‘We can make supporting the suffering Church a priority’

Posted on November 19, 2013. Filed under: News | Tags: , , , , |

This month may well mark a milestone in the life of the US Church: on Nov. 11, in his final Presidential Address to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York called on his brother bishops to make action on behalf of the suffering and persecuted Church around the world “a priority”—“not one good cause among others,” as the Cardinal put it, “but a defining element of our pastoral priorities.”

Important as the fight for religious freedom is in the US—in the face of the government requiring that employers cover birth control, for example—the Cardinal said, such battles “pale in comparison” to the suffering of Christians in countries such as China, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan and Nigeria. “If our common membership in the mystical body of Christ is to mean anything, then their suffering must be ours as well,” the archbishop said.

We are greatly encouraged by and deeply grateful for the Cardinal’s fiery speech. We salute him also for including Aid to the Church in Need among organizations preforming “heroic work” on behalf of the persecuted and suffering Church. Here follows the Cardinal’s talk in full: 

Just last August, I had the honor of concelebrating the Mass of Dedication for the Cathedral of the Resurrection in Kiev. A particularly moving moment came when Metropolitan Shevchuk asked the Lord’s protective hand upon believers suffering persecution for their faith anywhere in the world. That such a heartfelt plea came from a people who had themselves been oppressed for so long made it all the more poignant.

This morning I want to invite us to broaden our horizons, to “think Catholic” about our brothers and sisters in the faith now suffering simply because they sign themselves with the cross, bow their heads at the Holy Name of Jesus, and happily profess the Apostles’ Creed.

Brother bishops, our legitimate and ongoing struggles to protect our “first and most cherished freedom” in the United States 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. If our common membership in the mystical body of Christ is to mean anything, then their suffering must be ours as well.

The new Archbishop of Canterbury has rightly referred to victims of Christian persecution as “martyrs.” We are living in what must be recognized as, in the words of Blessed John Paul II, “a new age of martyrs.” One expert calculates that half of all Christian martyrs were killed in the twentieth century alone. The twenty-first century has already seen in its first 13 years one million people killed around the world because of their belief in Jesus Christ – – one million already in this still young century.

That threat to religious believers is growing. The Pew Research Center reports that 75 percent of the world’s population “lives in countries where governments, social groups, or individuals restrict people’s ability to freely practice their faith.” Pew lays out the details of this “rising tide of restrictions on religion,” but we don’t need a report to tell us something we sadly see on the news every day.

While Muslims and Christians have long lived peacefully side-by-side in Zanzibar, for instance, this past year has seen increasing violence. Catholic churches have been burned and priests have been shot. In September one priest was the victim of a horrific acid attack. Nigeria has also been the site of frequent anti-Christian violence, including church bombings on our holiest days.

The situation in India has also been grave, particularly after the Orissa massacre of 2008, where hundreds of Christians were murdered and thousands displaced, and thousands of homes and some 400 churches were torched. Just recently, a Christian couple was recently attacked by an angry mob just because of their faith, their Bibles torn from their hands.

We remember our brothers and sisters in China, where Catholic bishops and other religious leaders are subject to state supervision and imprisonment. Conditions are only getting worse, as the government closes churches and subjects members of several faiths to forced renunciations, so-called re-education, and torture.

Of course, it’s not just Christians who suffer from religious persecution, but believers in other faiths as well. Much religious persecution is committed by Muslims against other Muslims. Buddhists in Tibet suffer under government torture and repression. In Myanmar Muslims suffer at the hands of Buddhist mobs. All of us share apprehension over  reports of rising anti-Semitism.

But there is no escaping the fact that Christians are singled out in far more places and far more often.

I don’t have to tell anyone in this room that our brothers and sisters in the Middle East face particular trials. As Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has observed, for Christians in the Middle East, “even the simple admission of Christian identity places the very existence of [the] faithful in daily threat…Exceptionally extreme and expansive occurrences of violence and persecution against Christians cannot leave the rest of us – who are blessed to live peacefully and in some sense of security – indifferent and inactive.”

The humanitarian catastrophe that continues to unfold in Syria has been particularly close to our hearts these past few months. We’ve prayed for and stood in solidarity with the Church and the people of Syria, and with Pope Francis and the bishops of the Middle East in their call for peace.

