Will Pope Francis I Become the Savior of the Persecuted Church?

March 31, 2013 1:38 am 0 comments

Pope Francis. Photo: Tenan/Wikimedia Commobs.

Christianity is the world’s largest religion. And with more than 1 billion members, the Roman Catholic Church is its largest denomination. Anyone who watched the recent installation of Pope Francis I, attended by luminaries from 132 nations, would have taken away the enduring impression of a powerful, influential faith that commands respect even from its detractors.

But in other parts of the world, it’s a very different story. In the dusty alleyways of Lahore in Pakistan, or in the choked streets of northern Nigeria’s cities, Christians lead a fragile, endangered existence, never quite certain that their next visit to church isn’t going to end in the carnage of a bomb, never quite confident that their homes won’t be targeted by baying, angry mobs as night falls.

Herein lies the paradox: the world’s largest religion is also the world’s most-persecuted faith. Advocacy groups working on behalf of the persecuted church estimate that from 1-200 million Christians live with varying degrees of oppression. Just as astonishing as that number is the sheer variety of countries where expressing Christian faith can be, literally, life threatening. These include Turkey, which is commonly, if erroneously, regarded as a western-style democracy, North Korea, the world’s largest concentration camp, and Muslim countries like Egypt and Iran. Islamists, ultranationalists, communists—all these and more have declared themselves enemies of the Christian religion.

I would readily submit that there is no graver human rights emergency in the world today than the persecution of Christians. And yet getting that simple point across can be extraordinarily frustrating. Particularly among liberals, in many ways the most promising constituency when it comes to promoting a human rights agenda, there is a good deal of skepticism. In part, that’s based on the sense that an institution that can mount the kind of pomp and circumstance display we saw at The Vatican cannot possibly be a victim. It also reflects the fact that many churches adopt extremely conservative positions on matters dear to enlightened western hearts, like the use of contraception or gay rights.

I don’t agree with those positions either. But I fail to see why that means we should turn a blind eye to the appalling bigotry, and consequent violence, that defines the experience of too many Christians today.

How, then, can we get the reality of Christian persecution across—a state of affairs that brings to mind some of the ugliest episodes of human history, like the enslavement of Africans or the legally-enshrined persecution of the Jews by Nazi Germany on the eve of the Holocaust?

One might reasonably assume that the inauguration of a new pope will give this issue both new momentum and an undoubtedly fresh, kind face to make sense of it for the rest of us. Will Pope Francis I become the pontiff who made the persecuted church emblematic of his reign, in much the same way that the late John Paul II highlighted the vulnerability of the church in his native Poland, and in other eastern European countries suffering from the yoke of communism?

Keith Roderick, the newly appointed Provost of the Episcopal Cathedral in Springfield, Ill., who is also a storied activist on behalf of persecuted Christians, pointed out in an email to me that this is very much an open question. Roderick reminded me of the 2005 spat between Francis (who was then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio) and his predecessor, Benedict XVI, after the latter delivered an unusually sharp rebuke to the Muslim world for its treatment of Christians during a speech to the University of Regensburg in Germany. In the course of his remarks, Benedict described the Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman.”

That phrasing rang alarm bells with many senior members of the Catholic hierarchy, including Bergoglio, who declared, “Pope Benedict’s statement doesn’t reflect my own opinions. These statements will serve to destroy in 20 seconds the careful construction of a relationship with Islam that Pope John Paul II built over the last 20 years.”

While it’s true that there’s no need for such provocative language, Bergoglio’s reaction served to further obscure the real issue: that Christians can no longer expect to lead peaceful lives under Islamic rule. It also pushed the imperatives of interfaith dialogue—which too often descends into a meaningless kumbaya exercise involving clerics of all faiths—above the more pressing matter of telling the world just how bad the persecution of Christians has become.

Still, Keith Roderick doesn’t draw any absolute conclusions from that episode. “His witness of humility and concern for the most vulnerable is important,” Roderick told me. “I hope that witness will include an equally powerful and courageous stand for Christians who are persecuted.” Meanwhile, Jeff Sellers, the editor of Morning Star News, a media outlet that diligently reports on Christian persecution throughout the world, is cautiously optimistic.

“[Pope Francis] places great importance on personal conversion to Jesus Christ, and, as persecution is the increasingly common response of the narrow-minded to evangelizing and new converts, the new pope will have no choice but to place equal importance on defending against persecution,” Sellers told me. “Secondly, he is a pastor first and foremost rather than an academic, so concern for the persecuted should naturally follow.”

Nevertheless, for Christian persecution to be taken seriously, we need more than concern. A cursory survey of the events of the last month suggests that the crisis is now reaching unprecedented proportions. In Pakistan, the Christian inhabitants of the Joseph Colony neighborhood in Lahore experienced what can only be described as a pogrom. Pakistan is also the country that imprisoned Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who is facing the death penalty under that country’s blasphemy laws. In Iran, Muslim converts to Christianity are being incarcerated, and could very like face execution. In Middle Eastern countries like Egypt and Iraq, Christian communities that are thousands of years old are slowly being extinguished because of Islamist fanaticism.

