Archbishop of Newark and Chairman,
USCC Committee on International Policy
March 31, 1997
Last week Christians throughout the world solemnly commemorated the Lord's Passion and Death, which calls attention to the suffering borne by so many of his followers today, suffering brought on precisely because of the commitment of Christians to follow the path of Jesus.
The anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, occurring just a few days ago, reminded us that many Christians in Latin America experienced severe repression and persecution because of their Christian commitment in faith. Hundreds if not thousands of catechists, dozens of priests and religious, and even bishops suffered the ultimate persecution, death, for their courageous witness, both at the hands of state authorities or death squads and of revolutionary terrorists.
Today, Latin America is largely free of the kind of religious persecution that cast such a pall on the region during those earlier decades, although there is still terrorism in some areas and serious denials of religious freedom in others. Here we think of Mexico and the continuing restrictions imposed on the Church in Communist Cuba. However, the horrors of disappearances and death squads are no more, and we thank God for these signs of progress as we renew our solidarity and support for the Church in Mexico and in Cuba.
The rest of the world, unfortunately, offers a more discouraging picture. In 1996, no fewer than 46 Catholic missionaries--bishops, priests, religious women and men and lay workers--were killed, and several others are missing and feared dead. The large majority of these occured in Africa, especially in Zaire, Algeria, and Burundi, and another priest in Rwanda was killed just in February. But religious persecution and denial of religious freedom in the great continent of Asia has also worsened considerably in recent years.
In early February, Philippine Bishop Benjamin de Jesus was shot outside his cathedral in Jolo, apparently by members of an extremist Islamic group. In Pakistan, there have been riots by extremists against Christian villages, with many wounded and thousands left homeless. In Burma, whole populations of minority Christian groups have reportedly been forced into "relocation camps" by the repressive regime in recent months. And in Indonesia, sporadic outbreaks of anti-Christian violence, including the burning of churches, continue to threaten an otherwise positive Christian-Muslim relationship. With the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize last December to Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, the sufferings of the majority Catholics in East Timor have been brought to the attention of the whole world.
In some Asian countries, state oppression is often joined with the religious fanaticism of the dominant group, but in countries that are avowedly atheistic, such as China and Vietnam, there is no question of inter-religious conflict; these are states that are determined to control religious expression at all costs. In China and Vietnam, Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, as well as Buddhists continue to suffer gravely for their religious beliefs and practices. All religions without exception were attacked and driven underground in China during the horror of the so-called Cultural Revolution. The invasion of Tibet in 1949 saw the destruction of literally thousands of Buddhist monasteries and centers of prayer, and the flight into exile of the Dalai Lama and great numbers of his followers.
Since that time, the government has, on the one hand, sought to maintain tight control over all expressions of religion, including those of the still small but growing numbers of Christians throughout China, and has engaged in direct persecution of those groups that refuse to register with the state, especially the so-called "underground" Catholics and the Evangelicals organized in the house church movements.
Priests and bishops not belonging to the government-approved Church have been routinely put under house arrest, some are today in prison, religious services have been curtailed and the Catholic faithful have been prevented from making pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of China in Dong-Lu. Reports have been received in just the last days of new attacks against one of the underground bishops, presumably in an effort to frighten people away from Holy Week and Easter worship.
As sorrowful as is the persecution of Christians in China, the plight of the Tibetan Buddhists could hardly be more tragic: many have been driven from their land, their monasteries pillaged, precious manuscripts destroyed, and a peaceful, contemplative way of life, admired by many throughout the world, threatened with extinction.
These are stark examples of how governments, even those which seek roles of prominence among the world's nations, may act from ignorance or fear in the desire to control even the minds of their citizens and reject the fundamental rights of people to worship God and express their faith free of state interference. At the end of last year, Pope John Paul II appealed to the Chinese authorities to grant legal status to the whole Catholic Church in that country. "Let the civil authorities of the People's Republic of China be reassured," he said in a message read in a special Mass broadcast by radio to Asia, "a disciple of Christ can live his own faith in any political order, as long as his right is respected to behave according to the dictates of his conscience and of his own faith."
Urging the Chinese government to be afraid "neither of God nor of his Church," the pope asked them, "with a sense of deference, to respect the authentic freedom which is the birthright of every man and woman and to allow believers in Christ to be able to contribute their energies and talents to the development of the nation." China, he added, "has an important role to play in the bosom of the community of nations. Catholics can lend significant support to that and they will do so with enthusiasm and dedication."
The Church seeks both respect for religious liberty for all and reconciliation among the Catholics of China. We support those who defend the rights of all believers and work to build bridges between our two societies and our communities of faith. We look forward to the day when China, and all states, will replace the manipulation and control of religious belief and practice with the respect for "freedom of thought, conscience and religion" that the world community enshrined as a fundamental right in 1948. Next year, we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of that Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaimed that "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion...and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
As today's followers of Christ are still called upon to trod the painful path to Calvary in so many places in the world, we join in prayer for them, asking the Lord to give them comfort and strength in the hope that the light and joy of Easter will soon be theirs in the full freedom of all God's children.