The issue of religious liberty in the United States has attracted increasing concern as governments at the federal, state and local level seem willing to challenge the beliefs of Catholics and other Christians seeking to live out their faith. Failure to protect freedom of conscience and a willingness to force Catholic organizations to provide contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs are provoking a crisis at the federal level. Elsewhere the Church’s service to the undocumented and its reluctance to allow its adoption agencies to give children to same-sex couples or the unmarried have provoked governmental wrath.
These issues are not negligible, particularly because they speak of a growing willingness to challenge the Church despite — or because of — the important role it plays in education, health care and social services. But as Cardinal Timothy Dolan told his brother bishops last month, such challenges to religious liberty here at home “pale in comparison to the Via Crucis currently being walked by so many of our Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, who are experiencing lethal persecution on a scale that defies belief.”
‘The 21st century has already seen in its first 13 years 1 million people killed around the world because of their belief in Jesus Christ.’
Disbelief is the only response one can have to the story of Saba Waris, a 13-year-old Christian girl in Pakistan. According to Asia News, “the little girl was abducted, forcibly converted to Islam and forced to marry” a 32-year-old Muslim who allegedly was angry at her mother. The distraught mother is without recourse in this heavily Muslim country where Christians are increasingly subject to persecution — even to the point of death — for their faith.
How bad is this religious persecution? Cardinal Dolan had some stark statistics. We are living in the “age of martyrs,” he said. “One expert calculates that half of all Christian martyrs were killed in the 20th century alone. The 21st century has already seen in its first 13 years 1 million people killed around the world because of their belief in Jesus Christ.”
While persecution does not only affect Christians, the scale of Christian suffering is unprecedented. David Simpson, a member of the British Parliament, recently said: “It is estimated that 130 countries around the world persecute Christians. Every hour, a Christian is tortured and murdered.”
Perhaps the worst has been the Middle East, where Christian villages are targeted by Muslim extremists and a massive diaspora is taking place as ancient Christian communities in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Palestine are being emptied by war and threats of violence. England’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks described anti-Christian persecution as “the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing.”
Pope Francis has challenged Catholics to respond to this tidal wave of persecution of our fellow Christians. “When I hear that so many Christians in the world are suffering, am I indifferent, or is it as if a member of my own family is suffering?” he asked in September. “How many of you pray for Christians who are persecuted?”
Prayer and fasting is needed this Advent for those who are suffering for faith. Donations to international Catholic aid organizations are needed as well. The U.S. bishops also urge Catholics to pressure Congress and the Obama administration to make the protection of religious minorities from persecution a diplomatic priority. If we forget the sufferings of those persecuted for the faith we claim, our Christmas joy will ring a little more hollow this year.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor; Sarah Hayes, executive editor