June 15, 2017
INDIANAPOLIS—“Persecution has a face,” said Bishop Oscar Cantú, of Las Cruces, N.M., chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, as he presented an oral report to the full body of bishops on the situation of religious discrimination and persecution in Asia and the Middle East.
The report is based on his participation last year at the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference Plenary Assembly in Sri Lanka, where he represented the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. During the year, Bishop Cantu also took part in other solidarity visits to India, Iraq and the Holy Land, where he met with bishops, refugees and persecuted people.
“Tragically, religious persecution and harassment is not limited to one or two regions in our world,” said Bishop Cantú. Citing statistics from the Pew Research Center, Cantu noted that “Christians are harassed in the largest number of countries, 128, followed closely by Muslims in 125 countries. This is partly due to the fact that Christians and Muslims are the largest religious groups in the world.”
Harassment consists of both social hostilities and government restrictions. It can include physical assaults, arrests and detentions, desecration of holy sites, and discrimination in housing, employment and educational opportunities. In Asia, Bishop Cantú learned about concerns in countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Malaysia.
“At times, it rises to persecution and genocide,” Bishop Cantú said. Regarding the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Iraq, he called it “a crisis within a crisis” and argued that “to focus attention on the plight of Christians is not to ignore the suffering of others.” A focus on Christians and other minorities strengthens “the entire fabric of society to protect the rights of all” and is “inclusive” of a concern for “both minorities and majorities, both Christians and Muslims.”
Bishop Cantú highlighted the efforts of the local Church in Iraq to reach out to all in need in partnership with Caritas Iraq and Catholic Relief Services. He also pointed to the importance for the U.S. Church in following the lead of the local Churches enduring persecution in expressing solidarity, particularly in Syria and Iraq.
Even in the midst of persecution there are moments of joy. He contrasted the image of “a tent camp for Christians” covering “the Church grounds across the street from our hotel” in Erbil with attending “the ordination of three deacons in Erbil” where “the Cathedral erupted [in joy] when a displaced man from Mosul was ordained.”
In his report, Bishop Cantú also highlighted the following recommendations for the U.S. government that include:
- Providing assistance to refugees and displaced persons, including through faith-based organizations like CRS:
- Assisting in the resettlement of refugees, including victims of genocidal actions and other vulnerable families.
- Encouraging central and regional governments in Iraq and Syria to strengthen the rule of law based on citizenship, to insure the protection of vulnerable minorities, and to improve policing, judiciary and local governance with the help of U.S. assistance.
He also invited the Church and Catholics in the United States, who wish to help, to:
- Pray for those suffering from persecution.
- Become aware of the Christian presence in the Middle East and of an accurate understanding of Islam with openness to dialogue with Muslim neighbors. Resources are available at: www.usccb.org/middle-east-christians.
- Donate to non-profit Catholic organizations such as CRS, Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus.
- Advocate with the U.S. government for assistance and the dignity of refugees.
Bishop Cantú also shared with the bishops the research study In Response to Persecution, conducted by the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, the Religious Freedom Institute, and Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Research Project. The study is available at: http://ucs.nd.edu/assets/233538/ucs_report_2017_web.pdf.