catholic institutions are unique and irreplaceable.

As Steve Roach of Catholic Charities in Springfield, Illinois has noted, religious adoption and foster care organizations are well placed to recruit families from their own faith communities. The rise of the opioid epidemic has led to a corresponding rise in the number of children in the foster care system. The loss of faith-based service providers in places like Illinois, Massachusetts, California, and DC means that there are fewer avenues to recruit people of faith to serve as foster families.

Catholic organizations are often respected for their excellence even on secular terms.  But they provide something more: love. Catholic social services are rooted in the mission of Jesus Christ and thus animated by love. While the state is responsible for promoting the common good, it cannot provide love, which is a fundamental—indeed, the most fundamental—human need.

During Religious Freedom Week, the bishops ask us to reflect on the theme of “Serving Others in God’s Love.” Religious freedom is a human right to be “immune from coercion,” so that no one is forced to act contrary to his or her religious beliefs. The bishops are dedicated to encouraging religious freedom efforts for people of all faiths in all parts of the world. For Catholics in the United States today, religious freedom means that we have the space to build on our Church’s legacy of serving others in God’s love through our network of institutions.

We can advocate for that space today. The federal Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act (H.R. 1881 / S. 811) would protect the religious liberty of child welfare service providers, including adoption and foster care agencies. Contact your U.S. senators and representatives and ask them to cosponsor the federal Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act.

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Aaron Matthew Weldon is the Program Specialist in the USCCB Office of Religious Liberty. Follow USCCB religious freedom activities at @USCCBFreedom

 

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

 

Religious freedom | It is more than freedom to worship

In a class I co-taught on religious freedom last fall, many of the students seemed to arrive with a sense that there wasn’t much to talk about. In the U.S., we have always given individuals religious freedom, and we should keep doing that. If any question should arise the maxim of John Stuart Mill— “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins”—would resolve the matter quickly.

Happily, our location at least suggested the topic’s rich history. Our class took place in Providence, Rhode Island, two miles or so from the spot where Roger Williams, banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony on account of his views, stumbled out of the wilderness to begin a radical new experiment. In Massachusetts, Williams had spoken publicly against the punishment of religious dissenters. In Providence, he worked with others to establish bold protections for individual “liberty of conscience.” The fruits of that experiment were new forms of religious freedom, and protections for many religious minorities. Indeed, the proximity to our classroom was no accident. Among the religious minorities who sought out this liberty were Catholics, and there is a clear link to Rhode Island’s ultimate (and current) status as the most heavily Catholic state in the union.

As conversation got underway, however, I realized that many of our students held to assumptions that had to be challenged. In our conversations, the complexity and importance of religious freedom began to emerge.

First, many of our students understood freedom of religion as reducible to freedom of worship. Freedom to worship is certainly a crucial freedom, but freedom of religion is a much broader category, and one that goes beyond the private sphere into the public square. Freedom of religion involves the ability to organize schools and other charitable organizations, to enter into the political process with religious commitments, and generally to conduct oneself in accordance with one’s religious convictions and conscience. It is here, of course, in interaction with those whose religious convictions differ, that challenges can arise.

Second, many of our students assumed that the only interpretation of the First Amendment consisted in a Jeffersonian sense of a “wall of separation” between church and state. Thomas Jefferson used this phrase in a letter he penned in 1802, and it offers a metaphor that seems to be extremely stark: these two entities are to be separated in an absolute, with neither touching the other in any way. In the last fifty years or so, this has become an increasingly prevalent interpretation of the First Amendment. But it was not always so. Jefferson himself was more complicated in practice. As governor of Virginia, he called for public days of prayer, and as president, he directed federal funds to Christian missionaries and encouraged local governments to make land available for Christian purposes. John Adams, meanwhile, leaned more in the direction of what has come to be called the “accommodationist” view: the belief that religion is essential is fostering moral values required for maintaining civil order, and that religion is part of the national heritage. The precise meaning of the First Amendment is not simple, but it is crucial for the way in which we understand freedom of religion.

Finally, many of our students were simply unfamiliar with the tradition at the very heart of Christianity that requires fidelity to God before fidelity to any other authority, including civil government. They might have heard of early Christian martyrs, but they did not know that martyrs could have escaped their fate, if they would only have offered worship to Caesar. Even more immediately relevant, they did not know of the Thomistic tradition—essential to modern civil disobedience—that insists that laws not rooted in the larger ideal of justice are not to be regarded as laws at all. In some cases, disobedience to laws of this kind is actually a moral imperative.

Over the course of the semester, we discussed many topics, but these three especially made us all more aware of what is at stake in advancing claims of religious freedom—and why such claims must be treated with great care.

Holly Taylor Coolman is Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College.

Pray for Religious Freedom

Aaron Weldon,  Religious Liberty Program Specialist, USCCB

We come to enjoy true freedom when our restless hearts find rest in the truth. The great twentieth century philosopher, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – or, Edith Stein – discovered truth in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, and sought freedom by entering the Discalced Carmelites.  The convent didn’t stop her from reaching out.  During the rise of Nazism, Stein spoke up. She wrote to Pope Pius XI asking the Church to speak up on behalf of persecuted Jews, and she wrote her autobiography, Life in a Jewish Family, “as a way to combat racial hatred.”  She was captured in 1942 and taken to Auschwitz, where she died in the gas chamber shortly after arrival.  Stein was executed primarily because she was Jewish, and the Catholic Church considers her a Christian martyr, because she bore witness to her faith in Jesus before her executioners.

Having spent much of my life in the university, I admire Edith Stein. Her intellectual vocation led her to faith, her relationship with God led her to prayer, and her life of prayer was bound up with her outreach to others.  She enjoyed an interior freedom that opened out to service.

We can grow in both interior freedom and solidarity with others through prayer. In prayer, we express our dependence on God, and we take on the burdens of those for whom we pray.  During this Fortnight, here is how I will be praying:

  • For Bishops and all Catholic leaders. Many Christians may not realize religious liberty is an issue, because they don’t experience an infringement on their own freedom. But the issue is real for medical professionals like Cathy Decarlo, a nurse who was forced to participate in an abortion, or for ministries that serve immigrants in states prohibiting the “harboring” of undocumented persons. Pastors and leaders face serious challenges, and they need the wisdom and courage of the Holy Spirit. We can pray for them.
  • For Christians facing violent persecution. In the West, we are dealing with what Pope Francis calls “polite persecution.” Polite persecution is real, but it pales in comparison to the struggles of Christians in Pakistan, Syria, and other places. In the face of this suffering, it can be difficult for most of us to know what we can do. Certainly, we can support organizations, like Aid to the Church in Need, that work to assist Christians under extreme duress in places like Iraq. We can also pray for our brothers and sisters, as well as for the conversion of the persecutors.
  • For non-Christian fellow Americans. Religious freedom is a fundamental freedom, rooted in the nature of the human person. So all people must be immune from coercion, free to pursue the truth and live the truth as best as they understand it. Many Americans are impeded in their search. For example, Muslims have faced challenges in recent years. Several states have passed anti-Sharia laws, local governments have tried to use zoning laws to prevent the construction of houses of worship, and the White House has imposed a travel ban that courts have found is aimed at preventing Muslims from entering the country. These actions give rise to a culture in which Muslims are treated as second-class citizens. As Catholics, we should be aware of these challenges, as we ourselves have been the target anti-Catholic bigotry. That bigotry gave us Blaine Amendments that we are still fighting today. Religious freedom for all does not mean we are resigned to relativism; it simply means that governments do not get to coerce people in matters of faith. It means that the state recognizes a space for non-state institutions, and this is the same space we Christians enjoy to propose the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Please join me in praying for our neighbors, co-workers, and fellow Americans, that we all will be free to seek and live out religious truth.

Aaron Matthew Weldon is Religious Liberty Program Specialist for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Now is the time for peace!

Pic 1 posterA poster with the message, “Now is the time for Peace,” greeted bishops from Europe, South Africa, Canada and the United States when they arrived in Jordan for a solidarity visit. The “peace now” theme permeated meetings with Iraqi and Syrian refugees.

Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces represented the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at the meetings in Jordan. Then the Bishop and I went on to Lebanon to meet with the local Church and more refugees.  The situation in both Jordan and Lebanon is a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions.

In Jordan, we learned that they are hosting about 1 million Syrian refugees and 60,000 Iraqi refugees. This is a heavy burden for relatively small country of modest means with about 7 million people.

In Lebanon, the statistics are even more startling. With a native population of only 4.5 million, Lebanon is hosting about 2 million refugees, mostly Syrians, but also some Iraqis.  That would be the equivalent of the United States taking in some 140 million refugees over five years!  We are scheduled to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, not exactly our fair share.

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Maronite Patriarch Béchara Boutros Cardinal Raï distributes Communion at Mass for Migrants and Refugees at the Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Beirut.

But statistics only tell part of the story of the suffering that war, violence and persecution have brought to the region. Caritas Jordan and Caritas Lebanon are doing amazing work assisting both refugees and local people.  With the support of Catholic Relief Services and others, they serve Muslims and Christians.  It makes you proud to be Catholic.  They enabled us to meet with refugees, to hear their stories.

An Iraqi Christian family told us they had good relations with their Muslim neighbors before they fled the Nineveh plains in the wake of so-called Islamic State. They found refuge in Dohuk in the Kurdish region of Iraq, and now Jordan.  They hope to be resettled in a country of refuge.  They cannot contemplate going back to Iraq.

