On March 25, 2016, Pope Francis marked Good Friday in Rome at the Colosseum. In his meditation on the Via Crucis, Francis prayed:
“O cross of Christ, today, too, we see you raised up in our sisters and brothers killed, burned alive, throats slit and decapitated by barbarous blades amid cowardly silence.
“O cross of Christ, today, too, we see you in the faces of children, of women and people, worn out and fearful, who flee from war and violence and who often only find death and many Pilates who wash their hands.”
The Pope’s comments are a helpful reminder to all of us of the immense suffering of our Christian sisters and brothers across the globe. From North Korea and China to Nigeria and Sudan, from Iraq and Syria to Venezuela and Mexico, Christians are facing unprecedented levels of persecution.
According to the U.S. Department of State, Christians in more than 60 countries are being persecuted by their governments or surrounding neighbors simply because of their belief in Jesus Christ. The numbers involved are staggering. There are more than 100 million Christians enduring various forms of persecution, and according to the Open Doors Ministry, a nonprofit watchdog organization for persecuted Christians, each month 322 Christians are killed for their faith, 214 Christian churches and properties are destroyed, and 772 forms of violence are perpetrated against Christians, including murders, beatings, rapes and forced marriages.
There are also around 40 million Christians living as minorities in Muslim-majority countries; thus, every day, they face a host of threats, such as possible arrest and execution, merely for professing belief in Christ.
Sadly, the Western media and also European and North American governments all too often turn a blind eye to the oppression and, in some cases, the genocide.
Consider Germany, where the German branch of Open Doors released a report in May through the Gatestone Institute, “Religiously Motivated Attacks on Christian Refugees in Germany.” It found that the small groups of Syrian Christians — having survived the civil war in their homeland and the treacherous journey to Europe — are now victims of physical or sexual assault by Muslims in refugee camps in Germany.
The report detailed more than 300 incidents; between February and April alone, 86 Christians were physically assaulted by Muslim refugees or shelter security staff, and another 70 received death threats for being Christians. Christian refugees also reported being forced to participate in Islamic prayers under threat of violence. Last October, a 24-year-old Iranian refugee in one of the camps was assaulted by a crowd of Muslims and beaten unconscious. His crime: He converted to Christianity.
This was just in Germany. Other investigations have found similar threats to Christians across Europe’s refugee facilities. The result, of course, is that Christians are not going to refugee camps where there are large Muslim populations, only adding to the dangers they face and reducing the means of charitable organizations to bring them badly needed help.
Critics of the Western media have noted the consistently poor coverage of the violence in the camps, just as there has been scant reporting on the atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic State group — known by the names ISIS, ISIL and Daesh — against Christians in Syria and Iraq. The killing of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo received six times more coverage than the martyrdoms by beheading of the 21 Christians on a beach in Libya in 2015.
Western governments have been equally slow to designate Christians as targets of persecution and genocide. Only at the end of last year did the United Nations recognize what had been obvious since 2014. The U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published its “Report on the Protection of Civilians in the Armed Conflict in Iraq.” The report stated: “ISIL continues to target members of different ethnic and religious communities, intentionally depriving them of their fundamental rights and subjecting them to a range of abuses under international human rights and humanitarian law.”
The U.S. Department of State was even more desultory in its assessment, declaring only in March this year that the mass slaughter of Christians by ISIS was genocide. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a formal statement declaring that ISIS is committing genocide against Christians. “We know,” Kerry said, “that, in Mosul, Qaraqosh and elsewhere, Daesh has executed Christians solely because of their faith; that it executed 49 Coptic and Ethiopian Christians in Libya; and that it has also forced Christian women and girls into sexual slavery.”
And even with that declaration, the U.S. government has a poor record of assisting Christian refugees. By the end of July, for example, of the 7,000 Syrian refugees the Obama administration had brought into the country, only 23 were Christians — 15 described simply as “Christian,” five Catholics, two Orthodox and one Greek Orthodox adherent. That adds up to .03%. For the record, before the start of the catastrophic Syrian civil war, Christians accounted for 10% of the total population of Syria.
One notable exception is the Hungarian government, which has set up a special department for persecuted Christians and has earmarked $3.35 million to help Christians facing violence and oppression.
What can we do? First, we can urge our elected officials to do more for Christians. We can learn more about the plight of Christians. Victor Gaetan has an article on page 2 of this issue on the new documentary Our Last Stand, a harrowing but edifying account of the genocide against Christians in Iraq and Syria that adds faces and names to the suffering. Our Last Stand also shows us again that martyrdoms are not distant and impersonal stories. They are all too real and call us to pray every day for Christians suffering and dying for the faith.
Pope Francis stressed this when he spoke of the four members of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity — Sisters Anselm, Judith, Marguerite and Reginette — who were brutally murdered by radical Islamic gunmen while caring for the elderly in a home in Aden, Yemen. “These are the martyrs of today,” he proclaimed. “They may not be on the cover of a magazine … [they] may not even make the news, but they gave their blood for the Church.”
Pray for Christians everywhere. Their suffering is ours, and the persecution they face may be in our future, as well.