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.

Why Should We Care About Religious Liberty?

JK Picture 2014Fortnight for Freedom is an important time for Catholics and all people of good will to think seriously about the issue of religious liberty and what it means for oneself, the local community, the Church, and the country.  Whether I am talking to people in parishes or legislators at the Colorado State Capitol there is one question that always arises: Why should I care about religious liberty?

My answer is simple – we all need to care because religious liberty affects many different aspects of our lives and the life of the Church.  Religious liberty is what makes it possible for the Catholic Church to provide essential services to poor and vulnerable persons in our communities. Religious liberty allows Catholic hospitals to heal the sick, and enables Catholic schools to educate our children.

Over the course of American history, there have been a number of instances of religious liberty issues affecting the Church. One notable example is the Blaine Amendments that were enacted in many different States, many of which still exist today, that operate to block Catholic school students from equal participation in government educational benefits. More recently the Church has been fighting vigorously against the HHS mandate, which would force religious people and institutions to provide coverage for contraceptives, including abortion-causing drugs and sterilization.

Around the country, States are dealing with issues of religious liberty that have become media spectacles designed to paint those who want to protect religious liberty as bigots or partisan religious extremists.  Colorado has been no stranger to the debates over religious liberty and there is one example that I would like to share with you that illustrates the fact that when it comes to the issue of religious liberty, common sense and bipartisanship are quickly fading ideals.

For several years, civil union legislation was introduced in the Colorado Legislature.  Many versions of the legislation during these years had included religious liberty protections for entities that limited adoption and foster care services only to married heterosexual couples; that changed in 2013.  The 2013 version of the bill did not include these basic protections; in fact, it included no protections at all in regards to religious liberty.  But what was most shocking was the hostility and vitriol shown to those who were trying to amend the bill to protect the religious liberty interests of adoption agencies.  At one point during the debate on the Senate floor, in response to one of the religious liberty amendments, one of the Senate sponsors of the civil union bill remarked “So, what to say to those who say religion requires them to discriminate?  I’ll tell you what I’d say: Get thee to a nunnery and live there then.  Go live a monastic life away from modern society, away from people you can’t see as equal to yourself, away from the stream of commerce where you may have to serve them.” The clear political tension that exists in Colorado regarding an issue (religious liberty) that should never be defined by politics was both disturbing and disheartening. Unfortunately for us all, I don’t see an end in sight.

While it is easy to become discouraged, we must never forget that ultimately, religious freedom depends on how deeply and honestly we live our faith.  I would encourage everyone to take the days of the Fortnight seriously – engage in prayer and reflection, find ways to engage the public square and know that if we value our religious freedoms we must protect and defend them and become people that are worthy of them.

Jennifer Kraska is Executive Director of the Colorado Catholic Conference.  She also serves as President of the National Association of State Catholic Conference Directors (NASCCD).