Global Persecution of Church intensifies
Religious extremism is being linked to national identity and Christianity is perceived as a threat to the emergence of that new national identity.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the leader of Catholics in England and Wales, called the report "very disturbing reading" and said it "shows clearly and concisely what it is that Christians endure for their beliefs".John Pontifex, spokesman for Aid to the Church in Need, said: "Religious extremism is being linked to national identity and Christianity is perceived as a threat to the emergence of that new national identity. The extremists see the identity of Orissa being linked to the Hindu religion, and so the presence of Christians is seen as a provocation." The index is based on the recently issued Persecuted and Forgotten?, the charity's annual report on Christians oppressed for their faith. Mr Pontifex said the reports from their contacts in the countries affected suggested that persecution and intolerance were increasing.
"The anecdotal evidence suggests only one conclusion: the situation is getting manifestly worse," he said. "Christians in areas where they have lived for donkey's years are now threatened with being forced to leave, with the possible conclusion that they could be extinguished."
Aid to the Church in Need was founded in 1947 by Werenfried van Straaten, a Dutch priest, to help German refugees. But while it once operated mostly in Communist Eastern Europe, in recent years the majority of its work has come to be in the Islamic world, where anti-Christian violence is widespread.
On Monday the Taliban killed a British Christian aid worker in Afghanistan for "spreading her religion". Gayle Williams, 34, worked with handicapped, blind and deaf Afghans for the non-denominational Christian charity Serving Emergency Relief and Vocational Enterprises (SERVE).A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said an assassin killed Miss Williams on her way to work in Kabul "because she was working for an organisation which was preaching Christianity".Converting from Islam to Christianity carries the death sentence in Afghanistan. Friends and colleagues of the aid worker said that the organisation had a strict policy against proselytising.
Afghanistan is one of many Islamic countries where conversion to Christianity carries severe punishments. In Sudan apostasy carries the death penalty and in Pakistan blasphemy laws are used to oppress religious minorities and there has also been a dramatic increase in the number of anti-Christian attacks.In other countries instability or anarchy has led to increased persecution. Several thousand Iraqi Christians remain displaced after two weeks of violence in the city of Mosul that left at least 13 Christians dead. A church was firebombed in the city last Tuesday as the country's leading Shia cleric condemned the ongoing attacks.
Some 800 Christians have been murdered since the US-led invasion in 2003 and half the country's 800,000 faithful have fled the country. Last week Iraq's leading Catholic churchman, the Chaldean patriarch Cardinal Emmanuel-Karim Delly of Baghdad, described the "disastrous and tragic" situation in his country at the Synod of Bishops on the Bible in Rome, saying life in Iraq was like the Way of the Cross for many people."Peace and security are lacking, just as the basic elements for daily life are lacking," he said, drawing applause from more than 200 bishops.
Although most of the countries on the index are majority Muslim, India has seen some of the worst violence. Even before the recent Orissa massacre the Global Council of Indian Christians collected evidence of 500 cases of anti-Christian violence between January 2006 and November 2007.
In Orissa, in the east of the country, more than 100 Christians have been killed in the past month and 25,000 displaced after violence triggered by the assassination of a Hindu nationalist by Communists. Over 4,400 houses and 151 churches or chapels were destroyed by mobs and more than 18,000 people injured.
Mr Pontifex said it was all part of a growing trend. "A common theme among these countries - and other serial offenders such as Egypt and northern Nigeria and Saudi Arabia - is the rise of religious fundamentalism, Islamist but also Hindu and Buddhist," he said. "In the majority of the countries included there are strong signs that the situation for Christians has worsened, in some cases markedly so - even in the last two years. Algeria, Eritrea, Iraq and Pakistan stand out very strongly. Now the situation is so grave that one must ask: 'What, if any, future is there for Christians in these countries?"
In Algeria 30 churches were forcibly closed in the first half of 2008 and new laws against proselytising were introduced, and against the distribution of religious literature that could "shake the faith of a Muslim". There have also been dramatic increases in extremist violence in West Java, Indonesia, while in Iran "modesty patrols" enforce strict rules against everyone, including non-Muslims. One area of particular concern is Turkey, the officially secular Muslim majority state which has seen a marked increase in anti-Christian attacks.
Atheist regimes such as North Korea and Belarus continue to oppress the faithful. In North Korea some 300,000 Christians have disappeared since 1953 and some 80,000 are thought to be in labour camps. However, some small improvements have been made, with Christian aid workers now allowed into the country.In China at least 12 Catholic bishops remain behind bars "or in some way prevented from carrying out their ministry", said the report. The day before the close of the Olympics 73-year-old Bishop Julius Jia Zhigou was arrested for the 12th time in four years.
But the situation is improving in some countries, such as Cuba and Vietnam. Outside the former Communist world, however, all evidence points to growing "religious extremism linked to national identity with the aim of extinguishing the Christian community", Mr Pontifex said.
"The acts of intimidation are demonstrably more serious," he added. "Their objective is clearer - to get Christians to leave or convert. We ourselves are a minority group in parts of the world and we have the right to stand up for ourselves. And the wider media should pay attention. We like to think that the right to religious liberty can be taken for granted in the 21st century. The research presented in these reports shows it cannot, and that unless we take up the struggle on their behalf, many Christians will continue to be denied the right to freely practise their faith."
Aid to the Church in Need's Index of Persecution and the book Persecuted and Forgotten? are available for download on www.acnuk.org. For a hard-copy version of Persecuted and Forgotten? 2007/2008, please contact Aid to the Church in Need, 12-14 Benhill Avenue, Sutton, Surrey SM1 4DA (Tel 020 8642 8668). A donation to help cover costs would be appreciated.
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