Dolan cited Pope John Paul II’s description of the present times as the “new age of martyrs.” Half of all Christian martyrs in the 2,000 year history of Christianity were killed in the 20th century alone.
“This 21st century, I’m scared, doesn’t seem to promise much better,” the cardinal continued. “This century, only two decades old, has already seen 1.25 million people killed around the world, simply because of their belief in Jesus Christ. And that threat to religious believers is growing.”
The Nov. 19 symposium, “Act in Time: Protecting Imperiled Christians in Ancient and Other Lands,” was hosted by the Anglosphere Society, the Knights of Columbus, the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, the Institute for Ancient and Threatened Christianity, and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. Most participants spoke via video.
Among the speakers was Mariam Ibraheem, a Sudanese woman who was arrested and charged with abandoning Islam. Under Sudanese law, she was considered a Muslim due to her father’s Muslim faith, despite the fact that she was raised as a Christian by her mother after her father left the family when she was 6 years old. She was also charged with adultery and sentenced to 100 lashes because her marriage to a Christian husband was not recognized under Sudanese law.
Despite being sentenced to death in May 2014, Ibrahim refused to renounce her Christian faith. Her young son lived with her in prison and she gave birth to a baby girl while in prison. After international attention, she and her family were released in June 2014 and they now live in the United States.
Dolan reflected on what American Catholics can do to help persecuted Christians.
“We’re members of one of the most richly blessed communities on this planet,” Dolan said. Though American Catholics show unity in defense of their own religious freedom, “we can’t stop there,” he said.
“We have to become advocates,” he said. “We need the enthusiastic backing of our people, not just our leaders. If we don’t have that, we’re not going to get too far.”
The cardinal cited Pope Francis’ reminder to conduct an examination of conscience on this topic. The pope encouraged Christians to ask themselves whether they are indifferent to Christian persecution or respond as if “a member of my own family is suffering.”
Among his recommended actions, Dolan said that believers should encourage constant prayers of intercession for the persecuted. Prayers for the conversion of Russia shaped Dolan’s childhood sense of life behind the Iron Curtain, and a similar “culture of prayer” in private and in liturgical celebration for today’s persecuted Christians could have an effect, he said.
“We also want to make people aware of the great suffering of our brothers and sisters using all means at our disposal,” Dolan said, commenting that he has asked pastors to speak on the issue and to include stories of present-day martyrs in their sermons. These stories are also fruitful for use in ongoing faith formation.
“Our experience defending religious freedom shows that when we turn our minds to an issue we can put it on the map,” he said.
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Dolan praised groups like Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic Near East Welfare Agency, Catholic Relief Services, In Defense of Christians, Open Doors, the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher, the Knights of Malta, and the Knights of Columbus for their work to help persecuted Christians.
Other speakers at the symposium included Robert Nicholson, executive director of the Philos Project, and Chinese civil rights lawyer and activist Guangcheng Chen, who is presently the Distinguished Fellow for the Center for Human Rights at The Catholic University of America.
Chen has defended women and families against the Chinese government’s forced sterilization and abortion policies. He was arrested, suffered beatings, and abused under house arrest before escaping to the United States.
Bishop Matthew Kukah of Sokoto, Nigeria told the symposium that Christians in Nigeria face difficulty securing land for churches in states that see the building of churches as undermining Islam. By contrast, most mosques are state funded.
He suggested a focus on “bread and butter” issues as a way forward, by addressing crisis areas like homelessness, orphan children, unemployment, and conditions that stop farmers from farming or harvesting crops. In areas that are struggling to build schools, having a Muslim presence in schools is “a guarantee that persecution will not continue,” he said.
Archbishop Basha Warda of Erbil spoke about the situation facing Iraqi Christians and other minorities like the Yazidis. He warned of “a growing loss of hope” for Iraqi Christians, whose numbers have declined from 1.6 million before the 2003 U.S. invasion to fewer than 250,000 today.