Persecuted Christians and the Hope of Easter

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Sadly, Holy Week began this year with another attack on innocent Christians. Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt, like so many Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians here in our diocese, gathered for the sacred liturgy on Palm Sunday. At least 44 of these brothers and sisters in Christ were killed in terrorist bombings at the Church of Saint George in Tanta and at the Cathedral of Saint Mark in Alexandria. Over 125 people were wounded in the attacks.

The Coptic Church in Egypt, like many other ancient Christian communities in the Middle East, the cradle of Christianity, faces persecution from violent extremists. The persecution of Christians also extends well beyond the Middle East. At present, Christians are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith. 80% of all acts of religious persecution in the world today are directed at Christians. Last year, about 90,000 Christians were killed because of their faith. In the words of Pope Francis: “The Church today is a Church of martyrs.”

In some countries, like North Korea, violent persecution is carried out by the state. More often, it is carried out by terrorist groups and non-state actors. They perpetrate violence and subjugation against Christians and other religious groups, including murder, rape, false detention, and forced exile, as well as damage to, and expropriation of, property. ISIS, Boko Haram, Taliban, Al Shabaab, and other extremist groups conduct suicide bomb attacks like happened in Egypt on Palm Sunday. Some also engage in other horrific forms of torture and execution and will often glory in the brutality inflicted on their victims and parade it on social media.

In November 2014, while waiting for an audience with Pope Francis, I was seated next to another bishop. We introduced ourselves and I learned that he was the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul in Iraq. For an hour before the Pope arrived, we spoke about his archdiocese. His predecessor as archbishop was killed in 2008. ISIS occupied Mosul in the summer of 2014. They gave the Christians in the city the choice to convert to Islam, pay an exorbitant tax most could not afford, or be killed. Most were able to escape, but some were killed. The archbishop was not aware of any who had renounced their Christian faith. With great sadness, he told me that the Sunday after the occupation by ISIS was the first Sunday in almost 2,000 years that the Eucharist was not celebrated in Mosul. The Archbishop explained to me that he did not expect many Christians to return to Mosul after the defeat of ISIS. He shared that, even before ISIS occupied Mosul, his people experienced the hardships of discrimination.

There were many Christian villages of the Nineveh Plain near Mosul that were destroyed or occupied by ISIS in the summer of 2014. Over 150,000 Christians, mostly Chaldean and Syriac Catholics and Syriac Orthodox, fled from their homes to Erbil and remain there in poverty. Some have moved on to Jordan and Lebanon. Some live in refugee camps. Since the liberation of the Nineveh Plain villages, some Christians have returned only to find their homes and churches severely damaged or destroyed. Some would like to rebuild, but it is an enormous challenge. They also are concerned for their safety and security if they return.

The plight of persecuted Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria is sometimes in the news. But we should also be aware of religious persecution, mostly against Christians, that is rampant in other countries like North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, and northern Nigeria. We also see worsening persecution in places like Bangladesh, China, Eritrea, Indonesia, Kenya, Libya, Niger, Pakistan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Yemen.

Sometimes I am asked by people what they can do to help these brothers and sisters who are suffering because of their faith. There are three things I suggest: prayer, advocacy, and material aid.

When I have spoken to bishops and prie