Easter: the Best and Worst of Times

Religious Fervor, and Persecution, Run High

ROME, APRIL 29, 2006 (Zenit.org).- The wide upsurge of interest in religion continued this Easter. The Holy Week and Easter ceremonies presided over by Benedict XVI were packed. Those papal events capped the German Pope’s first year, a year that saw 4 million people attend his audiences, Masses and other celebrations, according to figures released by the Vatican on April 18.

On the other side of the Atlantic, thousands formally entered the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil ceremony. A nationwide tally of converts was not available, but in Denver alone 700 adult baptisms were due to be held, the U.S. bishops’ conference reported April 7. The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, in Texas, reported that 1,090 were expected to be baptized.

Early figures from the 2006 Official Catholic Directory indicate that 80,521 adults were baptized into the Catholic Church last year, and 73,296 came into full communion. In addition, there were 940,194 infant baptisms.

Numbers are up in Australia as well. A Sydney newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, reported on April 16 that attendance was higher for Easter services at the city’s Anglican and Catholic cathedrals than in recent years.

“It is very clear that there is a spiritual hunger in the community and people are seeking in it in traditional places,” said Sydney’s Anglican archbishop, Peter Jensen.

Sydney’s Catholic archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, commented in an article posted on the diocesan Web site that Mass attendance on Easter Sunday morning was the highest he’s seen in the five years he has been in the city. He also noted that a steady stream of inquiries about the Catholic faith had arrived at the cathedral in the last year.

Walls block faithful

But Easter also saw difficulties for Christians in a number of countries, starting with the Holy Land. On April 14 the Telegraph newspaper of Britain reported that a wall will soon block a two-mile route used by pilgrims from Bethany over the Mount of Olives and past the Garden of Gethsemane into the Old City.

The route has been in use since around the fourth century by those who want to follow the path taken by Jesus to Jerusalem from where he raised Lazarus from the dead. The 30-foot-high concrete wall to be erected will be part of the security barrier being built by Israel along the edge of the West Bank.

Then, on April 17, the London-based Times newspaper reported that Israeli authorities denied requests for security passes by many Palestinian Christians who wanted to attend the Easter ceremonies in Jerusalem.

The problem, according to Latin Patriarchate officials, lay with military authorities who control passage into Jerusalem from West Bank towns. One of these, Bethlehem, the Palestinian city with the largest Christian population, is now sealed off from Israel by a wall completed just before Christmas.

Father Human Khzouz, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, said he had received only 3,000 of the 7,000 security passes he sought for Palm Sunday, and a small number of those he sought for Easter weekend services.

Christians targeted

Meanwhile, in Egypt, believers at three Christian Copt churches were attacked while attending ceremonies. Police said one worshipper was killed and more than a dozen wounded in the simultaneous attacks in the northern city of Alexandria, the Associated Press reported April 14.

At least 17 people were injured: 10 at the Saints Church in downtown Alexandria; three at the nearby Mar Girgis Church; and four at a church in Abu Qir, a few miles to the east. The attacks occurred during the celebration of Mass. Coptic Christians celebrated Good Friday a week later.

The following day the BBC reported that hundreds of Coptic Christians protested in the city of Alexandria, demanding greater protection after the attacks. Christians make up 10% of the Egyptian population and have often complained of harassment and discrimination.

Troubles continued in the following days, the BBC reported on April 16. Skirmishes between Muslims and Coptic Christians led to at least one additional death. One episode of violence broke out during the funeral of Nushi Atta Girgis, 78, who died in one of the April 14 attacks. His funeral, attended by around 3,000 people, turned into a protest. So far police have arrested one man, Mahmoud Salah-Eddin Abdel-Raziq, said to be deranged, in relation to the attacks.

An analysis of the situation in Egypt, published by the Christian Science Monitor on April 19, noted that the violence raises fresh concerns that the social compact between the country’s Muslim majority and Coptic Christian minority is unraveling.

Recent decades have seen the rise of violent Islamist groups in Egypt. “Islamic fundamentalism is spreading,” Coptic writer and intellectual Milad Hanna told the Monitor. “Many Muslims think that Islam should be the only religion in Egypt if possible.”

Copts also complain of discrimination. There are limits on building churches, and very few Copts occupy high positions in the government.

Problems in India

Violence also marred Easter celebrations in India. The Compass Direct news service in an April 17 report told of an attack by Hindu extremists in the southern state of Karnataka.

A group of 15 members reported to belong to the youth wing of the World Hindu Council attacked an Easter Sunday morning church service at the Believers’ Church in Bantaguri. The pastor, V.P. Palouse, suffered a head injury and fractures in both hands in the attack. His wife also was severely beaten.

Also on Easter a group of 25 to 30 people stormed a prayer hall in Mangalore district’s Balmatta town, causing significant damage. The hall belonged to the Living Faith Ministry.

On Good Friday, two Christian women in Jabalpur district were arrested for “promoting conversion.” Mariamma Mathew and B. Godwil were distributing Christian pamphlets. According to the Madhya Pradesh Religious Freedom Act, anyone promoting religion or organizing religious functions must obtain permission from local officials. Police said the women did not have permission.

Catholics also continue to face problems. The Executive Committee of the Catholic Council of India expressed concern over the difficult situations in which Christians live in Rajasthan, according to a report Tuesday by the Indian Catholic News Service.

Members of the small Christian community in the state have suffered attacks and harassment by fanatic Hindu groups in the past year. And the government, instead of stopping the anti-Christian violence, passed a bill on April 7 aimed at checking activity by Christian missionaries in local villages.

Another recent problem took place in the state of Gujarat, when the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party government declined to renew a contract with the Catholic administrators of a leprosy hospital in Ahmedabad. According to an April 5 report by Compass Direct, authorities said the nuns were “preaching Christianity.”

The six women religious of the Salesian Missionaries of Mary Immaculate were asked to vacate their residential quarters in the Ave Maria Convent, located on the hospital grounds. “After a total of 57 years’ service to these ostracized people,” commented Sister Karuna, “we have been asked to leave.”

She denied patients were forced to accept Christianity. “There was a chapel and a prayer hall, but no patient was ever compelled to attend services,” she said. As on the first Easter, the cross continues to be a sign of contradiction.

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