Bishop John McAreavey, Bishop of Dromore and chair of the Council for Justice & Peace of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, today presented to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, on the subject of ‘The ongoing Persecution of Christians’. Bishop McAreavey’s delegation included:
- Father Timothy Bartlett, an advisor to the Bishops’ Council for Justice & Peace and a priest of the Diocese of Down & Connor, and,
- Mrs Áine O’Reilly, a member of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a Catholic charitable organisation that provides solidarity and financial support to the Christian communities of the Holy Land.
Before its presentation, the Church delegation circulated a letter to the Joint Committee from the Patriarch of Bagdad appealing for greater solidarity and support for Christians being displaced, persecuted and killed in Iraq. Please see full presentation below:
Thank you, Chairman.
My name is Bishop John McAreavey. I am here today as Chair of the Council for Justice and Peace of the Irish Bishops’ Conference. I am joined by Mrs Áine O’Reilly, a member of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. This is a Catholic charitable organization that provides solidarity and financial support to the Christian communities of the Holy Land. It has over two hundred members in Ireland and more than thirty thousand members worldwide. I am also joined by Father Timothy Bartlett, an advisor to the Council.
I thank the Committee for the invitation to be here this morning with Trócaire, Open Doors and Church in Chains. The ongoing persecution of Christians is an issue that unites all Christians. Pope Francis has called it the ‘ecumenism of suffering’. The breath and scale of this suffering is unprecedented. The Centre for the Study of Global Christianity in the United States estimates that 100,000 Christians are being killed every year because of their faith. That is eleven every hour. Others are being tortured, imprisoned, exiled, threatened, excluded, attacked and discriminated against on a widespread scale. The Pew Research Centre says that Christianity is now the world’s most oppressed religious group, with persecution against them reported in 110 countries. Many of these countries have significant trade links with Ireland. Persecution is increasing in China. In North Korea a quarter of the country’s Christians live in forced labour camps. Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the Maldives all feature in the 10 worst places to be Christian. According to the International Society for Human Rights, a non-religious organization, 80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed against Christians.
As the other groups will explain in more detail, the situation for Christians in the Middle East is particularly acute and shocking. The rise of ISIS has accelerated a brutal religious genocide against Christians and other religious minorities that has been on-going for well over a decade. The former Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks, recently described this suffering of Christians in the Middle East as ‘one of the crimes against humanity of our time’. He compared it with Jewish pogroms in Europe and said he was ‘appalled at the lack of protest it has evoked.’ I believe many Christians in Ireland, of all denominations, too are appalled at the relative lack of attention being given in the Irish media, in political discourse and in Irish Government policy and action to the urgent plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East at this time. Children, women and men being beheaded. Young men brutalized and left to die on make-shift crosses in town squares in the part of the world that was once described as the cradle of Christianity and of civilisation itself. Ancient Churches and religious monuments from various traditions being destroyed.
Such barbaric actions call out for an urgent, coordinated and determined response from the international community. They are a threat to our common humanity and to the religious and cultural patrimony of the world for future generations. They put at risk the peace and stability of the entire planet. Any response will require an honest and comprehensive effort to address the sources of violent conflict that converge on this region and have wider political and religious implications across the world. Yet so many remain silent and inactive.
I have spoken to senior representatives of the Christian community in Iraq in recent days, whom I will not name to protect their security. They simply cannot understand why so many in the international community turn a blind eye to their plight. Many governments, including the Irish Government are supplying modest amounts of emergency aid. This is welcome and helps to address some immediate humanitarian needs. However there is a reluctance, including on the part of Christian based international aid agencies, to give direct support to minority religious communities, including to the Christian Churches. Yet if their presence is to remain, if they are to draw strength from one another and continue their own religious, educational and charitable activities in the places where they live and work, where they have contributed for millennia to the shared educational, economic and cultural patrimony of their countries, then they need direct aid. They have a right to be supported in rebuilding their bombed-out Churches, schools, hospitals and halls that are availed of by the whole community. They have a right to receive support in building bomb proof walls and security around these buildings and their own homes. They are also best placed to ensure humanitarian support gets to those who need it most in the villages, towns and refugees camps where the local Church continues to be present. Yet, perhaps because of a fear of being seen as less than aggressively secular in their own country, many Governments of majority Christian countries in the west seem reluctant to give direct aid to Churches and religious minorities.
The starting point for the Catholic response to this issue is our commitment to the inherent dignity and priceless value of every person before God, without distinction. Our concern is for all humanity. We utterly condemn the grotesque targeting and brutal murder of those with same-sex attraction by ISIS. We stand in solidarity and support with the Yazidi and other religious communities who face a similar extermination, displacement and lack of respect for their right to religious freedom and conscience as their Christian neighbours.
