Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, urged his fellow bishops to be advocates of Christians persecuted for their faith around the world, encouraging prayers as well as action on their behalf.
“We bishops, as shepherds of one of the most richly blessed communities of faith on the planet, as pastors who have spoken with enthusiastic unity in defense of our own religious freedom, must become advocates and champions for these Christians whose lives hang in the balance, as we dare not allow our laudable battles over religious freedom at home to obscure the actual violence being inflicted on Christians elsewhere,” Cardinal Dolan told the bishops’ assembly Nov. 11.
The U.S. bishops’ conference is holding its fall assembly Nov. 11-14 in Baltimore. On Nov. 12, the assembly will elect the successor to Cardinal Dolan, who has served as conference president for the last three years, in addition to serving as Archbishop of New York.
In his address to the assembly, Cardinal Dolan said one million Christians have been killed for their faith in the first years of the 21st century, which he called “a new age of martyrs.” Citing the Pew Research Center, he said that over 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with restrictions on freedom of religion.
The cardinal invoked Pope Francis’ Sept. 25 general audience, in which the Pope asked Catholics whether they pray for persecuted Christians.
“When I hear that so many Christians in the world are suffering, am I indifferent or is it as if a member of my own family is suffering?” the Pope asked. “When I think or hear it said that many Christians are persecuted and give their lives for their faith, does this touch my heart or does it not reach me? Am I open to that brother or that sister in my family who’s giving his or her life for Christ?
Cardinal Dolan said these words must be answered both as individuals and as bishops. Supporting persecuted Christians should be “a defining element of our pastoral priorities,” he said.
He particularly lamented the trials facing Christians in the Middle East.
He declared a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Syria, where two Orthodox bishops have been kidnapped amid the ongoing civil war. He said the Iraq war and its consequences have “devastated” Iraq’s ancient Christian community. The 2012 attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad resulted in a massacre of 58 Christians.
The cardinal also noted a “serious escalation of violence” against Christians in Egypt, where dozens of Coptic churches have been burned. An August attack on a school run by Franciscan nuns resulted in the rape of two teachers. Three nuns were paraded “as prisoners of war.”
There have also been attacks on African Christians, such as shootings of priests and church burnings in Zanzibar. Anti-Christian violence in Nigeria has included church bombings on Christian holy days.
Cardinal Dolan said the situation in India is “grave” in the aftermath of the 2008 Orissa massacres that killed hundreds of Christians and displaced thousands more. Thousands of homes and about 400 churches were destroyed. The cardinal noted a recent mob attack on a Christian couple simply because of their faith.
In addition, the cardinal noted the pressures on Christians in China, such as the state supervision and imprisonment that faces Catholic bishops and other religious leaders.
In light of these grave global challenges, Cardinal Dolan made several suggestions for action.
The bishops should encourage “a culture of prayer for persecuted Christians,” both in private prayer and in liturgical intercessions, he said, noting that prayers after Mass for the conversion of Russia helped shape Catholics’ awareness of the victims of communism.
He encouraged the bishops to make others aware of the suffering of other Christians through their columns, blogs, speeches and pastoral letters. Bishops can ask pastors to preach on the topic and to launch study sessions and activist groups. They can also encourage Catholic media to “tell the stories of today’s new martyrs.”
The cardinal also stressed the importance of supporting organizations that have done “heroic work,” such as Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Catholic Relief Services and the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. He also praised the work of Protestant groups.
The bishops can insist that U.S. leaders listen to persecuted Christians and make their protection “a foreign policy priority,” he added, observing that this has not been a high priority for presidential administrations of either major political party.
Cardinal Dolan noted the ongoing struggles to defend religious freedom in the U.S., but said these “pale in comparison to the Via Crucis currently being walked by so many of other parts of the world.”
These Christians’ suffering “must be ours as well.”
“I want us to broaden our horizons, to ‘think Catholic’ about our brothers and sisters in the faith now suffering simply because they sign themselves with the cross, bow their heads at the name of Jesus, and profess the Apostles’ Creed,” the cardinal said.
“May all the blessed martyrs, ancient and new, pray for us, as we try to be confessors of the faith.”