Tested in Faith

John Newton explains the valuable work of the charity Aid to the Church in Need

Christians around the world are enduring persecution and oppression, and many speak of Christianity as the world’s most persecuted religion. Catholic charity Aid to Church in Need is reaching out to these communities in a number of ways and helping them to keep the Faith alive in the situation they face.

In 2010, Christians around the world endured persecution, discrimination, acts of violence and religious intolerance because of the faith they profess.

To give one example from Baghdad, Iraq at the end of last October: a terrorist attack on Our Lady of Salvation Syrian Catholic Cathedral left fifty-eight people dead and more than seventy wounded. The three priests who were leading Divine Service at the church were taken hostage by the terrorists. Two of them – Fr Wasim Sabieh and Fr Thaier Saad Abdal – were killed during the incident and a third priest – Fr Raphael Qatin – was rushed to hospital in a serious condition shortly after the siege.

As ongoing reports from the region received by Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need make clear, the attack was not an isolated incident. Christians in Baghdad have continued to be targeted by Islamist extremists. On Easter Sunday 2011 a makeshift bomb exploded near the Sacred Heart Church, and elsewhere in the capital police were wounded during a shootout with gunmen outside the Church of St Mary the Virgin, while the congregation was still inside. More believers have fled Baghdad following these renewed atrocities and there are now barely fifty Christian families remaining in the city.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that Christians are the ‘religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith’ as Pope Benedict XVI said in his Speech for World Peace Day on 1 January 2011. Research published last year suggested that at least 75 per cent of all religious persecution going on in the world is directed against Christians (Commission of the Bishops Conferences of the European Community, Religious Freedom: Pillar of the Human Rights Policy in the External Relations of the European Union, Brussels, 2010).

It is to raise awareness of the serious difficulties Christians are undergoing today that Aid to the Church in Need put together its recent report on the oppression of Christians, Persecuted and Forgotten? The report looks at the situation facing our suffering brothers and sisters in more than thirty countries – including Eritrea where up to 3,000 Christians continue to be imprisoned for their faith, many in underground cells or transport containers. Evidence suggests some prisoners have died from torture or other forms of abuse.

For Aid to the Church in Need, the prevailing concern emerging from the report is that now, more than ever, Christians need our help and support. The charity is committed to keeping the Faith alive in countries where our brothers and sisters are experiencing persecution or oppression. Every year the charity supports roughly 5,000 projects in 140 countries including: catechetical materials, to keep the Faith alive in difficult conditions; Mass stipends, to support priests in their ministry; and help for refugees, such as Iraqi Christians seeking shelter in neighbouring countries.

The Middle East is an area of
particular concern for the charity at
the current time. Not only in Iraq,
but across the region, the Christian
presence has declined over the past
decade – both in terms of
actual numbers and also
proportionate to other
communities. If the current
exodus continues unabated,
the long-term survival of
the Church could be in
doubt in some countries.
Deepening poverty and
growing suspicion towards

Christians, including

sporadic violence and

intimidation are among the reasons for this massive emigration. Incidents in the region over the last twelve months included:

Islamist leaflets threatening

Christians being widely distributed in the coastal town of Sidon, Lebanon. The leaflets said Christians should ‘spare their lives by evacuating the area within one week’ or ‘bear the consequences’ in June 2010.

In October 2010 Saudi Arabian authorities conditionally released twelve Filipino Catholics working in the country accused of proselytising into the custody of their employers. The country’s religious police arrested them a year earlier for attending Mass. At the time 150 other foreign Catholics were arrested with them.

In January 2011 more than twenty worshippers died and at least seventy others were wounded when a car bomb exploded outside the Church

Bishop Joseph Coutts blesses the coffins of Christian’s killed during attacks in Gojra in 2009

of Saints, a Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria, Egypt. The explosion took place while 1,000 people were attending Mass to celebrate the New Year.

