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Religious freedom and anti-Christian violence
Coptic Christians belong to a very ancient branch of Christianity. Unlike Christians in the West, their liturgical year derives from a blend of the ancient Egyptian and Julian calendars. As a result, the Coptic celebration of Christmas occurs on Jan. 7, not Dec. 25.
Despite 14 centuries of discrimination and persecution, Coptic Christians still number between 6 million and 10 million people in heavily Islamic Egypt. In recent decades, Muslim extremists have targeted Coptic churches for bombing, murdered Coptic priests and lay leaders; and abducted young Coptic women for forced conversion. Egypt’s inability or unwillingness to end this violence, or to punish those responsible, was a constant source of frustration for members of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom during my three-year term of service.
Earlier this month, in what seemed a turn for the better, prominent Egyptian Muslims spoke out against the violence. Some attended midnight Christmas Liturgy with their Coptic fellow citizens as human shields against extremist intimidation. It was an unusual and heartening show of solidarity—and also short-lived. Shortly after the display of good will, Cairo recalled its ambassador from the Vatican, and Egypt’s Sunni Muslim leaders suspended dialogue with the Holy See.
The “provocation” for their anger was this: Pope Benedict XVI—in responding to a brutal New Year’s attack on an Egyptian church that left 21 dead—had called the tragedy “yet another sign of the urgent need for the governments of the (Middle East) region to adopt … effective measures for the protection of religious minorities.”
Given the facts, the Holy Father’s remarks were very kind. Islam is not a monolith. The condition of Christians can vary greatly from one Muslim country to another. Jordan is a very different environment from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran or Saudi Arabia. But throughout the Muslim world, millions of Christians suffer some form of social or political exclusion, deprivation of rights, legal intimidation or—as in Egypt—outright violence. And too many Muslim leaders too often seem to refuse any responsibility for righting these grave injustices by tarring all legitimate criticism—and the ugly facts that cause the criticism—as an “attack” on Islam.
This kind of posturing is a recipe for bitterness. It undermines real dialogue and breeds resentment. And the Christian-Muslim encounter already has too much of the latter in its history.
Religious freedom—a person’s right to freely worship, preach, teach and practice what he or she believes, including the right to freely change or end one’s religious beliefs under the protection of the law—is a foundation stone of human dignity. No one, whether acting in the name of God or in the name of some political agenda or ideology, has the authority to interfere with that basic human right.
One of the key tasks of Catholic citizens in a free nation like our own is to remind our elected officials of the facts of religious persecution—including anti-Christian violence—around the world. And another, equally vital task is to press them, respectfully but tirelessly, to ensure that religious freedom abroad becomes a real priority for the White House and our international diplomacy.
Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M., Cap. is the Archbishop of Denver. To read more from Archbishop Chaput, click here.
Archbishop Chaput served as a commissioner with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 2003-2006. Next week: The suffering Church in Iraq, and how Colorado Catholics can help.
To listen to Archbishop's homily delivered this past Sunday, visit www.archden.org/archbishop/homilies.
Jann. 26 – Feb. 1
North American Bishops Neocatechumenal Convivence, Tel Aviv, Israel