Perhaps Pope Francis will act decisively if he knows that he can count on allies in doing so. In that sense, the U.S., which passed the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998, has a critical role to play. And American Jews should be pushing the State Department and the White House with appropriate vigor; our own history requires nothing less.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Book Reviews Opinion Robert Gates’ Memoir is a Jaw-Dropping Read (REVIEW)

    Robert Gates’ Memoir is a Jaw-Dropping Read (REVIEW)

    Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’s memoir follows the classic form, telling the story of his years at the Pentagon during the Bush and Obama administrations. He focuses on what he did and experienced personally as secretary, neither writing a broad policy treatise nor recounting the entire history of the administrations in which he served. In so doing, Gates provides penetrating insights about the inner workings of US national security decision-making. Had I been George W. Bush, I would [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Book Reviews The Media, Israel, and Anti-Semitism (REVIEW)

    The Media, Israel, and Anti-Semitism (REVIEW)

    Pressing Israel: Media Bias Exposed from A-Z by Lee Bender and Jerome Verlin (Pavilion Press, Philadelphia, Pa. 2013) Sophocles said, “What people believe prevails over truth,” Pressing Israel: Media Bias Exposed from A-Z is ideal for the arm chair reader who would like a basic grasp of the terms used in the mainstream media’s presentation of the Arab-Israeli situation as is reported today. This is a book whose time has come. This is a book where the reader gains a [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs William Shatner’s One Man Show Keeps Him in the Limelight (INTERVIEW)

    William Shatner’s One Man Show Keeps Him in the Limelight (INTERVIEW)

    JNS.org – On Thursday, audiences around the country can feel what it is like to be William Shatner, the Jewish actor best known for his portrayal of Captain James T. Kirk on “Star Trek.” Shatner’s one-man show “Shatner’s World”—which was on Broadway and toured Canada, Australia, and the United States—will be presented in nearly 700 movie theaters nationwide for one night only on April 24. Sponsored by Fathom Events and Priceline.com (for whom Shatner has famously served as a pitchman), [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews The Origins of Palestinian Refugee Relief Efforts (REVIEW)

    The Origins of Palestinian Refugee Relief Efforts (REVIEW)

    Romirowsky and Joffe’s book Religion, Politics and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief is an important volume for those interested in truly understanding the origins of the Palestinian refugee issue. Utilizing a treasure trove of newly released documents, the authors link UNRWA’s (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine) origins to the Quakers/American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). For those readers who thought they knew most of the Middle East story, Romirowsky and Joffe’s version provides another twist. The authors meticulously [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports Israeli Soccer Team Faces Prospect of International Ban

    Israeli Soccer Team Faces Prospect of International Ban

    The Israel National soccer team could be facing a World Cup ban, and other soccer sanctions, unless it alleviates travel restrictions and increases field access for Palestinian players and coaches. The head of the Palestinian Football Association is pushing for international soccer’s governing body, the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA), to issue a ban on Israel competing internationally, claiming Israel’s restrictive travel for Palestinians is equivalent to a form of oppression. “It’s not only the athletes,” Jibril Rajoub explains. [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Book Reviews Jewish Author of ‘Eat to Live’ Dishes on Health Care, Nutrition, Disease Prevention

    Jewish Author of ‘Eat to Live’ Dishes on Health Care, Nutrition, Disease Prevention

    JNS.org – While the national debate on “Obamacare” rages on past the recent March 31 sign-up deadline, bestselling Jewish author Dr. Joel Fuhrman says the “current disease care model of what we call ‘health care’ cannot possibly be sustained.” “There is simply not enough money available to support a system in which the lion’s share of expenditures is devoted to acute care, with virtually nothing being spent on preventive medicine, i.e. health care,” Fuhrman says in an interview. “To make [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity ‘Tears of Color’ Art Exhibit Shows Struggles of Israelis With Eating Disorders

    ‘Tears of Color’ Art Exhibit Shows Struggles of Israelis With Eating Disorders

    JNS.org – “This is how I want to be—without fear. Independent. I want to be like a bird. I want to spread my wings.” So reads part of the description beneath one of the 30 paintings on display until the end of May at the ZOA House in Tel Aviv. The collection represents the first-ever art exhibit of its kind: an exhibit created entirely by Israelis in treatment for eating disorders. Dubbed “Tears of Color,” based on one of the [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Book Reviews Overprotective or Loving? Daughters Reflect on Jewish Mothers in New Anthology

    Overprotective or Loving? Daughters Reflect on Jewish Mothers in New Anthology

    JNS.org – Rachel Ament noticed that she and her friends often shared humorous anecdotes that were typically variations on a theme: overprotective, worrying Jewish moms who smothered them with love. That included Ament’s own mother. “My mom is probably every Jewish stereotype scrunched into one,” the Washington, DC, resident tells JNS.org. “At the root of all these stereotypical, worrying, overprotective moms, is love.” A social media writer for Capital One, as well as a freelance writer, Ament decided about three years [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.