The papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has voiced concern in the face of increasing attacks on Christians all over the world. “As the brutal bombings perpetrated against churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday show, 2019 is already one of the bloodiest years for Christians,” declared the executive president of ACN, Dr Thomas Heine-Geldern.
The charity, which brings aid to poor and persecuted Christians in more than 140 countries, has become aware of and reported among others on the following anti-religious attacks in the first four months of the year alone:
- attacks by Islamist Séléka militia on a catholic mission station in Bangassou Diocese in the Central African Republic in which dozens were killed and around 20,000 people fled the violence at the first of January;
- the Islamist attack on the cathedral of Jolo in the southern Philippines which killed 20 people and injured around 90 at the end of January;
- attacks by members of the predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen tribe on Christian villagers in the Nigerian state of Kaduna in mid-March that left more than 130 dead; and,
- attacks by extremist Hindu nationalists on a Catholic school in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu at the end of March, in which the nuns who worked there were categorically hunted down.
Christians as victims of global developments
“The atrocities in Sri Lanka mark the bloody climax of a trend that has endured for some years now: the persecution of Christians knows no bounds. It knows no let-up, especially on the holiest days of the Christian calendar. It knows no mercy on innocent people, who are often made scapegoats for global developments,” Heine-Geldern explains.
Following the attacks in Sri Lanka responsibility was claimed by the Islamic State terrorist militia. Security authorities harbour the assumption that the bombings may have been organised in retaliation for the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand where, in mid-March, a 28-year-old man killed 49 people in two mosques.
Aid to the Church in Need also points to the continuing Islamist threat in the Middle East, as well as the violence by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. “To say that IS has been beaten militarily and therefore no longer exists is a fallacy – the ideology lives on, as do its supporters; the contact channels appear to be working. Our project partners in the Middle East remain extremely concerned,” states Heine-Geldern.
Religion often used as a political weapon to plunge countries into chaos
Most recently additional concerns for the foundation have arisen about the situation in countries on the American continent such as Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela, where bishops and priests have suffered repeated attacks as a result of political turmoil. “Here it is a mixture of political ideology and the accusation that the Church is meddling because it calls on people to resist authoritarian governments and corruption. This makes it a target for aggression and violence,” Heine-Geldern says.
In many parts of the world religion is used as a political weapon to destabilise countries and plunge them into chaos. This, Heine-Geldern continues, is what is happening again in Sri Lanka. There the Church is trying extremely hard to prevent outrage at the atrocities from spiralling into further violence. “Social stability is based to a large extent on the peaceful coexistence of the various faiths. This is something many of our project partners are working to achieve,” comments Heine-Geldern.
It is rare for anti-Christian attacks to attract public attention. Thus, the perilous situation in which the Christian minority in Pakistan finds itself first became internationally known through the fate of Asia Bibi, a mother who was sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy and acquitted by the court of last instance. Together with other organisations, Aid to the Church in Need had campaigned for her release. Notwithstanding this, Asia Bibi’s fate still remains uncertain.
Religious and political extremism: main causes of persecution
Extremist Islamism, excessive nationalism and authoritarian ideologies are still the main drivers of persecution against Christians and other religious minorities. This is also the conclusion of the Religious Freedom Report, the latest edition of which ACN presented in November 2018 and which illuminates the situation in 196 countries. “We note with great concern that, regrettably, none of these three trends has diminished – quite the contrary. This is currently evident among other places in African states such as Burkina Faso, Niger and Benin, where the hostilities on mission stations, priests and nuns have dramatically increased. People are becoming more and more frightened,” Heine-Geldern observes.
According to Heine-Geldern, this distressing development must be challenged. “It is the duty of governments and the UN to bring about peace, to guarantee freedom of religion and to repel anti-religious attacks,” says Heine-Geldern. As for Church, Heine-Geldern says, their role is to stand by the persecuted Christians through prayer and active support and to give them a voice and a face. “ACN has been campaigning for this for more than 70 years. In view of the growing violence against Christians, it is a cause worthy of every support and every effort.”