I’ve sat in countless church pews, all over the world. I’ve listened to homilies in French, Spanish, English, Italian and — the most beautiful of all — Latin. I’ve spent hours gazing at the refraction of light through stained glass windows, lighted countless candles and knelt on so many kneelers that my shins carry the permanent indentation of the lifelong Catholic.
I’ve always taken for granted that I can enter by the front door, sing loudly in celebration, seek communion and absolution without worrying about who might be looking on. Unquestionably, I live my faith in the light of day. At a recent Mass, I was reminded of those who can’t when the priest asked me to pray for my brothers and sisters who are forced to seek God in the shadows and risk their lives in the search.
In this country, like most of the Western world, there is no such thing as true religious persecution. This is not to say that people of faith don’t come up against discrimination. Those who’ve challenged the health care birth-control mandate know that the current administration is not particularly sympathetic to claims of religious freedom. Worse, it has become obvious that anyone who questions the validity of same-sex marriage based upon strongly held religious principles can expect to be called a bigot and, perhaps, find himself slapped with a civil rights lawsuit, as recently happened to a wedding photographer in New Mexico.
In this 50th anniversary year of Abington v. Schemp, the case that abolished prayer in public schools, we pat ourselves on the back because of our tolerance for those who choose not to believe. This is probably a good thing, even though you can’t help but note the glee with which certain groups greet the heavy-booted march of secularization. They don’t want to torture people of faith, but they don’t mind making them sweat.
But sweating and being the object of suspicion or derision is nothing compared to what is going on in the rest of the world, places where owning a Bible is a death sentence (North Korea) and going to Mass is a suicidal act (Nigeria).
Unfortunately, this doesn’t attract the attention of the homegrown media, because we in the West have a problem seeing religious folk as victims.
Americans in particular are more accustomed to complaining about the Catholic Church’s attempt to “impose” its views of abortion on the rest of us, or we see the file video of the Westboro Baptist kooks and equate theology with pathology. We also prosecute parents who refuse to give medical treatment to their children in the name of “religious freedom” and prefer “Interior Design” to “Intelligent Design.” It’s all part of the balancing act.
Tragically, there is no balancing in some parts of the world, particularly when it comes to Christians. In the 21st century, the cross is in the cross hairs, and the most brutal attacks are reserved for those who follow Jesus. This is not to diminish the historical persecution of Jews, which is, perhaps, the only similar template that we have for deadly intolerance. The Holocaust is the single worst incident of religious-based violence in modern memory (with the possible exception of the extermination of Armenians by the Turks.)
But as Archbishop Charles Chaput observed in an afterword to the book “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians,” “We are living in an age of intensifying, anti-Christian persecution.”
Again, it is hard for the average American to understand how perilous it is for a Christian to openly profess his faith in a place like, for just one deadly example, Iran. Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani sat in a jail cell for years under a death sentence because he converted from Islam to Christianity. In Iraq, Catholic students were murdered on their way to school. In China, an elderly priest was abducted, never to be heard from again. In Pakistan, a woman was given a death sentence for insulting Muhammad.
And this past month, Egypt’s Coptic Christians saw their worst fears realized as the persecution that had begun decades ago increased exponentially as the Arab Spring became a summer of hell. Churches were burned, nuns brutalized, worshippers murdered. And the rest of the world called it a “political problem.”
This is not about politics. This is about human rights. Westerners need to realize that just because we prize our “freedom from religion” and stand on top of that euphemistic wall screaming, “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries,” people in other parts of the world are dying for their faith. And most of them are dying at the hands of people who subscribe to a twisted vision of Muhammad’s prophecy, one that feels threatened by believers in Christ. It is the same mentality that motivated Hitler to destroy God’s chosen people, the same diseased rationale that led Stalin to burn the churches and imprison its children.
Wake up, people. It’s 1939 all over again.