It’s no surprise that this violent and chaotic situation has bred even more religious persecution. Of course we’re all familiar with Syria’s venerable history as the place from which our faith spread to the rest of the world, and Syria has long been home to a sizable Christian minority. Yet those Christians who have remained in Syria face ever-present, rising threats of violence.

Last April two of our Orthodox brother bishops were kidnapped in Aleppo by gunmen as they returned from a humanitarian mission. Their driver was shot and killed. And a little less than a year ago an Orthodox priest from Hama was killed by a sniper while helping the wounded. Similarly tragic violence against believers is now commonplace.

Just as Syrian Christians have suffered from the war raging in their land, the war in Iraq has devastated that ancient Christian community in that country as well. As Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Iraq tearfully told us during our spring assembly in 2012, remember, the situation of Christians there “became a tragedy of immense proportions after 2003,” with many religious and lay faithful tortured and killed.

Violent attacks continue to terrorize the Iraqi people. Just a little over a year ago the war’s worst massacre of Iraqi Christians occurred in a brutal attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, where some 58 believers were massacred. Those martyred for their faith included their parish priest who died holding a crucifix, forgiving the gunmen and asking him to spare his people.

The situations in Syria and Iraq wrench our hearts, but the plight of Christians in Egypt is no better. This past summer saw the serious escalation of violence against our brothers and sisters there, as the ancient Coptic Christian community has been targeted. Dozens of Coptic churches have been burned; Christian-owned businesses and hotels have been attacked; and individual believers have been murdered.

To take one example, John Allen reports that in August, “hundreds of Muslim extremists stormed a school run by Franciscan sisters in … Upper Egypt, where they reportedly raped two teachers. Three nuns were paraded before the crowd as prisoners of war.” It was only through the intervention of a Muslim lay teacher that other sisters’ lives were spared.

We as bishops, as shepherds of one of the most richly blessed communities of faith on the planet, as pastors who have spoken with enthusiastic unity in defense of our own religious freedom, must become advocates and champions for these Christians whose lives literally hang in the balance.

Pope Francis recently invited us all to an examination of conscience in this regard during his General Audience on September 25:

“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? When I think or hear it said that many Christians are persecuted and give their lives for their faith, does this touch my heart or does it not reach me? Am I open to that brother or that sister in my family who’s giving his or her life for Jesus Christ?  Do we pray for one another? How many of you pray for Christians who are persecuted?  How many? Everyone respond in his own heart. It’s important to look beyond one’s own fence, to feel oneself part of the Church, of one family of God!”

I am convinced that we have to answer those questions of Pope Francis, not merely as individual believers, but collectively as a body of bishops.

So you ask me, what can we do? Without any pretense of being exhaustive, here are some ideas I’d like to lay before you, with a nod to John Allen and his recent compelling work on this topic.

First, we can encourage intercession for the persecuted. Remember how the “prayers for the conversion of Russia” at the end of Masses over a half-century ago shaped our sense of what was going on behind the Iron Curtain? A similar culture of prayer for persecuted Christians today, both in private and in our liturgical celebrations, could have a similar remedial effect.

We can also make people aware of the great suffering of our brothers and sisters with all the means at our disposal. Our columns, our blogs, our speeches, and our pastoral letters can reference the subject. We can ask our pastors to preach on it, and to stimulate study sessions or activist groups in their parishes. We can encourage our Catholic media to tell the stories of today’s new martyrs, unfortunately abudndant. Our good experience defending religious freedom here at home shows that, when we turn our minds to an issue, we can put it on the map.  Well, it’s time to harness that energy for our fellow members of the household of faith hounded for their beliefs around the world.

We know the importance of supporting organizations such as Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Catholic Relief Services, and the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, who have done heroic work, while among our Protestant brothers and sisters groups such as Open Doors make a similar contribution. Writers such as Nina Shea, Paul Marshall, John Allen, and Phillip Jenkins here in the United States help keep the issue alive, as does our own Committee on International Justice and Peace.

Finally, we can insist that our country’s leaders make the protection of at-risk Christians abroad a foreign-policy priority for the United States. We can also cajole political leaders to be more attentive to the voices of Christians on the ground, since those Christians will  certainly feel the consequences of whatever the West does or doesn’t do. As Dr. Thomas Farr reminded us at our spring meeting a couple summers ago, the protection of religious freedom abroad, and advocacy of oppressed believers, has hardly been a high foreign policy priority for administrations of either party.

