International News

Churches Prepare to Mark Nov. 7 Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians

A woman touches the grave of a family member outside St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, April 21, 2020, the one-year anniversary of the Easter bomb attacks. As an investigation into the 2019 bombings continues, Pope Francis expressed solidarity with the Sri Lankan Catholic Church, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo said Oct. 24, 2021. (Photo: CNS/Dinuka Liyanawatte, Reuters)

By Ngala Killian Chimtom, Africa Correspondent

YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon — On Sunday, Nov. 7, Christians of different denominations will participate in the International Day of Prayer (IDOP) for persecuted Christians.

It will yet be another opportunity to intercede on behalf of the estimated 260 million believers around the world who are experiencing high to extreme forms of persecution due to their faith.

Africa is a center of Christian persecution, especially in the regions where predominantly Muslim regions of North Africa touch the predominantly Christian regions to the south.

Mark Riedemann, Director of Public Affairs and Religious Freedom for the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need International told Crux that most of the persecution is driven by economic interests.

He said “local and transnational criminal and jihadist groups” use the complex mosaic of poverty, joblessness, inter-communal tensions as well as weak state structures and corruption to prey on vulnerable youths “with promises of wealth, power, and the ousting of corrupt authorities.”

He said Aid to the Church in Need will join Christians the world over to pray for the persecuted Church, and to share in the suffering of persecuted Christians.

“The body of Christ is one, and when our brothers and sisters in Christ suffer, we suffer. Our responsibility is to pray and work as we can to alleviate this suffering,” he told Crux.

Following are excerpts from the interview.

Crux: How will Aid to the Church In Need (ACN) be part of the International Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians?

Riedemann: ACN seeks to serve the pastoral and material needs of Christians wherever they are suffering persecution or oppression.  We remember these, the persecuted body of Christ, on the 7th of November but also on St. Stephen’s Day on December 26, or during the ACN Red Week at the end of November where, in countries all around the world, we light civil and religious buildings red in remembrance of their suffering. The body of Christ is one, and when our brothers and sisters in Christ suffer, we suffer. Our responsibility is to pray and work as we can to alleviate this suffering.

This year’s event comes after ACN published its The Religious Freedom in the World Report 2021. What were the major findings in that report?

There are three main categories in the report defined according to degrees of gravity or type of violation: red, orange, and a new country category called “under observation.”

The categorization of a country as Red indicates persecution — a severe level of violence to which citizens are subjected because of religious motivations. The categorization of a country as Orange indicates discrimination — understood primarily as laws that apply differently to one group of citizens other than the majority. For example, apostasy laws in many countries of the Middle East and North Africa where conversion from the officially recognized religion — in this case, Islam — can result in imprisonment and even death.

The category called “under observation” arose as, during the period under review, it became clear that religious freedom violations were occurring in certain countries which, although not yet categorized as discrimination or persecution could, if left unchecked, degrade into these categories.

The research reveals that the 26 countries in the red category, indicating persecution, are home to 3.9 billion people — just over half of the world’s population. This classification includes 12 African countries and 2 countries where investigations are ongoing for possible genocide: China and Myanmar.

The 36 countries in the orange category, indicating discrimination, are home to 1.2 billion people, where full religious freedom is neither enjoyed nor constitutionally guaranteed. Among the many findings, perhaps the most important factors impacting religious freedom today include Authoritarian governments, for example, Marxist dictatorships in North Korea and China; Islamist extremism particularly evident in Sub-Saharan Africa; and ethnic-religious nationalism, the promotion of ethnic and religious supremacy in some Hindu and Buddhist majority countries in Asia — a trend which affects a population in the billions.

Authoritarian governments: Several countries in Mainland Asia continue to be governed by Marxist one-party dictatorships. These include North Korea where the policy towards faith groups can be understood as “exterminationist” and China where mass surveillance, including artificial intelligence-refined technology, a social credit system that rewards and punishes individual behavior, and brutal crackdowns on religious and ethnic groups, enforce the state supremacy. This is particularly evident through mass internment and coercive “re-education programs” affecting more than a million, mostly Muslim, ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province, which the USA, Canada, and the UK House of Lords have all officially called a “genocide.”

