Category Archives: Pope

Pope to Visit One of the Saddest Places on Earth

Pope Francis plans to visit the Central African Republic later in November, and you do not have to be Catholic to want to pray for him.

For this country – a land-locked former French colony situated between Cameroon and South Sudan – has to be one of the saddest places on earth.

As if to confirm it, just last week the Legatum Institute, a London-based think tank that works to promote global prosperity, released its annual Prosperity Index, which ranks 142 countries in terms of both wealth and wellbeing.

It would be little surprise that heading the list was Norway, followed by Switzerland and Denmark. But right at the bottom, at Number 142, worse even than Afghanistan, Haiti, Chad, Syria or Sudan, was the Central African Republic.

The country has a Christian majority, though the “Operation World” prayer handbook makes clear some of the sins of the church.

“A failure on the part of leaders to demonstrate Christ-like humility and graciousness in their walk and ministry not only stunts their own fruitfulness but passes on their flaws to their congregations,” it says. “High moral standards and honesty are frequently lacking in the churches.”

Despite considerable natural and mineral resource wealth, the country has been beset by military coups, civil conflict and intense corruption.

This all came to a head in March 2013 when Muslim rebel groups seized control of the government. Muslims comprise only about 15 per cent of the population, and since that time the country has descended into bloody violence. It is often now described as a failed state in permanent crisis.

Armed Muslim groups have killed thousands of Christians and forced many more to flee. Christian militia groups have responded in kind – despite being condemned by many church leaders for their violence – with armed attacks on the Muslim minority. Some 10 per cent of the population are now refugees.

Pope Francis will arrive in the country after visits to Kenya and Uganda. He plans meetings with religious leaders, including senior Muslims officials, and will call upon refugees and attend a prayer vigil.

But as the violence escalates, there has been speculation that he might even be forced to cancel his visit.

So pray that it goes ahead, and pray that he might succeed in the role of peacemaker. Few countries in Africa – or anywhere – are more in need of peace.

Cuba – Waiting for a Real Revolution of Religious Freedom

Pope Francis arrives in Cuba for a short visit. Might it lead to an end to the persecution of Christians that is a feature of this Communist nation? Unfortunately, the signs are not hopeful.

According to a June 2015 report from Christian Solidarity Worldwide, violations of religious freedom have actually been growing in severity during the year, with the authorities targeting church property as a new means of controlling religious groups.

A further cause for concern is the arrest in February 2015 of a church leader Jesus Noel Carballeda and his imprisonment since then without charge, apparently for his continued leadership of an underground church group.

The report concluded, in part: “Many observers have wrongly interpreted concessions given to a few religious groups, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, and the upcoming papal visit, as indicative of a new and growing respect for religious freedom. However, the growing severity of violations of freedom of religion or belief reported by a wide range of denominations and religious groups, and new legislation used to justify the arbitrary expropriation of religious properties in order to exert more control over the relevant religious group, are evidence of the opposite.”

Roberto Ornan Roche is a Cuban writer and also a strong Christian. I would particularly recommend his short book “The Lighthouse of Asaph,” which is a moving collection of devotionals. A few years ago I interviewed him about the reality of being a Christian in today’s Cuba.

He said that persecution began at a young age. “I remember when I was a schoolboy that our teachers made us stand at the front of the classroom, so that the other students could make fun of us because we were Christians,” he told me.

“The other children were trained to hate us. This was not an isolated practice. It was mandatory for the teachers to embarrass the Christian children. Likewise, it was necessary for parents to deny their faith so that their children could study at university.”

Despite this, he said, Cuba boasts some strong churches and excellent leaders. “Our pastor is a very good preacher,” he said. “He is very inspiring and his sermons attract a lot of non-believers. We also have home prayer groups, and fasting and prayer in the mornings.”

He described the congregation as “simple and humble, very poor and unpretentious,” and noted that some members who had been able to leave Cuba to live abroad were helping the church with gifts.

He also said that after waiting many years for a permit, and “jumping over thousands of bureaucratic barriers,” his small church was constructing a new building.

So there is hope. And I assume that eventually the Communist thugs who rule Cuba – and North Korea too – will be forced into retreat, delivering a real revolution of religious freedom. But I do not see signs that the Pope’s visit will be the catalyst that brings this about. I hope I might be proven wrong.

ISIS Threatens Christians in Jerusalem with “Vengeance”

A report that an ISIS-linked group has been threatening Christians in Jerusalem underscores the dangers inherent in placing the city under some kind of international control, as advocated by many.

According to The Times of Israel:

Leaflets threatening Christians and signed by an organization referring to itself as the “Islamic State in Palestine” were distributed in East Jerusalem Thursday, Israel’s Channel 10 news reported.

The flyers, which displayed an image of the black flag associated with the Islamic State terrorist group, warned Christian residents of the city that “vengeance” will be exacted upon them, the TV report stated.

Last month I noted that Pope Francis had reportedly described Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as an “angel of peace,” despite Palestinian persecution of Christians.

