Peace & Justice

This is the blog of the Commission on Peace and Justice for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, New York.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Religious Freedom Week

In 2017, a Franciscan nun, Sr. Gloria Cecilia Navarez Argoti, was kidnapped by a jihadist group in southern Mali and held hostage for more than four years, before eventually being released in 2021.
She says that prior to being kidnapped, the local Muslims admired her and her fellow missionaries for many reasons, including their openness to people regardless of ethnicity, class, or religion. Muslims welcomed them into their homes and shared their food. But to her kidnappers, the extremists, that did not matter. For them, religious freedom – the ability to express one’s faith regardless of what other believe – was a threat.
During her time as a prisoner, she lived the words Jesus spoke in last Sunday’s Gospel: “do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.
This year, she was asked to write the forward to the annual report on religious freedom in the world that is issued by Aid to the Church in Need, a Pontifical Foundation with offices in 23 countries. In it, she wrote that despite such adverse circumstances, the bad weather, the daily abuse, humiliations, and deprivation of food and water, I never — not once — failed to thank God for allowing me to wake up and be alive amid all the difficulties and dangers. How could I not praise you, bless you and thank you, my God? For you have filled me with peace in the face of insults and mistreatment! 
She also wrote, “I also prayed — and continue to pray — for my captors. Even when I was beaten for no reason, or simply because I was saying my prayers, I said to myself: “My God, it is hard to be chained and to be beaten, but I live this moment as you present it to me... And, despite everything, I would not want any of these men (my captors) to be harmed.” 
Her story is important as we come to the end of the annual observance of Religious Freedom Week, which takes place from June 22 to June 29. It began with the feast day of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher, both beheaded by King Henry VIII, and ends today with the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, who each died for the faith. 
Today, Catholics face persecution not just from those of other faiths, but those who claim to share our faith or profess no faith at all.
For example, in Nicaragua, where the Church is by far the most trusted and the last remaining independent civil society institution in the country, Catholics face a critical intensification of religious persecution. Since 2018, when the Nicaraguan bishops supported civil society’s right to protest unpopular government policies, churches have been attacked with deadly force; priests and religious are imprisoned or exiled, the Apostolic Nuncio was expelled, and, after a trial that many saw as unjust, Bishop Rolando Alvarez was sentenced to 26 years in prison. 
According to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, these are “politically calculated acts of psychological and spiritual terrorism against the faithful in Nicaragua. They are intended to send a message to the bishops, priests and faithful that the regime will go to any length to quash and silence the moral voice of the Catholic Church in the country.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference published a message to the people, condemning the long running crisis of violence in that country, saying, “The nation is falling apart. Serious insecurity, clearly evident in widespread loss of lives and property, for long unaddressed, has left the sad and dangerous impression that those who have assumed the duty and authority to secure the nation are either unable – or worse still, unwilling – to take up the responsibilities of their office.”

According to the bishops, “The police forces and the courts have failed horribly to establish the rule of law in the country.
This work is crucial because the population of Nigeria is almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims and this state of conflict could drive a wedge between them and threaten the long-term stability of Nigeria. As religious polarization increases, the chance for dialogue among opposing groups is reduced.

But Catholics are not the only ones to face oppression. Muslims are persecuted in China and India. In Catholic Italy, a pregnant Muslim woman and her 11-year-old son died after being pushed in front of and on-coming train. In our own nation, anti-Semitic hate crimes are increasing. For the third time in the past four years, we broke a new record, with anti-Semitic incidents climbing almost 500 percent over the past decade.

Religious persecution is real, and we must always oppose it, whether it be directed at Catholics, Muslims, Jews, or people of other faiths. This week, as we continue to mark Religious Freedom Week, let us pray for the essential right of religious freedom for Catholics and for those of all faiths.