In general, my brothers, we can make supporting the suffering Church a priority – – not one good cause among others, but a defining element of our pastoral priorities. As historians of this conference know, speaking up for suffering faithful abroad has been a hallmark of our soon-to-be-century of public advocacy of the gospel by the conference of bishops in this beloved country we are honored to call our earthly home.

Protecting religious freedom will be a central social and political concern of our time, and we American bishops already have made very important contributions to carrying it forward. Now we are being beckoned – – by history, by Pope Francis, by the force of our own logic and the ecclesiology of communion – – to extend those efforts to the dramatic front lines of this battle, where Christians are paying for their fidelity with their lives. As the Council reminded us, we are bishops not only for our dioceses, not only for our nation, but for the Church universal.

May all the blessed martyrs, ancient and new, pray for us, as we try to be confessors of the faith.

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The Persecuted Church in India

Posted on October 31, 2013. Filed under: News | Tags: , , |

By George Marlin

After severing its colonial ties with Great Britain in 1947, India, a nation of 1.2 billion people, organized a secular Democratic republic that guarantees freedom to practice and propagate one’s faith.

Christianity in India dates back to the Acts of the Apostles, but is the faith of only 2.5 percent of the population today.  The total number of Catholics is 19.5 million.

Sadly, in the 21st century, the religious liberty clause in the Indian constitution has been ignored by Hindu fundamentalists who have planned, coordinated, and executed murderous anti-Christian campaigns.  On Christmas Day 2008, for example, over 100 Churches and Christian facilities were looted, damaged, or destroyed, and more than 400 Christian houses were gutted.

Since 2008, the focus of Hindu terrorists has been in the jungle district of Kandhamal located in the state of Odisha (formerly Orissa).  Over 56,000 of the 117,000 Christians living there have been driven from their homes, with 6,000 of their houses burnt to the ground.  Three hundred Churches and holy places have been desecrated or destroyed.

The Christians are being persecuted not only because of their faith, as they are in Egypt and Syria, but because they refuse to renounce it and embrace or re-convert to Hinduism.  As a result, thousands of Indians, including priests, nuns, and ministers, have been sadistically tortured. Many have lost limbs; others have been burnt alive.  Over 100 have been martyred for the faith.

Reacting to these hideous crimes, the Archbishop of Bombay, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, said: “The blood of the martyrs has always been the seed of Christianity. That is the mystery of the Cross! I have no doubt that much blessing from God will be showered upon the people of Odisha and India as a result of the suffering of the Kandhamal Christians.”

But it will come at a heavy price. In his work, Early Christians of the Twenty-first Century, award-winning Indian journalist Anto Akkara, who visited Kandhamal sixteen times, recounts how the anti-Christian violence was orchestrated, and records the testimonies of victims and their families.  The volume contains “a collection of over 100 true witnesses to Christ-testimonies soaked in blood, tested and purified by untold suffering.”

Akkara describes how police looked away as churches were being destroyed and further how, in many cases, they refused to report the cause of deaths as murders.  To avoid prosecution, Hindu terrorists hid the evidence.  The bodies of martyrs were cremated or dumped into bogs or rivulets in the jungle.  As for the few cases that went to trial, kangaroo “fast track” courts dismissed or acquitted Hindu bigots, citing lack of evidence.

After a dozen Christian leaders led by Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar confronted Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about the orchestrated violence. Singh publicly acknowledged that it was a “national shame,” but took few measures “to restore the confidence of the Christian community.”

For the faithful, India’s constitutional guaranteed freedom of religion and equality before the law remains a meaningless slogan.

There are many heart-wrenching stories in Akkara’s book, but one that particularly struck me involved a 56-year old priest and a 28-year old nun.

Father Thomas Chellan, director of the Divyajyoti Pastoral Center, and his assistant, Sister Meena, managed to escape over a wall of their compound as Hindu terrorists destroyed the complex, which included a church, a large dormitory, and other facilities.

The next day they were captured and just before Chellan’s kerosene-soaked head was torched, there was a last second decision to hold off.  Instead, a gang of 50 Hindus beat the priest and nun.  “It was like a crucifixion parade,” Father Chellan later recalled.

Their tormentors stripped them of their clothing and began raping Sister Meena. Later they paraded their half-naked prisoners through the streets and Chellan was ordered to rape the nun:  “When I refused, they kept beating me and dragged us to the nearby government office. Sadly, a dozen policemen were watching all this quietly.”

