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Kathryn Jean Lopez / April 23, 2017

Attention Must Be Paid

“If ‘never again’ means anything, I had to be here today.” The words came from a rabbi, calling to mind the Holocaust, standing among Christians outside a church in New York on Good Friday evening. The rabbi spoke at a former Catholic church, now being leased to Coptic Christians.

“If ‘never again’ means anything, I had to be here today.” The words came from a rabbi, calling to mind the Holocaust, standing among Christians outside a church in New York on Good Friday evening. The rabbi spoke at a former Catholic church, now being leased to Coptic Christians.

The rabbi and his audience gathered in response to the ISIS attacks on churches in Egypt, one an attempt to kill the Coptic pope.

I find that people are not pleased when a spotlight is shined on Christian persecution. There is the mistaken idea that if we’re writing about it in the West, we must be talking about someone getting bent out of shape because of the so-called war on Christmas. Or, to be more seasonally appropriate, the Easter Bunny supplanting Christ’s resurrection on Easter. There is also an assumption that persecuted Christians are looking for special privileges, not to mention a distaste for the unavoidable impression of victimhood.

Yes, Christians are persecuted. And in the case of Coptic Christians and so many other Christians and religious minorities in the Middle East, they are targets of genocide. They are also some of the most resilient people you’re ever going to meet. They are forgiving, but not because they are merely passive victims. They are forgiving because they are beacons of a radical love beyond human understanding, and they rely on that love to help them through their difficult circumstances.

Under Caesar’s Sword, a joint academic effort involving both the University of Notre Dame and Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center, among others, is well aware of the challenges. The project’s new report, “In Response to Persecution,” unpacks just what Christian persecution is, where it is happening and what Christians are doing in response — surviving, associating and confronting — some, of course, giving their lives for the cause of not only religious freedom but human dignity itself, as the two are inseparable.

The report explains that “most of the world’s persecution of Christians takes place within a geographic band that begins around Libya, moves eastward to Egypt and the rest of the Middle East, expands north to Russia and south to Sri Lanka, and then proceeds eastward to China, Indonesia, and North Korea. Outside of this band are several other oppressive regimes, like Cuba.” In some of these areas, though clearly not all, Christians are outnumbered. In some places — including India and Indonesia — democracy doesn’t guarantee protection. In other countries, like Eritrea, Somalia and Yemen, persecution is so severe that they are “inaccessible to research.”

When 21 men, most of them Coptic Christians, were beheaded on the shores of Libya in February 2015, they “accounted for a mere twenty-one of the 7,100 Christians” estimated to have died for their faith just that year alone. “This represents more than a 300 percent rise from the 2013 figure of 2,123, and does not include incidents of intimidation or nonlethal violence.”

The report is full of advice for aid organizations, businesses and media. As Pope Francis heads to Egypt next week, ISIS’s advance welcome was an attack on the 6th-century St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai. A beacon of the Beatitudes, Pope Francis brings love and forgiveness with him. I’m reminded of the words of Christian de Cherge, a monk who was kidnapped and believed murdered by Islamist terrorists in Algeria in 1996. Shortly before he disappeared, he wrote a testament forgiving his killers in advance: “I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.”

Now is the time to beg forgiveness, too, for not having the time to pay attention and remedy our ways. If “never again” means anything, as the rabbi said on Good Friday.

COPYRIGHT 2017 United Feature Syndicate

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