Yesterday Pope Francis received Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese Christian woman who is condemned to death, while pregnant, for alleged “apostasy”. The touching encounter gained worldwide media attention and, in the words of writer Fr Dwight Longenecker, enabled millions to “put a face to the thousands of persecuted Christians around the world“.
The meeting also drew attention to the Pope’s role in raising awareness of Christian suffering. But what exactly is Francis doing and how effective is it?
Why does the problem warrant the Pope’s attention?
Even those who follow current affairs closely sometimes fail to appreciate just how grave and widespread the persecution of Christians is.
The Center for the Study of Global Christianity in the United States estimates that in the last decade, an average of 100,000 Christians have died each year in what the center calls a “situation of witness”, meaning for motives related to their faith.
Although some experts regard that estimate as inflated, it works out to an average of 11 Christians killed each hour throughout the past decade.
The expulsion of Christians from Iraq’s second city of Mosul last weekend has focused attention particularly on the beleaguered faithful of the Middle East. This is how Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom of the Hudson Institute in Washington, sums up the situation:
There are only four countries left in the Middle East where Christians are found in substantial numbers: Egypt, with eight million Coptic Orthodox and other Christians; Syria and Lebanon, each having between 1.5 and two million Christians; and Iraq, whose Christian population of some 1.5 million declined by about two thirds over the last decade due to persecution.
In all four places, the Christians are at risk from mounting violence and persecution, and their numbers are dwindling as they flee to refuge in the West. In our lifetime, we may see the end of the ancient Middle East churches, as well as other, smaller religious minorities, and the complete Islamisation of Christianity’s cradle.
Many persecuted Middle Eastern Christians belong to ancient Oriental Orthodox churches not in full communion with Rome. Nevertheless, the Pope, as the world’s most visible Christian leader, feels compelled to raise his voice on their behalf.
How does Francis use his influence?
Italian reporter Sandro Magister argues that Francis sometimes addresses complex political problems with a “strategy of silence“.
Some observers, he suggests, mistake this for indifference. He points out, for example, that only recently Francis passed up what might have seemed an ideal opportunity to raise Meriam’s plight:
In mid-May, on the day news came that in Muslim Sudan the young wife and mother Meriam Yahya Ibrahim had been sentenced to death for the sole offence of being Christian, Bergoglio received the new Sudanese ambassador at the Vatican. Not a word escaped his lips on this question. Nor did any escape him afterward. Absolute silence, in spite of the growing worldwide campaign for the woman’s liberation.
Yet just a few months later Meriam was sitting with Francis in the Vatican. What happened? The full picture hasn’t emerged yet, but it’s possible the Holy See played a role in her release.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, oversees a vast diplomatic network that has in the past quietly secured the release of prisoners. “The Holy See seeks the most effective manner of intervening,” the cardinal has explained, “which is not always that of crying out.”
Does Francis ever speak openly about persecution?
How effective is his advocacy?
Very in certain individual cases, such as Meriam’s, but less so in others. The Christian mother-of-five Asia Bibi, for example, is still languishing in a cell in Pakistan, despite what appear to have been vigorous efforts to secure her release.
On a broader level, there seems to be little Francis can do to turn back the vast geopolitical forces eroding ancient Christian communities of the Middle East.
Francis is no doubt well aware of this. That may be why, in many of his public utterances, he tries to prick the consciences of Christians who live relatively comfortably. Perhaps he hopes to inspire a great wave of solidarity that improves the persecuted’s prospects.
“How many of you pray for Christians who are persecuted?” he asked at a general audience in December. “Am I indifferent or is it like someone in the family is suffering?”
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