Islamist extremism: Tragically, Africa is witnessing the extraordinarily rapid growth of transnational jihadist groups, who systematically persecute all those — Muslim and Christian — who do not accept their extreme Islamist ideology. According to the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, Sub-Saharan Africa has become a haven for over two dozen extremist groups actively operating — and increasingly cooperating — in 14 countries.

The militants target state authorities, the military, and the police, as well as civilians — including village leaders, teachers (who are threatened because of the secular curriculum), Muslim and Christian leaders, and the faithful. The financial resources of these armed terrorist groups are derived principally from looting, kidnapping, and drug and human trafficking.

Ethno-religious nationalism: Asia confronts a growing phenomenon we have termed “ethnoreligious nationalism,” the promotion of ethnic and religious supremacy in some Hindu and Buddhist majority countries in Asia which has led to even greater oppression of minorities. India is the most extreme example. With a population of nearly 1.4 billion, India is both the world’s largest democracy and the country with the world’s largest and most virulent movement of religious nationalism. Since the 1990s, India’s electoral politics have become more competitive, and a growing number of Indians have found themselves drawn to the Hindu nationalist message that India’s culture and national identity are essentially Hindu.

India’s Hindu-nationalist political party, the BJP party has doubled down on this cultural-nationalist agenda in ways that have undermined religious freedom and other basic civil liberties, and targeted Muslims and Christians on such issues as cow slaughter and religious conversion. Similar policies in Muslim-majority Pakistan, and Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka and Myanmar, among others, suggest that exclusivist religious nationalism is becoming a pattern in Mainland Asia.

What is Africa’s share in the persecution of Christians?

As indicated, populations in 26 countries around the world suffer persecution. 50 percent of these countries are in Africa. The persecution is principally as a result of the rapid rise in transnational jihadist groups who systematically persecute all those — Muslim and Christian — who do not accept their extreme Islamist ideology.

As we see a dramatic rise in extremism so too — and linked to this — research reveals a manipulation of religion for wider purposes of power and money. For example, the concentration of activity in the Democratic Republic of Congo of armed terrorist groups such as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and others affiliated with Isis is principally in the east of the country. Bishop Melchisedech of the Butumbu-Beni diocese where terrorist groups are expelling indigenous populations from their homes has decried the failure of the government to confront the challenge — especially the criminal groups profiting from the exploitation of Congo’s mineral resources.

The region is home to precious metals such as gold and diamonds as well as heavy metals used for modern-day technology such as coltan. The national Congolese Bishops conference states that there have been over 6000 people killed in Beni since 2013 with at least 3 million internal refugees. The bishop indicates that there is a plan to Islamize or expel the local populations. All those who have been kidnapped by the terrorist groups have reported the same thing: a choice between death or conversion to Islam; they’re given Muslim names to cement their identity.

A similar situation is happening in Mozambique. The majority of the attacks by al-Shabaab (affiliated with ISIS), which have increased in pace and intensity, occur in Mozambique’s poorest province, the Northeast region of Cabo Delgado. The interest is the enormous natural gas reserves off the coast of Mozambique and the port which has been built there to refine the petroleum products. International multinationals such as France’s Total and the US energy company ExxonMobil have invested billions in the LNG project.

The capture by the insurgents of Cabo Delgado town and fishing harbor of Mocímboa da Praia has secured a steady revenue stream from the taxation of illicit trade in minerals and drugs. Mocímboa da Praia has been a key transit point for narcotics for over forty years. Access to these resources has enhanced their recruitment capability, allowing them to offer relatively high salaries to disenfranchised locals.

The violence is often unimaginable. In Mozambique in early November 2020, fifteen boys and five adults were decapitated with machetes by Islamic State insurgents. These massacres followed an earlier mass attack in April 2020, in which an estimated 52 men were killed after refusing to join the ranks of the jihadists. Research reveals that in Burkina Faso, in February 2019, 65,000 people were displaced by terrorist groups. Only 12 months later, in February 2020, 765,000 people had been displaced by terrorist groups.

