There was an interesting event over this past weekend. Christians came together to speak out for those who could not speak out for themselves. Am I talking about the homeless? Perhaps the victims of abortion? Or drive by shootings in Chicago? No, in this case I am merely speaking of other Christians. You wouldn't know it from the silence in the media, but Christians are by far the most persecuted religion in the world. As such, November 2nd was set aside as the International Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians.
Here in the United States, where we take freedom of religion for granted, it's hard to imagine that others can be arrested, beaten, imprisoned, or even killed, merely for publicly expressing their Christian faith. Sadly though, it happens every day in many countries around the world. Churches throughout the United States were invited to take part in the International Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians, though only a handful opted to create special events to do so. One Catholic parish that did step up and participate was St. Bernadette's at 9343 S. Francisco Ave. in Evergreen Park, Illinois. St. Bernadette's set aside time after their Saturday and Sunday masses to present a video on Christian persecution, followed by a moment of silence, prayer, and discussion. The Saturday session was led by none other than myself – your Chicago Catholic Examiner.
One thing I explained to my audience is that we tend to think of persecuted Christians as people who live in radical Islamic countries. While they make up a large share of persecuted Christians, there are many other places in the world where Christians are being persecuted just as harshly. The persecutors may be of any faith, or no faith at all (in the case of many atheist communist nations that persecute Christians). Radical anti-Christian sentiments can come from many faiths that we normally associate with being peaceful and harmless – there are radical Hindus persecuting Christians, and radical Buddhists, for example. This certainly does not mean that most members of those faiths behave in such a manner, but it does demonstrate that Christianity can be persecuted anywhere in the world. Today, some of the worst attacks on Christians occur in nations like Azerbaijan, Egypt, Eritrea, India, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan and Vietnam. Some of these nations – like India, Nigeria, and Vietnam – have millions of Catholic citizens, but nevertheless make it extremely dangerous for Catholics to live in certain regions of their country. This year's video on Christian persecution focused on Nigeria. In the video compiled for the International Day of Prayer, a woman named Florence broke down in teas as she recalled being attacked merely for being a Christian. “We’ve been telling you people to convert to Islam, but you people refuse. So, the only thing is to get ride of all of you and inherit all that you have.’” the attacker told her. He added “We’ll kill all of you...you and your children and your daughters.”
According to the organization Gospel for Asia (GFA), over 14,000 people around the world are martyred each year because they are Christian. We often think of blood martyrdom as a forgotten relic from early Christianity, but stories around the world prove that this terrible act is still common place in many present-day nations. Pastor Allocious of Sri Lanka even reported that Buddhists burned his church to the ground to prevent him from preaching the Gospel in his country. Likewise, Pastor Ugyen of China, spent three years behind bars just for showing a movie on the life of Jesus Christ to the public.
In many places that have been Christian since antiquity, our faith is now an endangered species. This is especially true for many of the Christians in the Middle East and North Africa. According to the Pew Forum, Christians now only make up 4 percent of the Middle Eastern inhabitants. A century ago it was 20 percent. The Pew report also says just 0.6 percent—fewer than 13 million—of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians live in the Middle East, despite Christianity originating in that region of the world. Many Catholics seem to turn a blind eye to these persecutions because are not aware those being persecuted are fellow Catholics. For example, whenever there are reports of the “Chaldeans” being attacked, this refers to Iraqi Catholics. The Catholic Church has existed in Iraq since the apostolic era, and today there are around half a million Chaldean Catholics, but many of them have fled their homeland in terror.
If Catholics do not become more active in standing up for our faith and speaking out against these atrocities, who will speak up? Today, Christians overseas are being oppressed and persecuted, but tomorrow, it could be Christians here in the United States. When we are silent in the face of these crimes, I think back to the famous World War II poem by pastor Martin Niemöller, reflecting on what happened during the NAZI regime:
First came for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up, because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me —
and there was no one left to speak out.