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...

  • Arts and Culture Middle East Hamas Commander Reportedly Urges Hezbollah to Join Forces Against Israel

    Hamas Commander Reportedly Urges Hezbollah to Join Forces Against Israel

    JNS.org – Five months after Israeli forces tried to assassinate Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif in Gaza, Deif appears to have signed a letter that the terrorist group claims he wrote in hiding. The letter, addressed to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, expressed Deif’s condolences for the death of Hezbollah terrorists during Sunday’s reported Israeli airstrike in Syria. Deif is said to have survived multiple assassination attempts, but he has not been seen in public for years. According to the Hezbollah-linked Al-Manar [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Shlomo Carlebach Musical Has the Soul to Heal Frayed Race Relations

    Shlomo Carlebach Musical Has the Soul to Heal Frayed Race Relations

    JNS.org – The cracks that had been simply painted over for so long began to show in Ferguson, Mo., in November 2014, but in truth they had begun to open wide much earlier—on Saturday, July 13, 2013. That is when a jury in Sanford, Fla., acquitted George Zimmerman of culpability for the death of a 17-year-old black man, Trayvon Martin. The cracks receded from view over time, as other news obscured them. Then came the evening of Aug. 9, 2014, [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada ‘Homeland’ Season Finale Stirs Controversy After Comparing Menachem Begin to Taliban Leader

    ‘Homeland’ Season Finale Stirs Controversy After Comparing Menachem Begin to Taliban Leader

    A controversial scene in the season finale of Homeland sparked outrage by comparing former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to a fictional Taliban leader, the UK’s Daily Mail reported. In the season 4 finale episode, which aired on Dec. 21, CIA black ops director Dar Adal, played by F. Murray Abraham, justifies a deal he made with a Taliban leader by referencing Begin. He makes the remarks in a conversation with former CIA director Saul Berenson, a Jewish character played by Mandy [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Placing Matisyahu Back Within a Life of Observance

    Placing Matisyahu Back Within a Life of Observance

    Shining Light on Fiction During the North Korea-Sony saga, we learned two important lessons. The first is that there are two sides to this story, and neither of them are correct because ultimately we should have neither inappropriate movies nor dictators. The second is that we cannot remain entirely fixed on the religious world, but we also must see beyond the external, secular view of reality. It’s important to ground our Torah-based thoughts into real-life activism. To view our act [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

    Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

    JNS.org – Hollywood has had its share of big-budget biblical flops, but until now, the Exodus narrative has not been among them. Studios have brought Moses to the big screen sparingly, but in ways that defined the image and character of Moses for each generation of audiences. The first biblical epic In 1923, director Cecil B. DeMille left it to the American public to decide the subject of his next movie for Paramount. DeMille received a letter from a mechanic [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Exodus on Screen (REVIEW)

    Exodus on Screen (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a tale as old as time itself, to borrow a turn of phrase. It’s retold every Passover, both at the seder table and whenever “The Ten Commandments” is aired on television. But the latest adaptation—Ridley Scott’s epic film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”—fails to meet expectations. Scott’s “Exodus” alters the source material to service the story and ground the tale, but the attempt to reinvent the biblical narrative becomes laughable. Moses [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Lifestyle ‘Jewish Food Movement’ Comes of Age

    ‘Jewish Food Movement’ Comes of Age

    JNS.org - In December 2007, leaders of the Hazon nonprofit drafted seven-year goals for what they coined as the “Jewish Food Movement,” which has since been characterized by the increased prioritization of healthy eating, sustainable agriculture, and food-related activism in the Jewish community. What do the next seven years hold in store? “One thing I would like to see happen in the next seven years is [regarding] the issue of sugar, soda, and obesity, [seeing] what would it be like to rally the [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Education Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    JNS.org – Forget the dioramas. How about working on an Israeli Air Force drone? That’s exactly the kind of beyond-their-years access enjoyed by students at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) industrial vocational high school run by Israel Sci-Tech Schools, the largest education network in the Jewish state. More than 300 students (250 on the high school level and 68 at a two-year vocational academy) get hands-on training in the disciplines of aviation mechanics, electricity and energy control, and unmanned air [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.