By BISHOP JOEL M. KONZEN, S.M. | Published March 30, 2023 | En Español
As the church comes to the solemn week when we recall our Lord’s Passion, it is a good time for us to be praying for those who are in harm’s way as they preach and live the Gospel message.
According to Aid to the Church in Need, about 27% of Christians live in a country in where religious freedom is under attack, with 1 in 7 Christians facing severe persecution. This is taking place in 140 countries throughout the world, up from 108 in 2014. We sometimes hear random reports of the violence and imprisonment that are visited upon Catholic workers in these countries, but we rarely, if ever, get a comprehensive report in the mainstream media.
Nicaragua recently terminated diplomatic relations with the Vatican after expelling the papal nuncio, imprisoning Bishop Rolando Alvarez, shutting down the aid organization Caritas, and evicting the Missionaries of Charity and other religious orders. Daniel Ortega, the president, has also shut down two Catholic universities in Nicaragua. In all, there have been 190 attacks or instances of desecration of churches in the last five years. Pope Francis has condemned the brutal treatment of citizens and Catholic personnel in Nicaragua.
Daily life for many in Nigeria has also been filled with threats of violence and instances of persecution, including kidnappings, killings and destruction in churches. This has been happening for a number of years. It is estimated that almost 90% of Christians murdered for their faith are Nigerian, with as many as 5,000 killed in a single year.
Father Joe Bature Fidelis, a priest working in northeast Nigeria, has told the Catholic news outlet Aleteia that extremist groups like Boko Haram continue to target predominantly Christian areas and work to displace Christians from their villages.
“You find that systematic approach to impoverishing, displacing, and dispossessing those Christians communities of their land, of their houses,” he said. The heavily armed groups “come in with guns, shoot sporadically, burn down the houses, and people find it difficult to go back. Another strategy is abducting Christian clerics. They ask for heavy ransoms. Sometimes families panic, and they want to pay those ransoms. It’s psychological warfare, to demoralize a lot of Christians.”
The absence of meaningful security for citizens and church workers is similar to what is taking place in Haiti, where general lawlessness has made ministry and worship very difficult.
“The Church has become a victim of the violence,” says Sister Marcela Catozza, a missionary in Haiti. The Italian nun claims that the situation has taken a turn for the worse since June, with churches and institutions coming under attack. “[We are] in the hands of gangs. The people are hungry, schools are closed. There is no work, hospitals are closed because they have no fuel for their generators. It is impossible to live in these circumstances,” Sister Marcela told Aid to the Church in Need. In Port-au-Prince, an Italian sister was killed in the street, fire was set in the cathedral, and charities have had to cease operation.
What is especially upsetting for those Catholics who have spoken about the great difficulties that they face in places such as these is a sense that no one sees and cares about the conditions that exist. They hope that more attention will be drawn to the suffering that takes place in countries that deny religious freedom or routinely accept violence and persecution as a way of life.
We can and should offer our prayers daily for those who bring the love of Christ to the poor and neglected in dangerous and demoralizing conditions, as well as for those who suffer simply because they live where maintaining hope for the free exercise of their faith is a constant challenge. As these courageous and generous individuals carry the cross with our Savior, let us support them and share their burden however we are able.