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Disasters that happen to large groups of people need a particular face to make them real. News reports of a tsunami, earthquake, war or genocide must have individual cases to bring home the reality of the disaster to ordinary people. Through her tender and intelligent diary the Jewish girl Anne Frank brought home the horror of the Nazi death camps. Perhaps the case of the Sudanese Christian Meriam Ibrahim will help the world realize the horrors of the present persecution of Christians around the world.
Brought up as a Christian, Meriam was accused by the Islamic authorities in Sudan of adultery and apostasy and was sentenced to flogging and death. Her imprisonment, while pregnant, along with her two-year-old son was an international human rights scandal. Her ordeal worsened when she was forced to give birth while wearing shackles—possibly causing damage to her newborn daughter. Now free at last, Meriam traveled from Khartoum to Rome to meet Pope Francis.
The Pope, who uses symbolic actions in a natural way, was aware that Meriam and her children are the face of anti-Christian terror. Father Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s spokesman, said, "With this gesture the Pope wished also to show his closeness, attention and prayer for all those who suffer because of their faith and in particular Christians who suffer persecution or restriction to their freedom of religion.”
Writing for the National Review, Father Robert Barron reminds us of the global extent of Islamic persecution of Christians. Not only have the Christians in the Northern Iraqi city of Mosul been given an ultimatum to convert, pay stiff fines or be executed, but Catholics in Saudi Arabia have no religious freedom.
“Moreover, Muslim persecution of Christianity is not limited to the Middle East,” Father Baron writes. “Islamist radicals have been attacking Christians in Indonesia, India, and the Philippines for quite some time. And perhaps the most extreme examples of this persecution are the attacks launched by the Islamist group Boko Haram in Nigeria. This terrorist sect has burned churches, wantonly killed innocent Christians at worship, and most recently, kidnapped hundreds of Christian girls whose crime was attending school.”
It is easy to imagine that Christians are only persecuted by Muslims. In fact, it is much worse than a war between just one religion against Christianity. Boston Globe reporter John Allen chronicles the surge in anti-Christian persecution in his excellent book The Global War on Christians. Allen points out that Christians are persecuted across the world in many different ways and for different reasons. In South America they are persecuted by left wing militants, in Italy by the mafia. In China they are persecuted by the communist regime. In South America by strong-armed business interests. In North Korea by an atheist regime, in India by radical Hindus.
Meriam Ibrahim’s persecution was extreme: prison and the prospect of flogging and death. Elsewhere, the persecution is financial. Christians are taxed unfairly or their businesses are boycotted. Christians are sidelined from career advancement, denied work contracts, fired from jobs, excluded from educational opportunities and demoted. Sometimes the persecution is social. If a Hindu or Muslim converts to Christianity they can be ostracized, excluded from their family and even tortured and killed by the community for disgracing their heritage. The persecution extends to businesses and church properties, with Christian bookstores and libraries burnt down, churches torched and seminaries and schools destroyed.
Now, with the release of Meriam Ibrahim, the world can put a face to the thousands of persecuted Christians around the world. This is the kind of ordinary, intelligent and courageous young woman who is willing to suffer for her faith. Will Meriam’s example help to change the rising tide of anti-Christian attacks?
It is difficult to be optimistic. The spirit of hatred that lies beneath the varied persecutions worldwide is unlikely to change. Unless there is a miraculous shift in the hearts and minds of the persecutors, Meriam’s face is likely to become the icon of a permanent and growing problem for Christians. In the present climate her ordeal may become more common not less.
Those who watch the signs of the times cannot help but notice the growing spirit of rage towards Christians not only from Muslims but also from atheists and secularists in the developed world. Philip Jenkins’ volume The New Anti-Catholicism: the Last Acceptable Prejudice highlights the history of anti-Catholicism in the United States and charts its worrying rise in the United States today. Legal decisions about healthcare and workers’ rights are already infringing on the rights of Christians in the USA.
Meriam’s release is a moment of joyful victory, but it is also a reminder that persecution against Christians is on the rise and that all who take their faith seriously should be aware that the ugly beast of anti Christian hatred can rear its head anywhere–even in societies that are tolerant and sophisticated–even in countries that seem to prize religious freedom.
Father Dwight Longenecker is the author of The Romance of Religion—Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com