Wednesday 25 November (#RedWednesday) brought to an end the so-called #RedWeek, an international week aimed at raising awareness about the persecution of Christians around the world and the question of religious freedom generally. It was sponsored by the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
Hundreds of important buildings and monuments, in Australia, Canada, Colombia, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Poland, the Netherlands, Austria, Slovakia, the Philippines, Ireland and the United Kingdom, to name just some countries, were lit up in red throughout the week for this purpose. Among them were the cathedrals of Montreal and Toronto in Canada, Manila in the Philippines and Armagh in Ireland, the Elizabeth Bridge in Budapest, Hungary, The Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising and the castle in Bratislava and the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
In the Netherlands alone a total of 119 buildings were involved in the campaign, more than twice the number of the previous year. Peter Broeders, the national director of ACN Netherlands, explained that these numbers “reflect a growing concern over what we are seeing throughout the world”, where “authoritarian governments, terrorists and radical groups are attacking religious minorities” and where a “growing number of people are discriminated against, persecuted and imprisoned on account of their faith”.
For the same reason, in a number of countries around the world, ACN has this year published a report drawn up by the UK national office of the charity, entitled “Set Your Captives Free”, in order to draw attention to the many Christians unjustly imprisoned. During the launch of the event in London, one of the victims, Maira Shahbaz, a 14-year-old Christian girl from Pakistan, whose case is described in the report, gave her personal testimony via video link. She described how she had been abducted, forcibly converted and made to marry against her will, as well as being “blackmailed, tortured and badly abused”. Having escaped from her captor, she is now living in hiding. She said: “The lives of me and my family are at risk in Pakistan. We are constantly receiving death threats. We are extremely scared and concerned about our security.”
Father James Channan, the director of the Peace Centre in Lahore, Pakistan, also spoke about the discrimination faced by Christians in his country in the online #RedWeek event in Canada. “Christians generally belong to the poorest classes”, he noted. “Very often we face discrimination on the part of the authorities and in the workplace.” Father Channan also spoke about the country’s notorious blasphemy laws, which hang like a real sword of Damocles over the heads of Christians. “This fear of being falsely accused of blasphemy is a constant one among Christians”, he said.
In various countries, #RedWeek also drew attention to the worrying situation of Christians in Nigeria. Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Abuja, the federal capital, asked for prayers for one of his priests, Father Dajo Matthew, who had been abducted just two days earlier, and at the same time recalled the many other victims of kidnappings among members of the Christian community. He emphasised in particular the case of Leah Sharibu, who was abducted by the Boko Haram terrorist group and whose story is also included in the report Set Your Captives Free. Leah is a shining example of courage in the face of adversity, he said. He also asked not to forget the 112 schoolgirls abducted from their school in Chibok in the north of the country in 2014, who remain missing to this day. Archbishop Kaigama also spoke of the conflicts between Fulani herdsman and Christian farming communities which are growing in intensity. ‘‘Militant herdsmen have continuously wreaked havoc, killing people and burning houses and farms at odd hours of the night especially in Southern Kaduna, where there is a predominantly Christian population; the bandits have been terrorizing both Christians and non-Christians alike, and kidnappers are still a menace.’’
Thomas Heine-Geldern, the executive president of ACN International, took part along with the president of the Austrian Parliament, Wolfgang Sobotka, in the #RedWeek in Vienna, where the Saint Charles Church in the heart of the city and the parliament in the Imperial Palace were both illuminated in red. Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer expressed his support for the initiative: “In participating in this campaign, we are sending a clear message of solidarity to persecuted Christians throughout the world.” He added: “For us, the free exercise of religion is one of the pillars of liberal democracy. Every form of discrimination based upon religious affiliation must be decisively rejected.”