We also met a woman who had fled Mosul. Her family left in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their backs.  She, a teacher and her husband is a hospital worker, escaped with their three daughters, ages 28 to 24.  It took them ten tense hours at night in constant fear to reach nearby Erbil. Protecting their daughters from being raped or kidnapped was a challenge.  They witnessed killings and saw young women who were taken hostage as they fled.

Another woman reported that her father was kidnapped in Syria because Christians are being persecuted. When her brother reported the kidnapping he was put in jail for two days.

Refugees struggle in Lebanon where everything is expensive. One man said he works long hours but barely makes enough for them to live in Lebanon.  Life was better in Syria.  They want to go to Australia where they have been accepted, but their UN file is not moving.  A mother reported that her children only get milk once a day.  She is willing to go back to Syria if the situation improves because her son needs medical assistance.  Originally, they thought they’d be in Lebanon for two months.  It has been years.

These encounters and many others give a face to the statistics. There are lives and families behind the numbers.  At these and many other encounters, Bishop Cantú assured the refugees that they are not forgotten.  And he affirmed what we heard time and time again, “Now is the time for peace.”  For only peace can alleviate the refugee crisis.  I hope all sides realize that at the peace talks in Geneva.

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Stephen M. Colecchi is director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


Go deeper:

Read Archbishop Kurtz’s statement regarding refugees fleeing Syria.

Learn about the work of Migration and Refugee Services/USCCB in resettling an supporting refugees in the United States.

Join Catholics Confront Global Poverty, an initiative of USCCB and Catholic Relief Services, in advocating to improve the lives of poor and vulnerable people worldwide.

 

ISIL & Religious Freedom: The Role of the Use of Force

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Christian refugees fleeing ISIL live in tents on the grounds of a Catholic church in Erbil, Iraq.

You’ve likely heard the alarming reports. Last month, twenty-one Coptic Christians were murdered in Libya by the self-declared Islamic State.  A week later, hundreds of Assyrian Christians were taken hostage by the group in Syria. Since the first major territorial gain by ISIL in early 2014, when they took over much of Anbar province in Iraq, millions of people have been displaced from their homes, including Christians and other religious minorities. As ISIL made territorial gains, it terrorized all those who didn’t subscribe to its warped interpretation of Islam and support its power grab. The group has made its acts of brutal violence well known throughout the world.

It’s clear that something must be done to stop these horrendous attacks and protect all who are threatened, including religious minorities. Pope Francis and the Holy See have reminded the international community on several occasions that it is morally licit to use force to stop an unjust aggressor. At the same time, they have also emphasized that any use of military force must be proportionate and discriminate, and employed within the framework of international and humanitarian law.

While the use of force is licit, it must not be the only tool used to counter the brutality of ISIL. ISIL was able to gain power through its manipulation of political and economic exclusion in the region. These grievances must be addressed if we hope to truly put an end to the group’s threat. In a February 23rd letter to President Obama and leaders in Congress, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the USCCB, and Bishop Oscar Cantú, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, made the powerful observation that “inclusive governance and meaningful participation in political and economic life inoculate populations against the false promises of extremism.” These are just two elements among many that should be part of a holistic intervention to undermine ISIL.

Developing a multi-faceted approach to such a complex problem is no easy task, but it is one worthy of our energy and resources. People’s lives are at stake. The brutal acts we hear about on the evening news only begin to give us a picture of the harsh reality facing those living in areas threatened by ISIL. Bishop Cantú recently returned from a solidarity visit to the Kurdish region of Iraq where he encountered some of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis, Christians, Yazidis and Muslims alike, who have abandoned their homes in order to flee the terror of ISIL. Bishop Cantú witnessed the important work of development agencies, like Catholic Relief Services, that are serving those in need. There is a great need to support those who are displaced as well as those countries and communities that have taken them in.

ISIL has shone a light on the reality of religious persecution in our world. More must be done more to promote international religious freedom and protect religious minorities. While grateful for our nation’s commitment to supporting humanitarian assistance and for its efforts to encourage the formation of an inclusive government in Iraq that respects human rights and religious freedom for all, we know that these efforts must be strengthened and new strategies developed in order to truly transform the conflict with ISIL and counter their extremist message and brutal tactics. As Congress looks at the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) currently pending before it, we must remember these lessons – that limited force, consistent with international and humanitarian law, may continue to be necessary, but it cannot replace other diplomatic and political tools necessary for a lasting peace in the region.

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Dr. Stephen M. Colecchi is director of the USCCB Office of International Justice and Peace.

Go deeper:
Read the USCCB’s call for prayer and action on behalf of those facing religious persecution in the Middle East and around the world.

Read the letter of Archbishop Kurtz and Bishop Cantu to President Obama and Congressional leaders on religious persecution in the Middle East and the Authorization for Use of Military Force pending before Congress.