Myles Cesario ’21
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads:
“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion.”
Religious tolerance and freedom of religion are central pillars in democratic, multicultural societies. But often, religious groups persecute each other, committing sins against others in the name of their God.
But when these groups themselves are persecuted minorities in other countries, how many news outlets are willing to discuss them?
Well, here’s something no news outlet wants to touch: Christian persecution in the world is rising. There, I said it.
This statement in itself is controversial, but it’s the truth. I will focus on four examples of Christian persecution in the world.
But keep a couple things in mind. Many different groups of people are minorities and these groups existed in their home regions long before harsh conditions. An attack on one Christian is an attack against us all.
The Republic of Turkey
The Church of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, Turkey, is one of the most significant churches in all of history and is marked by a thousand years of tradition and religious fervour.
Built in its modern design in 532 AD after the Nika Riots nearly burned down Constantinople, it was the centre of Byzantine worship. As an Orthodox Christian ‘mega-church’, it was used by emperor and commoner alike and showcased Christian themes and imperial prowess.
In 1453, Emperor Fatih Sultan captured Constantinople for the Ottoman Empire, converting the cathedral into the city’s central mosque. The Ottomans covered the original Christian artwork.
During the secularization of the Republic of Turkey in the early 20th Century, President Atatürk turned the Hagia Sofia into a museum, exposing the Christian artwork. From the fall of the Ottoman Empire to 2020, the Hagia Sofia stood as a symbol of religious tolerance of Christians and Muslims in Turkey.
But unfortunately, the notions of religious zeal have dominated the world since then. In Turkey alone, Christians are perceived as ‘Western imports.’ Their religious freedom (as a minority) is practically inexistent.
One of these instances is the inability of the Greek Orthodox community to train clergy at the Halki Seminary for future priests in Turkey. This leads me back to the Hagia Sofia.
In 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pushed for the Hagia Sofia’s retransformation into a mosque. The Supreme Court of Turkey obliged and the Hagia Sofia was transformed back into a mosque, covering its Christian artistry only during services.
This leaves Christians out of the picture in a building they originally built. The situation for Christians in Turkey will continue to worsen, but at least it now receives public attention.
The People’s Republic of China
China is the biggest Communist country in the world, and yet, people forget that religion and Communism haven’t always gotten along.
In China, Christianity is small by comparison to mainstream atheism and other cultural beliefs, but Christianity was small in the Roman Empire and still ended up being a ripe target for Nero and his successors.
Christian life in China is under heavy surveillance by the Chinese government and the Catholic Church’s attempts to make it easier for Christians to worship in China have met deaf ears. Even with the Vatican-China agreement—which is an entirely different problem on its own—Christians in China still have problems.
They have seen their churches shut down with no just cause and their pastors and priests arrested or investigated. Catholic bishop appointments even need approval from the Communist Party, which has divided the loyalties of the Catholic population in China.
There are even practices in place that force churches to hang the Chinese national flag and play patriotic songs in services. This reinforces the notion that it is the government that has the power in the Church and not God.
High-ranking Church officials such as Cardinal Emeritus Joseph Zen have called out the Communist country for persecuting its citizens while also pointing fingers at the Vatican for remaining silent while countries like the US have published new reports that assert that “human rights abuse in China has worsened in the last year” (2020), and specifically highlighted that “the escalating persecution of Chinese Catholics in the wake of the Vatican-China agreement of 2018.”
There was another time in Catholic history when Communist states weren’t the nicest rulers, most notably St. John Paul II’s Poland. When the future pope was still named Karol Wojtyla, he had to deal with an impertinent Soviet government, but this soon ended. So, perhaps one day the People’s Republic of China will allow its citizens to worship without fear.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
The third situation is in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Now it is no surprise that the Kingdom is predominantly Muslim or that it is a monarchy.
But one surprise may be the fact that there are no churches—at least public ones, anyway. It has been Saudi policy to not allow any Church for any Christian denomination to be built in the country.
They do offer alternatives, such as online masses, and even as recent as 2018 the Coptic Orthodox celebrated the first public mass in Riyadh. But if someone were to wear a cross, or to hold a public religious service not sanctioned by the government, they could face serious punishment, all the way to being “arrested and risk expulsion from the Kingdom.”
Saudi Arabia is also a country known to have many overseas workers—most of whom are Christian—who are forced to suppress their faith or feel pressured to convert. Now it’s one thing to separate Church and state, but it’s an entirely different thing to not allow any religious minority to publicly gather to worship one day a week.
Canada and the United States of America
This last instance is perhaps one you weren’t expecting. These days, Christian persecution in the West is barely covered. In truth, some people just don’t care.
But in 2020 alone, the number of reports regarding vandalism, theft, and burning of churches rose sharply. Anti-religious sentiments have been growing in the West, not just against Christians but all religions.
Separation of Church and state has been noticeable in Western society for decades, but this goes too far. In the recent protests that have gripped the world, many extreme protesters have toppled statues of saints, burned churches, and have written antisemitic or Nazi literature.
When these community centres—Houses of God—and places of safety are burned and no one in government bats an eye, isn’t it hypocritical for the Western nations to proclaim their religious tolerance and yet do nothing? Say nothing? The greatest struggles in our societies are the ones we don’t see. Do we see this one?
“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me (Matthew 25:40).
Christian persecution around the world is growing in places such as Turkey, China, Saudi Arabia, and even in our own backyard. There is a fine line between religious tolerance and religious intolerance, and we’ve passed that.
Yes, no one can deny that the Catholic and even Christian churches have committed sins that God Himself wouldn’t be proud of. But that does mean the world can do it to us?
In this time of hope and preparation let us appeal to God on high to save our brothers and sisters. Let us as Christians pray for our brothers and sisters in these regions but also pray for those who do not share the same beliefs as us and anyone who may persecute us.
Let us also learn a lesson from these persecuted Christians, that to strive for Christ is not easy, it is a calling that sometimes requires us to lay down our lives. The greatest lesson for us Christians is to learn to pray, not simply pray for what we want, but pray because it’s a time when we gain the divine strength we need to endure this journey to sainthood.
So, let us rejoice for the martyrs’ sacrifices and the lessons we can learn. All you holy men and women, pray for us.
Photo credits: Dennis Jarvis, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hagia-Sophia (Hagia Sophia), Ng Han Guan/AP Photo (Church in China), https://www.eurasiareview.com/05082018-the-sad-fate-of-the-arab-christians-analysis/ (Saudi Arabia protests), https://WWW.MEDIAITE.COM/TV/CNNS-BRIAN-STELTER-APOLOGIZES-FOR-CLAIMING-ST-JOHNS-CHURCH-WAS-NOT-BURNING-I-FELL-VICTIM-TO-THE-WORST-FOOLISH-IMPULSES/AMP/ (St. John’s Church)