Several months ago our editorial staff came across a story in Asia News about a hospital in Pakistan run by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. The hospital, it was reported, was “at risk of closure because of a lack of funds. For nearly half-a-century, the religious have offered their service and their work with unconditional love for the local people, regardless of faith, ethnicity or social status.”
What made the story so troubling was that St. Joseph’s Hospice in Rawalpindi was an increasingly rare example of inter-religious mercy in that deeply troubled country.
In Pakistan, religious minorities, including Catholics, are persecuted by Muslim extremists and are forever vulnerable to imprisonment and even death because of the anti-blasphemy laws. So far this year, three people have been sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy. In 2011, Pakistan’s Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, was assassinated for supporting reform of the blasphemy law. Bhatti’s brother now occupies the same position that his martyred brother held.
The fierce intimidation of Pakistan’s Muslim extremists has cowed judges and police. In May, Pakistani human rights lawyer Rashid Rehman, who dared to defend an academic charged with blasphemy, was assassinated in his office.
Yet in this troubled nation where Christians make up only 1.5 percent of the population, Catholic nuns are bearing witness in a quietly heroic way to what Pakistan could become.
St. Joseph’s Hospice (see story, Page 5) is an important sign of contradiction to the spreading persecutions in the Middle East and the resulting Christian diaspora that is draining the Holy Land and points east of their Christian populations.
The struggles of one hospital may seem almost inconsequential in the face of the growing sectarian madness in the Middle East. It is hard not to get overwhelmed. Cynicism is the much easier response, as many people reacted when Pope Francis spontaneously invited Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to join him at the Vatican last month to pray for peace. The prayers, reflecting the three religious traditions, focused on thanking God for creation, seeking forgiveness and praying for peace.
An international day of prayer for the persecuted peoples in the Middle East would be appropriate.
One month later, it would seem the cynics were right. As if to make a mockery of the prayers for peace and forgiveness, three Israeli teenagers were brutally murdered by assailants, and then a Palestinian teen was murdered in retaliation. The fuse has been lit once again to unleash another demonic explosion of revenge and retaliation. And all this while Iraq and Syria descend into sectarian chaos, with Christians and other religious minorities the region’s vulnerable pawns in what is increasingly becoming a transnational religious war.
For those of us who are on the sidelines, there are few options. We must first of all pray, because that which human wisdom and human leadership have not been able to resolve must be given up to God. An international day of prayer for the persecuted peoples in the Middle East would be most appropriate. Church leaders can also raise their voices in defense of the defenseless and demand that our government does the same. And finally, we can support those on the front lines, like St. Joseph’s Hospice, which extends the healing balm of Christian mercy to all who cross its portal.
OSV, in partnership with Catholic Relief Services, has provided funds to St. Joseph’s Hospice. We encourage our readers likewise to donate to those Catholic organizations dedicated to helping the faithful in this tormented region.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor