Cardinal Dolan: Stories of persecuted Christians should move hearts

American Christians must be better advocates for the world’s persecuted Christians, said speakers at a Thursday event featuring victims of persecution, religious leaders, and global experts.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York encouraged Catholics to think universally “about our brothers and sisters in the faith now suffering grievously simply because they sign themselves with the cross, they bow their heads at the Holy Name of Jesus, they happen to profess the Apostle’s Creed every Sunday.”

Earlier this week, Dolan was elected chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Religious Freedom, where he is likely to play a role in conflicts with the incoming administration of presumptive president-elect Joe Biden.

“We bishops in the United States have, as you well know, legitimate and ongoing struggles to protect our first and most precious freedom,” said Dolan. “But even our problems as towering as they can be at times and as ominous as the future might now seem, they pale in comparison, don’t they, to the ‘via crucis’ that is currently being walked by so many of our Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world who are experiencing lethal persecution.”

“If our common membership in the mystical body of Christ is to mean anything, then their suffering must become ours as well,” he said.

Dolan cited Pope John Paul II’s description of the present times as the “new age of martyrs.” Half of all Christian martyrs in the 2,000 year history of Christianity were killed in the 20th century alone.

“This 21st century, I’m scared, doesn’t seem to promise much better,” the cardinal continued. “This century, only two decades old, has already seen 1.25 million people killed around the world, simply because of their belief in Jesus Christ. And that threat to religious believers is growing.”

The Nov. 19 symposium, “Act in Time: Protecting Imperiled Christians in Ancient and Other Lands,” was hosted by the Anglosphere Society, the Knights of Columbus, the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, the Institute for Ancient and Threatened Christianity, and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. Most participants spoke via video.

Among the speakers was Mariam Ibraheem, a Sudanese woman who was arrested and charged with abandoning Islam. Under Sudanese law, she was considered a Muslim due to her father’s Muslim faith, despite the fact that she was raised as a Christian by her mother after her father left the family when she was 6 years old. She was also charged with adultery and sentenced to 100 lashes because her marriage to a Christian husband was not recognized under Sudanese law.

Despite being sentenced to death in May 2014, Ibrahim refused to renounce her Christian faith. Her young son lived with her in prison and she gave birth to a baby girl while in prison. After international attention, she and her family were released in June 2014 and they now live in the United States.

Dolan reflected on what American Catholics can do to help persecuted Christians.

“We’re members of one of the most richly blessed communities on this planet,” Dolan said. Though American Catholics show unity in defense of their own religious freedom, “we can’t stop there,” he said.

“We have to become advocates,” he said. “We need the enthusiastic backing of our people, not just our leaders. If we don’t have that, we’re not going to get too far.”

The cardinal cited Pope Francis’ reminder to conduct an examination of conscience on this topic. The pope encouraged Christians to ask themselves whether they are indifferent to Christian persecution or respond as if “a member of my own family is suffering.”

Among his recommended actions, Dolan said that believers should encourage constant prayers of intercession for the persecuted. Prayers for the conversion of Russia shaped Dolan’s childhood sense of life behind the Iron Curtain, and a similar “culture of prayer” in private and in liturgical celebration for today’s persecuted Christians could have an effect, he said.

“We also want to make people aware of the great suffering of our brothers and sisters using all means at our disposal,” Dolan said, commenting that he has asked pastors to speak on the issue and to include stories of present-day martyrs in their sermons. These stories are also fruitful for use in ongoing faith formation.

“Our experience defending religious freedom shows that when we turn our minds to an issue we can put it on the map,” he said.

Dolan praised groups like Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic Near East Welfare Agency, Catholic Relief Services, In Defense of Christians, Open Doors, the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher, the Knights of Malta, and the Knights of Columbus for their work to help persecuted Christians.

Other speakers at the symposium included Robert Nicholson, executive director of the Philos Project, and Chinese civil rights lawyer and activist Guangcheng Chen, who is presently the Distinguished Fellow for the Center for Human Rights at The Catholic University of America.

Chen has defended women and families against the Chinese government’s forced sterilization and abortion policies. He was arrested, suffered beatings, and abused under house arrest before escaping to the United States.

Bishop Matthew Kukah of Sokoto, Nigeria told the symposium that Christians in Nigeria face difficulty securing land for churches in states that see the building of churches as undermining Islam. By contrast, most mosques are state funded.

He suggested a focus on “bread and butter” issues as a way forward, by addressing crisis areas like homelessness, orphan children, unemployment, and conditions that stop farmers from farming or harvesting crops. In areas that are struggling to build schools, having a Muslim presence in schools is “a guarantee that persecution will not continue,” he said.

Archbishop Basha Warda of Erbil spoke about the situation facing Iraqi Christians and other minorities like the Yazidis. He warned of “a growing loss of hope” for Iraqi Christians, whose numbers have declined from 1.6 million before the 2003 U.S. invasion to fewer than 250,000 today.

“This time, it’s quite likely that we will have disappeared by the time the world chooses to look upon us again. And yet as for now, we are still here, still working with whatever strength, courage and hope that we are able to still find.”

While rejecting a “culture of dependency,” he noted that Christians, like many others, are facing severe need in basic areas like security, food, employment, education and freedom of religion.

Also during the symposium, writer David Oldroyd-Bolt interviewed Lord David Alton, a former Liberal MP who is now in Britain’s House of Lords. Alton said that even though religious freedom advocates can’t solve all problems, “we can solve some of them.”

He cited the case of the abduction, forced marriage and forced conversion of a 13-year-old girl in Pakistan, resolved when her supporters secured help from “good members of the judiciary.”

Alton saw recent improvements in aiding persecuted Christians, like the creation of the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, which is able to make common cause on some issues. He praised the work of Sam Brownback, U.S. Ambassador At Large for International Religious Freedom, as well as those from other countries with similar roles.

Alton suggested that on the topic of Christian persecution there is “a lot of indifference” that is driven by “contempt for religious faith.”

He criticized those who dismissed the Nigerian Islamic extremist group Boko Haram’s killing of Christians as having causes in climate change or population growth.

“Eleven Christians were murdered on Christmas day. That wasn’t climate change,” he said.

Alton, who has served as vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Hong Kong, said that regarding China, he tends to follow the view of Cardinal Joseph Zen, a critic of the Vatican’s deal with China. Zen has “said again and again you should not be dealing with the communist party.”

“It’s a bit of a betrayal to make a concord with Chinese communist party,” Alton said, calling the agreement “a huge historical error.”

“We should be standing alongside those who have suffered so much for their faith,” he said.

Multiple speakers, including Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Warda, cited the example and the work of Andrew Walther, who died of leukemia only months after becoming EWTN News Chief Operating Officer and President. He had been a major leader in efforts to help persecuted Christians in his role as vice-president of communications and strategic planning for the Knights of Columbus.

The end of the symposium featured a pre-recorded tribute for Walther from Michael Warsaw, EWTN Chairman and CEO. He said Walther was a longtime friend who had hoped he would be able to continue his work on behalf of persecuted Christians in his new role.

“The impact of Andrew’s work in this area was immense,” said Warsaw, who added: “one of the best ways for all of us to honor Andrew’s memory is to recommit us to the cause of persecuted Christians.”