As of July 2021, over 1.3 million are displaced. This radicalization affects not just the African continent: the ACN report reveals the rise of transnational Islamist networks — with ideological and material support from the Middle East — stretching from Mali to Mozambique in Sub-Saharan Africa, to the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean, and to the Philippines (Mindanao) in the South China Sea, with the aim of creating a so-called “transcontinental caliphate.”

So, economic interests drive Christian persecution in many parts of Africa?

The countries of East and West Africa, lying primarily in the Sub-Saharan region, are home to a complex mosaic of ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups, and a predominantly youthful population. While the region has considerable human and natural resources, problems of poverty, a lack of educational and employment opportunities for young people, results in frustration and social instability.

These elements, combined with pre-existing intercommunal violence between herders and farmers over land rights (exacerbated by the consequences of climate change), weak state structures, and corruption, have been readily exploited — a recruitment opportunity — by local and transnational criminal and jihadist groups who prey on them with promises of wealth, power, and the ousting of corrupt authorities. This is bound all the more closely to the core of the human person by a profound manipulation of religion.

Battle-hardened Islamist extremists have moved south from the plains of Iraq and Syria to link up with local criminal groups in the Sub-Saharan countries. Where historically the relations between religious groups have been peaceful and respectful, predominantly Islamist extremist groups have introduced a wedge of distrust and a cycle of revenge violence. In a May 10, 2020 report titled “How transnational jihadist groups are exploiting local conflict dynamics in Western Africa”, the Danish Institute for International Studies notes: “It is widely agreed upon amongst scholars of transnational jihadism that its two leading organizations, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, rarely start new conflicts. Instead, they tap into local grievances, establish linkages with marginalized groups in the society, and in the long run, transform what may initially have been an ethnically, or politically motivated conflict, into a religiously framed, armed struggle.”

Now that you have spoken about the drivers of persecution, where are the hotspots?

Evidence suggests that the region principally affected is that of Sub-Saharan Africa including the countries of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, northern Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Mozambique. In a February 24, 2020, interview with ACN, Professor Olivier Hanne — a French Islamologist and author of “Jihad in the Sahel” — was asked how the situation in the Sahel was likely to develop.

He stated: “I fear that over the next five years the territorial expansion of the armed terrorist groups will continue. Drug trafficking will become more organized and increase. After having extended their grip on the Muslim Sahara, the next target will be the places where Christians and Muslims live alongside one another … in the next five years these African states will need the support of the West if they are to avoid catastrophe.”

What generally is the state of mind of those Christians who have suffered persecution?

An ACN interview with Bishop Bruno Ateba of the diocese of Maroua-Mokolo in northern Cameroon describes the impact of this campaign of terror: “In the villages of Borno State in Nigeria, and throughout the frontier regions of Cameroon, not a day passes without news of attacks and incursions by the terrorists. The abductions and executions of the country’s people have become a veritable reign of terror and a source of deep psychosis among the population.”

During the funeral ceremony in early June for Fr Alphonsus Bello Yashim, a Catholic priest murdered in Malfunashi, Nigeria, ACN noted the words of Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto who in his sermon observed that nowhere in the world are so many innocent people “killed in public without consequences.”

Bishop Kukah decried the government’s response to the Nigerian people stating: “Citizens are alone. Keeping your safety is not our priority. Foreign bandits or other criminals can come at will, kill you, loot you, rape you, kidnap you and murder you.”

In a further ACN interview, Father Joseph Fidelis, from the diocese of Maiduguri, expressed frustration when he hears people refer to “clashes” or “conflicts” between opposing groups. “It is not a clash, it is a slow genocide. To displace people from their ancestral homeland, deprive them of their livelihood, and butcher them is a form of genocide.”

What do those who persecute want from Christians?

Extremist groups began, in an effort to destabilize civil authorities and states, targeting principally security forces, military bases, police stations, and increasingly civilians (kidnappings, destruction of villages or livestock). When attacks against religious leaders occurred these were usually indiscriminate, directed at all those in disagreement with the radical movements whether Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, and traditional religions.

Although it is difficult to precise, researchers indicate that in the years leading up to 2019, for the first time the terrorists specifically targeted Christians. As Abbé Victor Ouedraogo of Radio Notre Dame in Burkina Faso stated to ACN: “Attacking Christians is an opportunity to question the historical harmony that exists between religions, and tears at social cohesion.”

