By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, JAN. 10, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI’s message for World Peace Day on Jan. 1 was dedicated to the theme of religious freedom and the problems created by the persecution of Christians in many parts of the world.
“Sadly, the year now ending has again been marked by persecution, discrimination, terrible acts of violence and religious intolerance,” the Pope commented.
Unfortunately 2011 doesn’t look any better. Just half an hour into the New Year a bomb exploded outside the Coptic church of the Saints in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, just as nearly 1,000 people were leaving, the Associated Press reported Jan 1. The initial death toll was 21, which later rose to 25, and nearly a hundred people were injured.
Following the explosion the country’s president, Hosni Mubarak, appealed to Muslims and Christians to stand united against terrorism, according to a BBC report dated Jan. 1. In the days following the explosion several clashes broke out between groups of Christians and Muslims.
“The blood of their martyrs in Alexandria mixed to tell us all that all Egypt is the target and that blind terrorism does not differentiate between a Copt and a Muslim,” the president declared in a broadcast on state television, the BBC reported.
The BBC observed that it was the second consecutive Christmas marred by bloodshed for Egypt’s Coptic community. On Jan. 6, 2010, six worshippers and a Muslim police officer were killed in a drive-by shooting close to a church in the southern town of Naga Hamady.
The attack did not deter people from returning the next day for morning mass, according to a Jan. 2 article published by the New York Times. According to the report, the church’s pews were almost full.
Benedict XVI condemned the attack. Speaking after his Angelus message on Jan. 2, the Pontiff deplored both the attack in Egypt as well as bombs that were placed near the houses of Christians in Iraq in previous days.
The attacks, said the Pope, were an offence to God and to humanity. He urged the ecclesial communities to persevere in the faith and in their witness to the message of non-violence contained in the Gospels.
Meanwhile the Coptic Church issued a statement, calling the attack a “grave escalation” of violence against Christians, the Los Angeles Times reported Jan. 3.
The statement called for a public investigation into the attack and asked authorities to release details about the crime as soon as possible.
The bomb in Egypt was preceded by violence in Iraq. Ten bombs were placed near the homes of Christian families in Baghdad. The explosions caused the death of 2 persons, with 20 wounded, the New York Times reported Dec. 30.
The latest attack came after gunmen entered the Baghdad church of Our Lady of Salvation in October, causing the deaths of dozens of worshippers.
Prior to the latest bombs many churches had canceled their Christmas celebrations, in fear of possible aggression by Islamic extremists.
According to the New York Times since October at least 1,000 Christian families have left Iraq, seeking refuge in Syria, Turkey and other places. Some estimate that more than half of the country’s 1.4 million Christians have left Iraq since 2003.
India is another country where Christians have faced hostility and, according to a year-end report by Compass News, there was a spike in assaults in the past decade.
According to the Dec. 30 report, Christians in India have been targeted with more than 130 assaults a year since 2001, with figures far surpassing that in 2007 and 2008. In 2010 there were at least 149 violent attacks.
Most of the incidents took place in just four states: two adjacent states in south India, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and two neighboring states in north-central India, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
Of India’s 23 million Christians, 2.7 million live in the four states which have seen the worst outbreaks of Christian persecution.
The situation is no less grave in neighboring Pakistan. At the end of the year thousands of people marched in the nation’s capital, Islamabad, protesting any change in the blasphemy laws, the New York Times reported in its Jan. 1 edition.
Christians have often been the target of charges under the blasphemy laws. The most recent case is that of Asia Bibi, a mother of five, sentenced to death after being accused of blasphemy.
The depth of feeling about the blasphemy laws was brutally highlighted when Salman Taseer, governor of the Punjab province was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. Taseer had spoken out on behalf of women and religious minorities, according to a Jan 4 Reuters report.
The bodyguard, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadr, cited Taseer’s opposition to the blasphemy laws as justifying his actions.
“Salman Taseer is a blasphemer and this is the punishment for a blasphemer,” Qadri said in comments broadcast on television.
Violence is not the only constraint on religious liberty that worries the Catholic Church. December saw tensions rise with the Chinese government as a result of the decision by authorities to oblige all bishops to attend a meeting.
The Pope told Catholic bishops not to attend the meeting, the Washington Post reported Dec. 7. According to the article the bishops were given no choice by the government, and it described one scene in which police at the Jing county cathedral, in Hebei province, dragged away Bishop Feng Xinmao after a six-hour standoff.
“Bishop Feng was kidnapped and forced to attend that meeting,” said a friar, who was interviewed by telephone and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, the Washington Post reported.
The article noted that the meeting came just over two weeks after the ordination of a new bishop in Hebei province, without the Vatican’s approval.
In a note dated Dec. 17 the Vatican criticized the decision by Chinese authorities to hold the meeting,
“The manner in which it was convoked and its unfolding manifest a repressive attitude with regard to the exercise of religious liberty, which it was hoped had been consigned to the past in present-day China,” said the statement published by the Vatican Information Service.
“The persistent desire to control the most intimate area of citizens’ lives, namely their conscience, and to interfere in the internal life of the Catholic Church does no credit to China,” it added.
Then, in his Dec. 25 “urbi et orbi” message, Benedict XVI asked that the celebration of Christmas strengthen the faith and courage of the Church in mainland China.
Chinese authorities showed no signs of backing down, however, and in reaction to the Pope’s Christmas message which lamented the lack of religious freedom in China warned that the Vatican must “face the facts” about religion in China if it wants to improve relations, the London Telegraph newspaper reported Dec. 28.
“The right to religious freedom is rooted in the very dignity of the human person, whose transcendent nature must not be ignored or overlooked,” The Pope affirmed in his World Peace Day Message.
This freedom is related to what is unique about the human person, the message argued.
“Religious freedom should be understood, then,” the Holy Father added, “not merely as immunity from coercion, but even more fundamentally as an ability to order one’s own choices in accordance with truth.” A truth that apparently many are not open to.