Finally, a senior policeman took them to a police station 12 kilometers away and their ordeal ended.  The next day they were released and flown to Mumbai for treatment.

Sister Meena, who recovered from her traumatic ordeal, refused to be silent.  She went public, held a press conference in front of 200 television cameras in New Delhi and demanded an investigation into her rape.  She described everything in gruesome detail and reported that the police tried to dissuade her from lodging a criminal complaint after the mandatory medical test confirmed the rape.

“Maybe God wanted me to suffer with our people and become an instrument to speak up for the voiceless people of Kandhamal,” she told the media.  Sister Meena concluded by publicly thanking God “for choosing me to face this humiliation and giving me the opportunity to suffer for the people of Kandhamal.  I got a chance to undergo the experience of being crucified.”

The rock-like faith of Sister Meena and thousands of others inspired Anto Akkara to write his book.  He believes they deserve the title “Early Christians of the Twenty-first Century” because they held on to their faith “amid diabolic cruelty, rampant impunity, and state apathy.”

Mr. Marlin is Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org



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They looked into the face of evil but found the courage of their faith

Posted on October 15, 2013. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , |

Last week, ACNUSA staff had the privilege of welcoming Anto Akkara, a veteran Catholic journalist from India, and a dear friend. Anto had come to the US to tell the story of the martyrs of Kandhamal, a jungle region in the east of India where five years ago 100 Christians died for their faith; survivors of the massacre still live in fear and great difficulty, many of them permanently banished from their homes and forced to live in poverty.

KandhamalAnto has spent extraordinary amounts of time and treasure to chronicle the horrors and to help bring the perpetrators to justice. He just published “Early Christians of 21st Century,” his fourth book on the massacre, which tells the story in agonizing detail. Anto’s witness and commitment are extraordinary—his passionate presentation left us stunned, numb, but also fired up and grateful for the opportunity we have to help the persecuted and suffering Church through the work of ACNUSA. To this we are called—in prayer and through our gifts to ensure those living in darkness and fear that they are not alone, that we will not forget them.

The title of Anto’s new book is telling—these were martyrs for the faith. The great majority of those who perished died not because they were Christian, Anto insists—as is the case in Nigeria, Syria, Egypt, Kenya and elsewhere—but “because they refused to renounce their faith.” This is what happened. A Kandhamal man of dubious background reinvented himself as a swami or Hindu holy man and made it his business for decades to eradicate Christianity from the district, where 20 percent of the population is Christian. (Nationally, Christians account for less than 2.5 percent of the population.) In August of 2008 the man was murdered and Christians were quickly blamed.

A mob of his followers took his body and crisscrossed the district, stopping in front of churches to denigrate and threaten believers. This was their message: “Hindus worship cows, but Christians eat cows. So, we must treat Christians like they treat cows.” These ominous words were carried out quite literally as faithful were cut into pieces, stoned to death, tied to trees and burned alive; a young nun was raped to applause of the crowd, a priest forced to watch. Each and every church in Kandhamal, 300 in all, was destroyed, along with 6000 homes of Christian families, leaving 56,000 homeless. Local police stood by.

Again and again Anto told us: these people had a choice; they could have been spared their fate by agreeing to reconvert to Hinduism; they refused to give up their faith in Christ, which would have involved a humiliating, denigrating ceremony in Hindu temples, the centerpiece of which is the drinking of “cow dung water” as a means of purification.

In many cases, remains were burned or otherwise disposed of to not leave a trace and prevent the families of victims to claim government compensation. In time, Christians identified more than 80,000 people as perpetrators, but police only managed to find 3,200 of them. Due to police inaction and the intimidation of witnesses, the investigation—which is ongoing—has so far only produced two convictions for murder and 75 convictions for violence. Anto, who has gained national attention for his efforts, including the support of major political leaders, will do what it takes to see that justice is done. That the process is far from over is evident from the sentencing just last week of seven Christians from Kandhamal, convicted of murdering the notorious Swami, a travesty of justice, as the local bishop affirmed. “There was not a shred of evidence against them,” said Anto.