Local governments in this new environment confront a dilemma. These generally and genuinely understand the need for plurality in society, especially cognizant of the role of Christians in encouraging inter-religious dialogue, and do not want the Christians to disappear but remain unable, or in some cases unwilling, to protect them. “Public authorities with comparable Muslim — Christian populations are especially challenged” states Abbé Victor Ouedraogo.

“On the one hand these cannot remain silent in the face of such violence against Christians, and on the other hand the state, in reacting, runs the risk of being presented (wrongly) as a pro-Christian and therefore anti-Muslim. So, the authorities prefer to remain inactive and the unarmed party, usually the Christians, remains defenseless.”

Abbé Ouedraogo states further that international governments, or NGOs too, risk falling into the trap set by extremists when they blame, stigmatize or condemn an entire community or the Muslim religion, thus creating tensions that can lead to inter-religious conflicts. Christian leaders, in particular the Catholic conferences of bishops, try to avoid the characterization of this violence as an “interreligious” or “sectarian” conflict. Such a representation, presented often facilely in international media, supports the extremist strategy to create confusion, stereotypes, and stigmatization, which fuels religious, political, social, and community tensions from which these terrorist groups benefit.

What signs of resilience and hope do you see in persecuted Christians?

The Catholic Church is working to bring calm to the frightened populations and peace-building with the Muslim leaders (i.e.: through inter-faith dialogue), many of whose populations are equally victimized. Only through a common approach to identifying and isolating fundamentalist extremists from mainstream Islam is there hope of containing both communal and inter-religious violence.

Worshippers pray during Mass at the cathedral in Kaya, Burkina Faso, May 16, 2019. Bishop Lucas Kalfa Sanou of Banfora said Jan. 22, 2021, that the body of Father Rodrigue Sanon, a priest of the diocese, was discovered in a forest. Father Sanon had been missing since Jan. 19. (Photo: CNS/Anne Mimault, Reuters)

The Catholic hierarchy is also on the front line in responding to the humanitarian issues. This is due to the fact that both Christians and Muslims feel safer, and thus flee first, to the care of the Catholic Church where she supports a variety of emergency responses (shelter, food, medicine, education, and psychosocial support), and refugee assistance and stability programs.

As to the hope, please find a quote from Father Panachy Longinus Ogbede, Church of the Visitation in Lagos, Nigeria who stated: “We must never accept violence. It is not a part of our culture. Traditional Nigerians are known to have discussions; our forefathers taught us that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves everyone blind and toothless. There will always be better and more productive ways to express our grievances.”

At the international level, thankfully, in many cases, there are steps being taken. Although not yet able to reverse these negative trends, at least governments around the world are starting to pay greater attention to this concern. Internationally religious freedom is being acknowledged as a foundational right, that two-thirds of the world’s population reside in countries with restrictions on religious freedom, and that Christians represent the largest faith group experiencing religious persecution. Worldwide awareness has grown with May 28, 2019, UN resolution setting August 22 as an “International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence based on Religion or Belief.”

Over the last two years there has been a flurry of initiatives including the creation of a State Secretariat for Christian Persecution in Hungary, the U.S. initiated International Religious Freedom Alliance, and perhaps of greatest note, the growing number of nations instituting or reactivating Ambassadors for Religious Freedom and Belief in countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, the USA, Norway, Finland, Poland, Germany, and the United Kingdom among others.

Perhaps the most important sign, however, is the efforts made to maintain peace between the various religious communities. In the far North region of Cameroon, a mixed population of Muslims and Christians continue to suffer numerous attacks by the terrorist group, Boko Haram, which since 2014 has extended its deadly campaign from Nigeria to Cameroon.

To date, the population has not been drawn into inter-religious reciprocal violence as in these Boko Haram-affected areas there is a long-standing tradition of respect and cooperation between Christians and Muslims. Local media sources report that in some cases, Christians protected mosques during prayers while Muslims guarded churches on Sundays, as an early warning method to minimize the risk of surprise attacks.