Do Catholics Care about Persecuted Christians?

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Do Catholics Care about Persecuted Christians?

June 25, 2020 10:50 AM

Do Catholics Care about Persecuted Christians?
A Chinese Catholic deacon holds a bible at Palm Sunday Mass at an "underground" or unregistered church in China's Hebei province.

For the first time, American legislation in defense of international religious freedom has reached into the Chinese Politburo.

Last week, President Donald Trump signed into law a bill to authorize sanctions against top officials responsible for ongoing persecution against China’s Muslim Uighur minority.

Passed by Congress with only one “no” vote, the action follows on the heels of this month’s release of the 2019 State Department Report on International Religious Freedom (IRF).

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lauded the United States’s commitment.

“America is not a perfect nation by any means, we always strive towards that more perfect union, trying to improve,” he said.

“[But] there is no other nation that cares so deeply about religious freedom.”

Such commitment was marked this week by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Each day from June 22–29 highlights an issue of concern, whether domestic or international.

Yesterday (June 24) the focus was on China.

Last summer, the government-affiliated Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association—representing 6 million of China’s estimated 12 million Catholics—condemned the US criticism. The State Department’s second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom had advocated for the 800,000 to 2 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities who have been arbitrarily detained in internment camps.

But one month later, the Chinese government permitted the first consecration of a Vatican-ordained bishop. Pope Francis had signed a deal with Chinese authorities to unite Rome with the underground Catholic church in 2018.

The US bipartisan consensus evident in the Uighur law reflects Pompeo’s assertion. First amendment rights guarantee freedom for all religions, and Americans generally desire for such liberty to extend worldwide.

But is there particular concern over Christian persecution? And is religious liberty eroding at home?

Two new polls suggest declining Catholic attention abroad, while the faithful grow more worried about America.

Aid to the Church in Need–USA (ACN–USA), an international papal agency that supports suffering and persecuted Christians in more than 140 countries, surveyed 1,000 US Catholics.

First conducted in 2018, the 2020 results were tallied in January and released in March.

COVID-19 had not yet overwhelmed American attention.

At the time, more than 9 in 10 found the persecution of Christians to be “very” or “somewhat” severe.

This percentage held firm from 2019, but the share of “very severe” fell 11 percent year-to-year, from 46 percent, to 41 percent.

A similar drop of 10 percent (to 52%, from 58%) marked those who were “very concerned” about global Christian persecution.

While still a high level of concern, the 2020 percentage ranked lowest on a list of five global issues surveyed by ACN–USA. The “very concerned” priorities of Catholics had human trafficking ranked first, at 79 percent.

This was followed by poverty (70%), climate change (57%), and the refugee crisis (55%), with Christian persecution (52%) last.

But like Christian persecution, each issue (except one) also decreased from the year before. And the rankings changed slightly.

Human trafficking remained first, but fell from a 2019 figure of 82 percent.

Poverty remained second, but fell from a 2019 figure of 74 percent.

In 2019, the refugee crisis was third, at 60 percent.

And though climate change held steady at 57 percent in 2019, it ranked fifth—below Christian persecution—in 2019.

“Two years ago, the genocidal campaign waged by ISIS against Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria had only just begun to decline, but memories of that atrocity have faded since then,” said George Marlin, ACN–USA chairman.

“This may well help explain the apparently lesser concern.”

Of course, the pandemic and resulting economic crisis have distracted Catholics further, said Edward Clancy.

“I was relieved to see the religious freedom report wasn’t delayed and moved to the back burner,” stated the ACN–USA director of operations.

“Whether concern is down or not, it can’t be left to disappear.”

China, however, is not yet on the Catholic radar.

Iran ranked No. 1 in the surveyed list of nations where the persecution of Christians “most severe.” It was followed by North Korea, Iraq, and Syria. Iran also topped the poll in 2019, followed by Iraq, Afghanistan, and North Korea.

In lamenting the overall yearly decline, Marlin highlighted inadequate media coverage of Islamist terror in Nigeria and Africa’s Sahel region, Hindu nationalism in India, and state repression in China.