And two weeks ago I wrote about how the Vatican was calling for an independent Palestinian state, “ignoring the growing links between ISIS and Hamas, which controls Gaza.”

I also quoted the commentator David Goldman:

Judging from the opinion polls, [if free elections were held] a State of Palestine today would have a Hamas majority of about two-thirds, with substantial representation from elements of ISIS. Why would the Vatican wish this plague upon itself? If a Palestinian State rules the Old City of Jerusalem, the Christian holy sites will be razed by Muslim radicals, just as they were in Iraq. Christianity survives in Judea and Samaria because Jews are willing to die for Jerusalem. How many Christians are willing to die for Jerusalem? The Vatican should ponder this question.

These words ring even truer now. Christians are not universally loved in Israel, but they are free to worship, and Christianity is thriving and growing. Nowhere else in the Middle East is this true. No wonder ISIS wishes to threaten our Christian brothers and sisters in Israel. And it is only while Jerusalem remains in Jewish hands that we can expect they will be protected.

Palestine, the Pope, Persecution and Pious Pretense

Pope Francis has described Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as an “angel of peace” during a meeting at the Vatican.

I wrote about similar hypocrisy last Christmas, and it seems an opportune time to repost my piece. Note too the excellent column by David Goldman on this issue. He writes:

Judging from the opinion polls, [if free elections were held] a State of Palestine today would have a Hamas majority of about two-thirds, with substantial representation from elements of ISIS. Why would the Vatican wish this plague upon itself? If a Palestinian State rules the Old City of Jerusalem, the Christian holy sites will be razed by Muslim radicals, just as they were in Iraq. Christianity survives in Judea and Samaria because Jews are willing to die for Jerusalem. How many Christians are willing to die for Jerusalem? The Vatican should ponder this question.

So here is my own column from Christmas. It was titled “Proclaiming Christ, Persecuting Christians.”

The latest attempts by Palestinian leaders to enlist Jesus to their cause are an insult to Christians and should be rejected.

“We celebrate the birth of Jesus, a Palestinian messenger of love, justice and peace,” declared Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “His message resonates among all of those who are seeking justice, and among our people who have been the guardians of the holy sites for generations. It resonates in our prayers for our people in Gaza.”

Other local leaders joined the Christmas chorus, affirming that Jesus was a prophet to Palestine and the first Palestinian martyr.

What hypocrisy.

Each December the Open Doors organization releases its World Watch List of the 50 countries where persecution of Christians for religious reasons is most severe. This year it ranked the Palestinian Territories at No. 34, with the plight of the 40,000 Christians there worsening a little since 2013, when the region was ranked at No. 36.

Here is how Open Doors described conditions:

Anti-Christian violence has increased, mostly caused by Islamic extremists, although Muslim-background believers face pressure from family, too. The authorities fail to uphold the rights of individual Christians, causing some to flee to safer areas.

In Gaza, Christians are enticed into becoming Muslims, especially during Ramadan, with the offers of jobs, houses, wives and diplomas. Sometimes the approach is more violent.

In fact, Jesus was born and ministered in Judea. It was only 100 years after his death that the Roman authorities changed the name of the region to Palestine. And it was just in the 20th century that modern-day Palestinians adopted the name.

For some years the Palestinian leadership have been working to convince their people – and the world – that Jews have no particular history in the region. Their phoney attempts to claim Jesus as one of their own – without even noting that He was a Jewish rabbi – is aimed squarely at garnering sympathy from an international Christian audience.

But, until these leaders take decisive steps to halt the escalating persecution of the Christians in their midst, their proclamations should be rejected as mendacious hypocrisy.

We Have a Pope – How Long Will We Still Have Persecution of Christians?

By Martin Roth

Nina Shea, author of the newly published “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians,” calls on Pope Francis I to “build on his two predecessors’ endeavors to bring aid and comfort to those who suffer for their religious beliefs.”

In particular, she says that:

* He should encourage the bishops to educate the faithful about the ongoing persecution of Christians and other religious minorities. Sunday prayers could make specific references to the Catholic bishops and evangelical leaders in indefinite detention in China; to the Christians languishing in North Korean detention camps merely for possessing a Bible; and to the Nigerians, Iraqis, and Egyptians whose churches have been repeatedly targeted in jihadi attacks and even blown up during worship services. 

* In his tireless advocacy for the oppressed Eastern European churches, John Paul showed that action is also required. In the Middle East, the cradle of Christianity, the persecution of Christians and other minorities has been exacerbated by the Arab Spring. 

* Church-organized human-rights groups and justice-and-peace commissions became common features in Central America, Chile, and elsewhere in Latin America during the military dictatorships of the 1980s, and they were indispensable to advancing rights and freedoms. We need similar groups in many Middle Eastern, Asian, and African countries today. If the promise of Dignitatis Humanae is to be fulfilled, it is crucial that the laity be trained to document religious persecution and other human-rights abuses.