During a recent conversation with Margaret, a woman who suffered life-changing injuries after Islamists assaulted a Catholic church in Nigeria last Pentecost Sunday, I couldn’t help but reflect deeply on the words of Christ:
“Whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith.Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5)
Indeed, who is it that can forgive their enemies and overcome hatred, violence and abuse of the kind suffered by Margaret but he or she who knows Christ?
In my work for the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) UK, I am frequently asked about how I deal with all the negative stories and the “doom and gloom”. But as St John’s letter reminds us, a strong faith in Christ’s ultimate victory upends this question: rather, how can I deal with all the pessimism and negativity without learning from the example of the modern-day martyrs?
Speaking to Margaret taught me two key lessons: that we in the West need the example of the persecuted Church, and they need us. The more that the opponents of the Church become emboldened in persecuting her, and the less we speak truth to power, the more severe will the persecution be this year. Our silence is a green light to violence.
2022 made this fact clearer than ever. More Christians suffer for their faith in Christ than any other religious group suffers for their faith, according to the Pew Research Center. This is borne out by fresh data from Aid to the Church in Need’s latest report Persecuted and Forgotten? A Report on Christians oppressed for their Faith 2020-22.
The oppression or persecution of Christians increased in 75 percent of the 24 countries ACN surveyed. In Africa, the situation for Christians worsened in all countries reviewed amid a sharp increase in genocidal violence from militant non-state actors, including the jihadist groups Islamic State West Africa Province and Boko Haram. Nigeria is in particular trouble. In the Middle East, continuing migration deepened the crisis threatening the survival of three of the world’s oldest Christian communities located in Iraq, Syria and Palestine.
State authoritarianism has been the critical factor causing worsening oppression against Christians in China, North Korea, Vietnam and Burma (Myanmar). Religious nationalism has caused increasing persecution against Christians in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, among other countries. Fashionable holiday destinations like the Maldives fare poorly when it comes to the treatment of Christians. Football-famous Qatar has also been on our radar.
A key trend we are witnessing in the West which aids and abets the persecution of Christians is civil authorities’ frequent denial of the extent of the problem. This can stem from ignorance of and outright unwillingness to alleviate the suffering of Christians, but also takes the form of dubious arguments that reject explanations of the crisis rooted in anti-Christian hatred, instead preferring economic justifications or cries of “climate change”. But climate change alone cannot explain Christian persecution, as the UK parliamentarian Sir Edward Leigh MP explained in a recent article.
2023 will see these trends escalate, ACN’s research suggests. Our work proactively identifies the trends Christians face early on, rather than being purely reactive. This call to justice is crucial to waking up governments, decision-makers and the Church to the plight of the most vulnerable. We defend the persecuted Church and stand in solidarity with her but, perhaps even more importantly, we provide support and pastoral care so that she can persevere in her mission to preach the Gospel to all nations, whatever the cost.
Speaking to ACN last year after her release from captivity in Mali, west Africa, Sister Gloria Cecilia Narváez said: “My God, it is hard to be chained and to receive blows, but I live this moment as you present it to me … And, in spite of everything, I would not want any of [my captors] to be harmed.”
The Franciscan sister was held by Islamist militants for over four years, during which time she was repeatedly physically and psychologically tortured. Sister Gloria made clear that her Christian faith was the source of the animus against her, describing to us how her captors became enraged when she prayed. On one occasion, when a jihadist leader found her praying, he struck her saying: “Let’s see if that God gets you out of here. Sister Gloria continued: “He spoke to me using very strong, ugly words…My soul shuddered at what this person was saying, while the other guards laughed out loud at the insults.”
As Christ says to the persecuted Church and to us: “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
When I read these words, the smiling portrait of a humble and persevering Nigerian woman comes to mind. This year, like so many other Christians, Margaret will continue to suffer and to triumph. This year truth and falsehood will be asserted variably in the courts of power.
Yet, however worldly justice deals with the cause of persecuted Christians, long may their suffering smiles ring out the joy of victory.