We appeal to all governments and societies to affirm the vital importance of respecting the right to religious freedom and conscience as a fundamental principle of genuine pluralism in a tolerant society. As Saint Pope John Paul II never tired of reminding the world, where this pivotal right to freedom of conscience and religion is denied, diluted or culturally suppressed other human rights abuses follow in its wake. The denial of religious freedom can run from subtle cultural exclusion of the religious voice from the public square and refusal to accommodate reasonable differences of conscience to active discrimination, forced displacement, exploitation and loss of life. Denial of religious freedom is a continuum along which many countries that pride themselves on being free, tolerant and diverse have already begun to travel.
I now hand over to Áine, who will conclude our presentation.
In commending the Committee for taking up this theme of the ongoing persecution of Christians, I would like to say that as a proud citizen of this country I believe many Irish citizens, Christian and others would like to see our political representatives and our Government give much greater attention to this issue. In particular, we ask you today:
- To provide direct aid to the Christian Churches in the Middle East, and to other persecuted religious groups so that they can rebuild their communities and infrastructure and protect that which has not been destroyed. If they are to survive, they have urgent and particular needs which they alone are best placed to provide. They are also best placed to identify to provide humanitarian assistance in the most difficult to reach areas experiencing immediate violence and oppression;
- We also ask you to assist the various Irish aid agencies in providing direct financial support to Christian and other religious communities in the Middle East without fear of being accused at home of being sectarian or giving offence to secularity in a predominantly Christian country. This is a real concern among Christian aid agencies which you can help to address;
- We ask you to use your political influence to raise awareness of this issue where possible. In commending your own decision to hold this hearing, we encourage you to recommend a full Dáil debate on the ongoing persecution of Christians and respect for religious freedom and the particular plight of persecuted Christians across the world;
- We ask you to encourage the Government and Irish MEPs to use their influence in the European Institutions to give greater political priority to addressing this issue at a European and international level. This includes the need to address the complex of issues in international relations that contribute to the ongoing conflict and instability across the region of the Middle East;
- Finally, in keeping with its Christian roots and founding ideals, we appeal to you and through you to Europe to open wide the doors of our nations to the numerous refugees fleeing religious persecution in the Middle East. Many of them wish to return to their homeland at the earliest possible opportunity. Just as we did some decades ago for the Vietnamese boat people, let us open our shores, our homes and our vacant buildings in a welcoming and reassuring embrace to those fleeing the most brutal attacks by introducing special temporary immigrant schemes focused on responding to this issue.
In conclusion, I am reminded that the links between the Christian community in Ireland and the Christian community in the Middle East go back to the early Celtic Church. They continue today in the heroic work of many Irish missionaries who work in solidarity with persecuted Christian communities in the Middle East even at risk to their own lives. This continuing link is perhaps most poignantly symbolized by the new mosaic in the apse of the recently restored chapel of the Irish College in Rome. There in the midst of our national patron Saints Patrick, Brigid, Columcille and others, is the image of a young Iraqi priest. His name is Father Ragheed Ganni. He studied for several years in the Irish College. He worked in the pilgrimage site of Lough Derg and in various parishes around the country during his post-graduate studies. He loved the Irish people and they loved him. He radiated joy, gentleness and a true Christian spirit of service to all who knew him. Yet his heart was set on returning to bring comfort, strength and support to his suffering people in Iraq. The Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul in which he ministering was subject to regular bombings and attack. On the feast of the Holy Trinity in 2007, as he finished the celebration of Mass, Father Ragheed and three subdeacons were brutally murdered. The vehicle in which they had been killed was surrounded by explosives by those who had killed them so that no-one dare approach to offer comfort, prayers or help. Just a week before, Father Ragheed had written:
“In a sectarian and confessional Iraq, will there be any space for Christians? We have no support, no group who fights for our cause; we are abandoned in the midst of the disaster.”
It is with this painful, prophetic cry of a young man who knew, loved and appreciated the Irish people so much that we thank you again for giving time to the plight of persecuted Christians in our world today and appeal to you to consider positively the recommendations we have made.
Thank you for listening.
Notes for Editors
- The role of the Council for Justice & Peace is to support the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference in promoting the social teaching of the Church and to advise on issues of social concern, both nationally and internationally.
- For recent and related interventions on the persecution of Christians please see:
- Homily of Archbishop Michael Neary, Archbishop of Tuam – 2 May 2015
- “The Pope participates in the suffering and consternation of the Orthodox Patriarch of Ethopia for the recent slaughter of Christians” – statement from the Vatican Information Service of 21 April 2015
- “Urbi et Orbi message of His Holiness Pope Francis” – Easter Sunday 5 April 2015
- Joint Holy Week and Easter 2015 message from the Archbishop of Armagh Archbishop Eamon Martin and Archbishop Richard Clarke
- “Irish bishops pray for a renewed global commitment to respect freedom of conscience and religion” – statement of 22 March 2015
- Final statement of the Spring 2015 General Meeting of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference – 11 March 2015
- Statement of Bishop John Buckley, Bishop of Cork & Ross – 14 August 2014
- Statement by Bishop John McAreavey, chair of the Council for Justice & Peace of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference – 22 July 2014
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