Even following the agreement with Pope Francis, the Chinese government has recognized only 3 of an estimated 20 Vatican-consecrated “underground” bishops.

“There’s a great darkness over parts of the world,” Pompeo said in his speech, “where people of faith are persecuted or denied the right to worship.”

China and Nigeria received special approbation in the annual IRF report.

China was renewed by the State Department as a “country of particular concern.” Nigeria was placed for the first time on its “special watch list.”

Will these nations be reflected in ACN–USA’s 2021 poll?

“Pompeo’s words have weight, giving the situation in those countries more priority,” said Clancy.

“Will this lift Catholic concern? I don’t know, what is needed is repetition and consistency.”

At least prior to COVID-19, ACN–USA’s advocacy may have been paying off.

Bucking the trend of yearly decrease, 27 percent of US Catholics perceived their local bishop was “very engaged” on the issue of Christian persecution. It was 24 percent in 2019.

Similarly, the perception of their local parish rose to 22 percent, from 19 percent the year before.

(The perception of Pope Francis’ engagement dropped slightly, from 51 percent to 47 percent.)

“It is not a dramatic increase,” said Joop Koopman, ACN–USA communications director.

“But the awareness spread through church communications means there has been a little more noise.”

And, a little less impact.

Though nearly 7 in 10 Catholics (69%, up from 68%) said prayer was a “very important” personal initiative to help the persecuted church, other indicators fell.

Raising awareness in the parish declined to 59 percent, from 62 percent in 2019. And donating money to aid agencies also declined to 53 percent, from 55 percent the year before.

Following Pompeo, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback highlighted the Trump administration efforts in creating the 27-member International Religious Freedom Alliance. During the question-and-answer session, he spoke of sanctions applied against Chinese companies abusing the Muslim Uighur minority.

These are the same tools preferred by the US Catholic community.

The ACN–USA question on what should be done to deter the persecution of Christians around the world also reflects a slight decline from 2019 figures.

First in the “very important” responses was diplomatic pressure at 55 percent, down from 61 percent.

Economic sanctions ranked second at 53 percent, down from 56 percent a year earlier.

Emergency asylum (52%) and financial aid (48%) remained roughly stable in third and fourth positions, but military intervention rose to 46 percent, up from 42 percent in 2019.

The least favored response was to arm local Christian communities, where the “very important” percentage held steady (40%, from 41%).

In a separate survey of 2,055 registered voters (1,223 of whom were Catholic) conducted last November by Real Clear Politics in partnership with the Catholic-themed television network EWTN, “religious freedom” commanded less attention among Catholics than the population at large.

One-third of registered voters called it a “major concern,” but only 3 in 10 Catholics. Nearly 4 in 10 registered voters (39%) called it a deal breaker for who they would support as a candidate, but only 34 percent of Catholics said similarly.

(Religious freedom was not defined by a domestic or international focus.)

Yet 7 in 10 Catholics agreed that America as a nation was becoming “less tolerant” of religion in general. And by a margin of 2 to 1, registered Catholic voters (62% vs. 31%) would like Christian values to play a more important role in society.

“It may well be the case that domestic issues take precedence over global issues,” said Koopman, “given our very polarized political landscape.”

But given the importance of international religious freedom, Clancy expressed hope that the uproar over Donald Trump’s visit earlier this month to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine would not drown out the message.

The president announced an executive order to make it central in State Department formation of foreign policy.

But coinciding with widespread racial protests following the police killing of George Floyd, Catholic Archbishop of Washington, DC Wilton Gregory slammed the hijacking of the revered pope’s legacy.

“I hope it does not become divisive,” said Clancy.

“The optics and politics of it are just a side issue.”

And since the racial protests and COVID-19 have completely consumed American attention, he said, ACN–USA has turned its attention to another of its core priorities—helping the suffering church around the world care for its poor.

They just may face an uphill battle reminding Catholics in America.

“In a world where up to 300 million Christians are confronted with various forms of harassment and outright persecution because of their faith,” said Marlin, “the US church simply must do more to inform and galvanize the faithful.”

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Posted by:Jayson Casper,
2020

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