But “mysterious are the ways of God,” a proclamation with which Anto signs his emails. The incredible bravery and witness of these believers has been producing incredible fruit. Anto, a seasoned journalist committed to the facts, confidently reports on a miraculous healing, as well as a rosary and a pectoral cross that survived the torching of a church completely intact. More amazingly still, a number of the swami’s henchmen have themselves become Christians, drawing the ire of fanatical Hindus themselves. One particularly brutal persecutor of the faithful was nearly bludgeoned to death and blinded. “I want to do Christ’s work,” the man said.

Anto has spoken with numerous brave Christians, asking them over and over again: “was it worth it to refuse becoming a Hindu again? You could be living in comfort, but instead you are mired in poverty and living in a tent. Do you still believe in Jesus Christ, in the wake of the slaughter of loved ones?” The answers he recorded are startling. A once prosperous farmer who lost his wife and all his land, simply said: “Christ has taught me that we would be persecuted for our faith. We are all pilgrims on earth—and this is not our permanent home.” Another told Anto: “the Israelites spent 40 years in the desert, but we have been living in this refugee camp for only 14 months.” Still another proclaimed: “I share in the Christ’s suffering on the Cross.”

Anto marvels that these simple, good people could muster such profound Christian wisdom and insight. After all there have been few priests and catechists around in Kandhamal in recent years. The answer is clear, said this brave journalist who in the course of his investigations was robbed of his camera and other equipment by state security personnel: “the Holy Spirit taught them.”

At Mass last Sunday (Oct. 13, 2013), St. Paul’s words to Timothy (2:8-13) spoke to the courage of Kandhamal’s Christians: “If we have died with Him we shall also live with Him; if we persevere we shall also reign with Him.” So too, the Gospel Acclamation: “In all circumstances, give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” Here in the US, we cannot help but ask: what would we have done in such almost unimaginable circumstances?

If you want to learn more about the tragedy of Kandhamal, please write us at info@acnusa.org . Meanwhile, please join us in praying for these brave brothers and sisters. May their courage and witness strengthen our own faith.

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Poverty, natural disasters and the Church in Bangladesh

Posted on August 27, 2009. Filed under: News | Tags: , , , , |

Speaking to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the Catholic charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, Bishop Bejoy D’Cruze of Khulna said that natural disasters have plunged people deeper into poverty. Highlighting an increase in natural disasters, Bishop D’Cruze said, “I am always afraid of cyclones, hurricanes, and flooding.”

Bishop D’Cruze continued, “Houses are in a poor condition they are not very good at all all of a sudden they can be destroyed.  The situation is getting worse because of the untimely floods and destruction of the environment.”

The Church is standing strong, though.  Bishop D’Cruze went on to say that Christians in Bangladesh are fervent. “The faith of the people is strong, 60-80 per cent attend Sunday Mass,” even though Sunday is a working day in the country.

Click here for the full story

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India’s Christian victims too scared to return home

Posted on August 20, 2009. Filed under: News | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Speaking from India, journalist Anto Akkara told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) that, while the state government had officially dissolved the camps for Christians who fled mob violence in Orissa last August, there are still about 1,000 Christians living in tents. At their height the displacement camps housed 50,000 refugees, many of who have gone back to their villages.

Akkara said that most of the Christians who have not returned are living in the slums of Bhubaneswar, the state capital of Orissa, east India, fearing the government will not be able to protect them should violence erupt again. His remarks follow the US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s decision earlier this month to put India on its “Watch List” for “the government’s largely inadequate response in protecting its religious minorities.”

ACN provided initial emergency relief for those in the camps, temporary tent chapels where Mass could be said, and has promised help to Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar to rebuild churches and other buildings destroyed in the violence. During the anti-Christian pogroms of last August, more than 70 people were killed, 5,031 homes were attacked, and 171 churches targeted.

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A time for healing in India

Posted on June 24, 2009. Filed under: News | Tags: , , , , , , |

Fr. Cleophas Fernandes, Director of the National Biblical Catechetical and Liturgical Center (NBCLC), said that the institute will do all it can to help inter-faith experts address problems caused by the attacks on Christians, in which about 80 people died and nearly 30,000 were displaced. It comes as Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue reported that a meeting between Hindu and Catholic leaders in Mumbai (Bombay) on June 12th had opened a new era.

As religious dialogue has taken on a new urgency in India, Aid to the Church in Need is sponsoring peace-building programs in the eastern diocese of Chuttack-Bhubaneswar. Organized under the leadership of Archbishop Raphael Cheenath, these workshops have run in places where Christians were still thought to be at risk.

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