The incident in Egypt illustrates how the stability of countries in the region is closely inter-related, and a revolution in one country can spark uprising in others in the area. One of the reasons given for the bombing in Alexandria was that the Egyptian Coptic Church was holding two women who converted to Islam captive against their will – a claim made by the terrorists who attacked Our Lady of Salvation Syrian Catholic Cathedral in Iraq. This assertion was again repeated by the 500-strong mob of Salafi Muslims who attacked two churches in Cairo on 7 May 2011. It seems the claims were groundless, as one of the women that they named, Camilia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic Orthodox priest, subsequently appeared on television and denied she had wanted to leave the Christian faith. However, the violence in Cairo left twelve people dead and more than 180 others injured. Bishop Antonios Aziz Mina of Guizeh told ACN that among those killed was sixty-year-old grandfather Naashaat Rateeb, whom he described as ‘the right-hand man’ of the local priest.

Aid to the Church in Need has stepped up project work in the country, including help for priests and Sisters, as well as support for Christian education. While building new churches in the country is highly problematic, as obtaining approval can take decades and requires the personal authorization of the president, the charity has been able to help with a new church. Last year permission was granted for one to be built in 6th-of-October City, a fast-growing metropolis, south of the capital, Cairo. The new building will give the Christian community there a place to meet. The charity has also supported a Church-run centre for people living with disabilities in Minia, which is building bridges between Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

But it is not just the Middle East where Christians face problems. In Pakistan at least fifty Christians have been killed following accusations of blasphemy since 2001. Accusations against alleged blasphemers are often false or motivated by petty interests, encouraging mobs to mete out rough justice. These attacks are tied up with the country’s blasphemy laws. Violation of the law can lead to life imprisonment for offences against the Qur’an – and those who insult the Prophet Mohammed can be punished by death.

According to data provided by the Catholic Church’s National Commission for Justice and Peace, between 1986 and 2010 at least 993 people were charged with either desecrating the Qur’an or slandering Mohammed. Most of the charges

are brought against Muslims from minority groups – but 120 of those accused were Christians. The wider world became aware of the injustices of the blasphemy law last year when mother-of-five Asia Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging for blasphemy, and many more Christians are serving prison sentences for convictions of blasphemy.

The charity has helped fund prison chapels, giving those imprisoned for such crimes a place to pray. Aid to the Church in Need is also helping with the construction of churches, such as St Mary’s Sukkur that was destroyed by mob violence in 2006. The church was torched by a mob of thousands who descended on the Christian quarter, enraged by cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Bishop Max Rodrigues of Hyderabad said: ‘I am most grateful to Aid to the Church in need for its strong human, moral and financial support for our aggrieved Sukkur people and church when they needed it most.’

In neighbouring India the charity has supported various projects to help displaced Christian families returning home after the violence against Christians in Orissa State in 2008. More than 50,000 people were made homeless and more than seventy died when Hindu extremists torched 4,640 houses and 252 churches. The violence was linked with the rise to power of nationalist groups such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which regard India as a Hindu country – and see Christians and other minority religions as unwelcome outsiders. While the spate of sustained attacks that occurred in 2008 has now finished, Christians are still the target of sporadic violence. In November 2010 around 250 extremists stormed three villages in Orissa State, breaking into Christian homes and assaulting the occupants. Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal has criticized the BJP saying that they are making religious minorities victims of a ‘sustained malicious campaign’.

Much more could be said about the difficulties Christians face, including the ongoing problems in Communist countries such as North Korea and China. Here much of the charity’s work is necessarily secretive but we are supporting the Church there as best we can.

To conclude I would repeat the words of ACN’s founder, Fr Werenfried von Straaten, who said: ‘Christianity is being tested. Persecuted Christians are being tested in their faith… But we are all being tested in our love. We have to prove that we possess love, in spite of all our differences of opinion… a love that is patient, a love that understands, a love that helps and comforts, a love that burns like a flame in the dark night of the persecuted Church and sets hope burning there, so that they do not fall into despair in their affliction.’

Dr John Newton is Press Officer
of Aid to the Church in Need
and co-edited the charity’s recent report
on the oppression of Christians,
Persecuted and Forgotten?

For more information
about ACN’s work
and/or for a free copy of
Persecuted and Forgotten?
please write to Aid to the Church in
Need, 12–14 Benhill Avenue,
Sutton, Surrey SM1 4DA,
or telephone 020 8642 8668 ND